This week, I’m just back from Azerbaijan – so human rights issues are very much on my mind.
The European Union is not just a common market; and not just a guardian of peace. It’s a place of fundamental rights. Rights that we treasure, protect and assure for our citizens. And nor is the Internet just a set of technologies, or just a space for business opportunities. It is the new frontier of freedom. And people like the inspiring young Malala Yousafzai are a reminder of that.
That’s the message I took to the Internet community and the President of Azerbaijan this week in the fascinating city of Baku.
This little country has an extraordinary past and present. Squeezed in between Russia and Iran, split in two unconnected geographic parts, full of oil and gas. The country has amazing artists: but also a government with a very troubling attitude to freedom and democracy.
I wondered for a very long time whether I should attend this week’s Internet Governance Forum in Baku. But in fact many of the dozens of journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders I met here thought it was helpful. And when the IGF comes to town, radical change often follows. Because, when empowered, connected citizens press for greater freedom. As happened in Tunisia and Egypt in the years after they held this conference.
But on the other hand I was denied access to meet political prisoners, despite a commitment from the President himself. Activists were harassed at the Internet conference. My advisers had their computers hacked. So much for openness.
The reality in Azerbaijan is harsh. We see many arbitrary restrictions on the media. We see the exercise of free speech effectively criminalised. We see violent attacks on journalists. In fact the Azeri government had promised earlier this year, before the Eurovision Song Contest, to ensure press freedom, but the situation actually got worse. I made clear that these things are unacceptable.
I wish I could say media freedom and freedom of expression were in perfect shape throughout the EU. However, as I blogged about earlier this week, we have recently seen problems in Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece; while in France the Charlie Hebdo newspaper had its offices burnt down. But let’s be clear, we are not comparing like with like. In Europe, people do not go to prison for having opinions, or for putting videos on YouTube.
Here in Azerbaijan the Internet is a double-edged sword. Unlike neighbouring Turkey and Iran, everyone in Azerbaijan has access – but on the other hand, they face the consequences if they use the Internet in a way the government doesn’t like.
In the end, I know the power of the Internet and the value of freedom will win. Today across the world is “Malala Day“, where we remember the example of the inspiring Malala Yousafzai. She is the 14 year old Pakistani girl who blogged about life under Taliban tyranny and called for the right to women’s education. She was shot in the face by the Taliban. That cowardly act shows how much they hated what the internet could do. But they will not silence her, or her message. With the Internet, someone else, somewhere else, can always continue the fight.
You can count on me to continue defending human rights and democracy inside and outside the EU. I hope I can count on you to join me.
(A version of this blog appeared in Dutch today in the newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad.)