Speech by Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Ms. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the launch of Rudaw media network Bestoon talk show 27 April 2023
Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here today.
To be clear: the United Nations is not in the business of promoting individual television shows. That said, we would not pass up anexcellent opportunity to elaborate on the importance of the freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions - and to express these aloud.
Now - when I first learned about this initiative, it reminded me of a Dutch television show: College Tour, it is called. College Tour follows the concept of a townhall meeting, featuring one guest per episode.
The show is hosted by an anchor, but most questions come from the audience: a few hundred students. The guest in question is a high-profile figure.
This person could be a lawyer, a musician, a business executive, a writer, an activist, a sportsstar, an actor…or, as is the case here, a politician, an authority figure, a government official or another decision-maker.
And importantly, the questions posed by the students are not pre-screened and there is no censorship.
Why do I appreciate such a concept? Because it gives people – young people – a chance to engage directly with all kinds of leaders. Andfrankly, any platform supporting such engagement is to be welcomed.
Also, such a platform could shape professional journalism, boost the freedom of expression and lead, for both sides, to a better understanding of certain struggles, issues and complexities.
So, when Bestoon and I ran into each other, and he spontaneously told me about his concept, Icould not help but be enthusiastic.
First of all, it is perfectly healthy to have a public exchange on decisions and actionsimpacting public life. Secondly, it is the younger generation that will lead all of us in the future.And whether some of my generation-fellows like it or not: that future is near.
Ladies and gentlemen, I said this before, but I will happily repeat it today: as a former European and national politician and decision-maker, I can tell you from experience that democracy is - at times - painstaking business.
And also very true is the fact that sustainable democratic societies are the opposite of overnight miracles – they require immense patience and an unwavering willingness to compromise. Inevitably, the democratic process must be given time to truly take root.
And as this happens, of course, the interplay between opposition and coalition, the art of parliamentary scrutiny, and the exchange between decision-makers and civil society, as well as, for instance, the formation of parties and coalitions, must be allowed to function.
Now - part and parcel of all this (no surpriseshere) are: constant grassroots outreach, public dialogue, and concrete actions, which demonstrate that people, communities and components are listened to.
And while it is the responsibility of the leadership to guide and lead outreach and to unify opposing interests, it is the responsibility of every citizen to recognize and accept the fact that balancing multiple opinions and interests requires constant compromise.
It is actually quite simple: for decision-makers, politicians and citizens alike, no one can colonize the moral high ground, and no one has a monopoly on wisdom. And to service all citizens in the best way possible, it is essentialthat a plethora of different voices are being heard. A vibrant and healthy debate is simply essential, at all times.
Ladies and gentlemen, as we all know, thefreedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of any democratic society.
It is critical in producing new and innovative ideas. It is a tool for accountability, for lettingleaders know when their policies or practices are not having the intended effect, for enabling institutions to adapt and thus to flourish.
So let me emphasize here: silencing, obstructing, dismissing or undermining public discourse achieves two things only: it tarnishes the image of the State and erodes public trust.
A free media is another powerful driver ofeducation and learning. It could shine light into dark corners, allowing us to discover new facts, new perspectives, and new ways of seeingthings.
That said, it is well known that, throughout the country, most media outlets have, in one way or another, a link to a party, a politician, a businessperson or a leader. So, if you allow me, I wish to underline the significance of the word ‘free’ once more.
And let’s not forget about the importance of, for example, independent bloggers, columnists, activists, researchers and investigative journalists. They do not only challenge us but also enrich our day-to-day thinking and actions.
Let’s face it: the annals of time - shaped for centuries by philosophers, academics and poets- have now been added to by a new generation of thinkers and speakers, many of whomleverage cutting-edge technology to reach diverse audiences.
And social media is, of course, a tool that candistribute content in a faster and more accessible way than ever before. And not only that: it also creates tremendous opportunities for any politician or decision-maker. Never before has itbeen so easy to enter into a direct exchange with constituents and citizens. Never before has itbeen so simple to connect, to engage, to explainand to listen.
And yes, as is the case with any tool, there is a downside as well. Trolling campaigns, for instance. Also, fake accounts are easily created, and false information can be quickly disseminated to thousands and thousands of people – as is the case with unnecessarilypainful or nasty comments intended to degrade, demoralize or shame a person.
Trust me, again from experience, and particularly as a woman in the public eye, I know all about it. Social media can be brutal.
Having said this, filing a lawsuit when I read an insulting tweet or an article that criticizes me or our policies does not come to mind. We can disagree, including on the tone of voice or language used. But at the end of the day, there is no accounting for taste. And, differences – sometimes even clashes – in opinion and approach ultimately make our society stronger.
So - for any public figure, I have one piece of advice: develop a thick skin. If you meet upon criticism and dissent, choose dialogue over retribution.
And for those who apparently find it difficult to express themselves in a respectful way, my advice is: what you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others.
Ladies and gentlemen, going back to the freedom of expression as a fundamental pillar of any democratic society: today’s reality is concerning.
Across the country – and increasingly so – we see use of various legislative, administrative and other ostensibly legal means to stifle dissent. Or worse. Violence, intimidation and threats to suppress opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held.
Now, that is not to say that there can be no limitations on the freedom of speech. Of course, while enjoying the freedom of speech, one also has the duty to behave responsibly and to respect the rights of others.
And sometimes there are valid reasons for limitations based on well-defined grounds. But at all times, the relevant public authority must show that the restriction is proportionate and provided for by law.
And yes, when laws are used, not to protect, but to silence, the freedom of speech comes under grave threat. As does, therefore, one of the most fundamental building blocks of a democratic society.
Now, the good news is that there is always anopportunity to correct course.
Human rights, including the right to the freedom of expression, are enshrined explicitly in the Constitution of Iraq.
Both the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have adopted action plans on human rights. And both programs set out commitments to strengthen the protection of these rights.
Now - we are eagerly waiting for these commitments to translate into concrete actions, including the advancement of free speech as the common denominator of public and civic engagement throughout Iraq.
Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion – let me reiterate: any public dialogue without censorship or prescreening of questions empowers people to share their opinions freely and loudly. This is something we can only applaud.
And I truly hope that politicians and authorities do not shy away from such an opportunity.
In other words, I sincerely hope that they will accept the invitation to participate in anyrespectful televised discussion on actions and decisions impacting public life.
We need young people to inspire and to challenge us - and to do so without fear. The current generation of leaders stand to learn a great deal from them. That goes for me as well, by the way. We need to listen to those who will run the country tomorrow.
Dear Bestoon, I wish you all the best with this new and exciting space for dialogue.