Skip to main content

International Day of the Imprisoned Writer

Race Race Discrimination

of Expression, Censorship and Race

important balance between Rights for writers

Speech by Tom Calma, National Race Discrimination Commissioner and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Day of the Imprisoned

Library of SA Lawn, Adelaide

15 November 2006 


would like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the Kauna people,
the traditional owners of the land on which we stand today.

I would
also like to acknowledge Lindy Warrell and Tony Brooks, the Hon John Hill, the
Hon John von Dousa QC, President of HREOC, and all the writers who are sharing
with us their readings, and to thank Adelaide PEN for inviting me to speak on
this very important

the national Race Discrimination Commissioner my role is to promote and monitor
compliance with the federal Racial Discrimination Act. This includes monitoring
racism, conducting research and developing education programs to combat racism
in all its forms. The recognition and protection of diversity, and cultural and
religious rights is an important part of what we do.

the right to freedom
of speech against the
right to be
free from racial abuse and
hatred is a difficult
and complex task. Likewise, finding a legal balance between censorship and the
right to freedom of expression and human rights is equally complex, and we often
find ourselves walking the thin wire dividing both.

federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act provides limited recognition of
the right to freedom of expression as set out in article 19 of the International
Convention on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR).

Freedom of
expression according to article 19 (2) of the ICCPR includes the “freedom
to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds... either,
orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or any other media...”
freedom of expression therefore can enhance democracy and human rights.

instance, it enables human rights defenders, including writers, to reveal and
critique corruption, injustice, inequality and oppression. Freedom of
expression however, may be exercised irresponsibly, and unlawfully.

Under the
federal Racial Discrimination Act it is unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or
intimidate people because of their race, colour, national origin, ethnic origin
or descent, if that act is done in public. This is just one of many limitations
on freedom of expression under human rights law. Indeed, under Australian and
international human rights law freedom of expression is not an absolute

it is important to remember that these two fundamental rights - the right to
freedom of expression and the right to freedom from racial vilification - do not
trump each other. The Racial Discrimination Act seeks to balance these two
rights by providing a number of exceptions to the prohibition on race hate
speech. These include artistic work such as a play, academic work and debates
which are in the public interest, permitting a range of public policy issues to
be debated (such as multiculturalism), media reports which are fair and accurate
and fair comment or opinion on matters of public interest, enabling media to
report on public issues provided it is done so without malice.

We know
that extreme expressions of racial hatred can generate fear preventing people
from living normal lives. As Race Discrimination Commissioner I find such
incidents abhorrent and counter-productive to the creation of an inclusive and

equally abhorrent are government-imposed prohibitions on freedom of speech. At
the more extreme end are regimes which have imposed draconian censorship laws
that allow for the imprisonment, detention, torture, death or silencing of
individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression through their

are many examples throughout history, and throughout the world, where writers
have suffered human rights violations simply for exercising their right to
freedom of expression.

example, during WW2, under the Nazi regime, in countries such as Norway, strict
censorship was put in place making listening to radio or producing, reading or
disseminating newspapers not controlled by the Nazi’s, punishable by

other examples exist of imprisoned, banned, detained, censored or murdered
people because of their writing, with the most recent notable example being Anna
Politkovskaya who was shot dead in Moscow last month because of her writing on
the war in Chechnya.

Of course,
people do not have to be detained or killed to be silenced. Censorship and
banning of publications occurs regularly throughout many countries, including
Australia. While for the most part such censorship may be seen to serve a
legitimate purpose, even in Australia we must guard against a climate of
repression of ideas and genuine public debate.

For some
writers, writing is a freedom. For others it’s the only freedom. Imposed
censorship or self-censorship, I have been told by a writer friend, is like
putting a straight jacket on the mind and the heart. You don’t have to be
in prison to feel imprisoned or isolated.

We must
protect our freedom to write, and work to protect the freedoms of writers across
the world, whilst at the same time being aware of our other responsibilities to
ensure that people are not vilified because of their race, culture or religious

we commemorate and remember those imprisoned, detained or isolated women
writers, all over the world, including those who have died for their right to
freely express their views and feelings. Today we honour their courage in
revealing truths and for opposing the suppression of freedom of expression. But
while we commemorate, we mourn writers like Anna, we mourn what censorship can
kill – the loss of words that may never be expressed, the silenced voices
that may never be heard, and the loss of truth that may never be

2004 the Commission awarded Australia PEN centres with the community services
award as part of the annual human rights awards. They were awarded in
recognition for the particular contribution of the writers in detention
committee, the first committee of its kind ever formed. So while we commemorate
and we mourn, we congratulate and encourage international and Australia pen for
being such powerful tools for positive change and for giving voices to those

chairs’ are being used at PEN centre events to represent imprisoned and
detained writers. Let us hope we don’t see anymore ‘empty
chairs’ and that both the rights and responsibilities of freedom of
expression are upheld by both individuals and states all over the world. Let us
also hope that writers all over the world are never denied a voice.

Thank you.