It has never in history been so much talk about fundamental freedoms than these days. The media, billboards and posters keep bombarding us with messages about freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom to display our individuality by “being ourselves”. A visitor from some other era or other civilization would be puzzled by this constant pushing of freedom, as if people today need to be daily reminded to be free, or else they would somehow forget.

Freedom of speech and cell phone providers

The trouble is, the fore mentioned messages have little to do with freedom, at least not in the traditional sense. These are advertising campaigns: freedom of speech is a slogan used by cell phone providers and manufacturers, freedom of movement has been hijacked by car dealers, and freedom to “just be you” is an attempt by textile industry to convince people that they will somehow stand out from the crowd if they buy their mass-produced clothes, often manufactured by child labourers in Third World countries. Just the other day, I saw a slogan painted on the sides of a rented truck, advertising “Freedom for rent”.

Even more disturbing, the usurping of vocabulary and tactics coined by human rights activists of the past decades is not limited to corporate business. Lately, an even more disturbing trend emerged: the same language and methods have been increasingly used by religious and far right groups advocating freedom to hate, or at least push underground those that they see as their enemies.

One such example is the initiative, recently passed by the United Nation Human Rights Office, to ban all criticism of traditional religions in the name of religious freedom. The argument was that public display of unorthodox views hurt the feelings of true believers and endanger their right to practice their rigid values and thus their “freedom” to oppress others. Various advocates of “family values” also use the tactics of portraying themselves as victims of allegedly aggressive LGBT population, advocates of women’s rights and others whose very existence injure their oh-so-sensitive souls.

“For Greeks only” and Nobel Prize for EU

Meanwhile, in the real world far removed from these commercial and ideological battles, the human rights issues are being constantly degraded and relativized, not here in the EU. The European Commission, which prides itself as being one of the world’s guardians of human rights, issue daily streams of regrets, warnings and condemnations concerning conflicts and crisis in remote parts of the world – recently it even expressed regret and concern over harsh weather conditions in the Caribbean islands. But it has kept its silence over the fact that black-clad thugs of the New Dawn Movement in Greece are conducting daily raids against immigrants, placing “For Greeks only” posters on shop windows of shops and even hospitals, and forcing enterprises to lay off non-Greek employees, all with tacit support from the police.

Greece is not the only such example: far rights groups are on the rise throughout the continent, while those who are supposed to stand up for the weak and defenseless the are silent or compliant. The prime targets are the same everywhere: the immigrants, the exiles, the asylum seekers, the Roma. Apart from being recognized as “Others” they all have something in common: they are not voters, and as such are of little concern for mainstream politicians, unlike the advocates of ethnic purity and “traditional values”, once fringe and now on the rise as a sizable pool of votes.

The acceptance of this year’s Nobel Prize by the EU top officials, and the subsequent bickering about who among them is the most worthy to receive it at the ceremony in Oslo, illustrates the unprecedented level of self-congratulatory attitude that now abounds in Brussels. Ditto with the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, which was awarded to two Iranian dissidents. At the same time, a Greek journalist who published a list of tax-dodging government official is facing jail sentence.

Media and Superman’s alter ego

Being a journalist, I also have to admit that the media have often played a less than honorable role in arriving to the present state of the affairs. The shrinking market, reduced revenues and fear of alienating mighty sponsors are not an excuse for sucking up to power, cajoling audience’s base instincts, and replacing news content with entertainment. It’s paradoxical that the latest lesson on what should journalism really be about just came from a cartoon character: in the latest installment Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent resigns from the Daily Planet and quits journalism, disgusted by the paper’s unethical editorial policies.

In order to break out of this vicious circle consisted of hypocritical institutions, compliant media, and the frustrated and angry public opinion, we must pull the human rights agenda out of the hands of freedom’s false friends and place it again at the center of our efforts. We must focus on victims, much more so if they’re not on another continent, but under are very noses. And those who believe that freedom’s something that can be bought, rented, or sold need to be reminded that it can also be stolen.

Dejan Anastasijevic is Brussels-based Serbian journalist

You can read this article also in Dutch in De Standaard


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