Freedom of expression

Monday, 1 July 2019

'Freedom of expression’ is a phrase that gets used a lot, to the extent that has become almost rhetorical. What does it actually mean? What is it to say you believe in ‘freedom of expression’? Freedom of expression I would say is the right to feel like you can be you without fear of persecution for your race, sexuality, gender, mental health status or any other characteristics that might lead you to suffer discrimination, ridicule or harassment.

My most memorable experience of what freedom of expression really means occurred when the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutes (IFLA) announced that the 2018 World Library and Information Congress (WLIC 2018) would be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. To understand this predicament, you need to know that I am the head of IFLA’s LGBTIQ Users Special Interest Group and it is illegal to be LGBTIQ in Malaysia. I am publicly identifiable as the Convenor of an LGBTIQ group and I was about to hold a conference session in a country where being LGBTIQ is illegal.

At first, with the privilege of having grown up in a country like Australia, I was undaunted by the expectation that I could host a conference session in Malaysia. Surely nothing would happen to me. I’m Australian and I can do anything. But as I read more about the persecution of LGBTIQ people in Malaysia I started to worry. In fact, I felt very scared. As much as I wanted to be a part of WLIC 2018, no amount of professional development points is worth risking your personal safety for.

The reason I felt scared is that my freedom of expression was under attack. My freedom to be a gay woman travelling overseas to host a conference session about LGBTIQ issues was not only threatened, in reality I didn’t even have that freedom. Unless I wanted to be, at best, questioned at the airport or at worst, arrested for violating Malaysia’s strict, anti-LGBTIQ laws I did not have the freedom to travel to Malaysia or to express my opinion about the importance of LGBTIQ perspectives in libraries. It was simply not safe for me to do so. It was not safe for me to be me.

That was my first awakening to what it feels like to have your freedom of expression challenged or put in jeopardy. It did not feel good. Up until this point I have spoken about Australia as the lucky country, a place where freedom of expression is a right not a privilege. For someone of my Anglo-Australian background, born at the time I was this is largely true. But there are many examples in the recent history of Australia that show we are not the champions of freedom of expression that we like to think we are.

The most obvious example is our treatment of Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal people in Australia have been and, in some cases still are, denied freedom of expression in their languages, their cultures and their connections to our land. We live in a nation that was born by taking away freedom of expression from our Aboriginal peoples and still struggles with how to allow them that same freedom of expression even today.

Add to this our own horrendous history on LGBTIQ rights. Up until 1994 it was illegal to be gay in Australia. Until 2017 same sex marriage had still not been legalised. Transgender people still suffer great barriers to being recognised for who they are, not who society thinks they should be.

And I talk about freedom of expression as if it is always a good thing. Freedom of expression also gave us Clive Palmer, Israel Folau and the ‘NO’ vote campaign in the same sex marriage referendum. Freedom of expression does mean that sometimes ignorant and idiotic people can voice their opinions too. Election campaigns will always remind us of that!

In summing up, I think freedom of expression is important because it can mean that people feel like they can be themselves. Australia is not a perfect country. We certainly don’t have a good track record when it comes to freedom of expression. But when faced with the alternative of living in a country like Malaysia, somewhere where being LGBTIQ is illegal, I think Australia is a luckier country to have been born in than some. How would I have fared if I was born in Malaysia?

Because we are lucky we need to honour that luck. To me the best way to do this is to help change what we don’t like about Australia, the racism and the cultural intolerance, so that we can truly be a country where freedom of expression is valued and where everyone is free to be just who they are. 

Anne Reddacliff

Former ALIA Board Director