Julie Ward reports on WEXFO 2
In May I attended my second WEXFO (World Freedom of Expression Forum) in the Norwegian city of Lillehammer, which prides itself on being both a UNESCO City of Literature and a member of the ICORN network (cities that provide sanctuary for persecuted artists and journalists). This year’s forum was bookended by a greater focus on youth participation, as suggested by many of us who attended the inaugural forum in 2022, when the youth voice was largely absent.
My 2023 WEXFO journey began with a visit to Utøya Island, where the white supremacist neo-Nazi Anders Breivik had targeted the AUF (Workers’ Youth League) summer camp in July 2011 after his deadly bomb attack on a government building in Oslo. Sixty-nine young people died as a result of Breivik’s actions, and many were injured. In the intervening years, the custodians of the island (the AUF) have navigated a delicate path between the need to memorialise the victims and the issue of how to respond to the hate and extremism personified by Breivik. Some thought the AUF should close down the summer camps or even abandon the island completely, whilst others felt it was important to use the tragic event as a fillip for education and learning. Ultimately, the latter idea gained support as people came to the conclusion that giving up would, in effect, be a victory for far-right violent extremism.
After an island tour, we joined youth leaders from all around the world in a discussion about how to build solidarity before going on to Lillehammer, where the Iranian Woman, Life, Freedom campaign took centre stage in the WEXFO opening session along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleksandra Matviichuk, who talked about the unrelenting task of documenting Russian atrocities as part of her work with the Kyiv-based Centre for Civil Liberties.
A session about economic inequality and gender disparity kicked off with a powerful speech from Aarti Narsee reminding us that women’s rights defenders and the LGBT+ community faced particularly harsh repression in many countries. The cost of freedom of expression in Myanmar was explored followed by a panel critiquing the complicity of large corporates who continue to invest in countries with dire human rights records.
The clash between freedom of religion and freedom of expression came under the spotlight, with personal testimony from Seyran Ateş, a Turkish-German, bisexual, Muslim, feminist imam and lawyer, who has opened a liberal mosque in Berlin which flies in the face of fundamentalism. Ateş is the most highly protected civilian in Europe due to receiving several fatwas and multiple death threats. Yet she remains undaunted, doling out ‘Love is Halal’ rainbow stickers to all and sundry. Other contributors included American academic Caroline Janney, who gave a chilling exposition on the roots of the morality debate in the USA.
Day two consisted largely of interactive workshops and the opening of WEXFO Youth, whereby hundreds of schoolchildren descended on the forum to interact with participants. Their demands must be met, and it starts with a seat at the table.