Speaking out in Oslo

Oslo is reputed to be the world’s most expensive city, and while I can’t absolutely affirm it, I can tell that I paid $15 for a beer and $5 for a coffee. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a network of press freedom organizations from around the world, is holding its general assembly here in conjunction with a weeklong conference on global freedom of expression issues. 

We’re here at the invitation of our Norwegian hosts, who have provided us with a lovely venue, the House of Literature not far from the Royal Palace. IFEX, which was founded in 1992 by a handful of freedom of expression groups as a clearing house for information, has grown today to nearly 80 members representing freedom of expression groups in nearly every corner of the world. IFEX is at the epicenter of the global press freedom movement.

Not surprisingly for a group devoted to freedom of expression, it’s an incredibly fractious lot, and meetings have been known to devolve into daylong gripe fests. That didn’t happen this time, as we worked through some challenging mandate issues and after some heated debate reached consensus on every point before us.

There was also genuine excitement to come together to fight impunity for the killers of journalists, the greatest threat to press freedom around the world. Just about every group within IFEX tackles this issue, but we don’t always coordinate our actions or ensure that we work collaboratively to increase our impact. I presented a proposal that we do just that, offering to organize an impunity summit that will bring everyone together to forge a truly global campaign to combat impunity and bring the killers of journalists to justice. I got a mandate to move ahead on this initiative and promised I would try to make it happen in the next year.

Of course, as with all of these sorts of conferences, many of the best meetings take place on the sidelines. But this process has been complicated by the unbelievable prices here in Oslo. 

On Monday night, after our hungry crowd gobbled up all the finger foods at a reception, we stumbled off into the night (perhaps a misnomer at a time of year when the sun sets at midnight and rises at 3 a.m.) in search of an affordable meal. I invited two colleagues from Africa to join me for dinner and after rejecting $30 hamburgers at a seaside café we sheepishly entered a nearby McDonald’s with outdoor tables. We were soon joined, however, by other conference participants who found themselves in the same predicament.

Later, we found one colleague eating a sandwich on a park bench, another eating a hot dog purchased from a corner store, and a third walking the streets as he sucked a McDonald’s milkshake. The experience of not being able to afford a dinner at a restaurant was humbling. But that aside, we have been affirmed by the cause that unites us, the battle for freedom of expression and against impunity.