Freedom to Read Week promotes fundamental human right

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 16, 2011

Readers of this column are well aware of my passionate concern for freedom of expression. The right to speak and write freely is fundamental to democratic society.

To be effective, of course, the right to speak and write freely must be paired with another right: the right to be heard and read. After all, what good is it to say our message, if people are prevented from hearing it or reading it?

February 20–26 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada. This freedom must never be taken for granted.

In an era of unparalleled access to communication by speech, print, electronic media – and especially Internet – a nation’s people are able to make their voice heard. They can quickly and effectively challenge political and bureaucratic abuse of power, topple autocratic regimes, draw public attention to bad thinking, and propose better, more humanitarian alternatives of justice and mercy for all.

This very freedom to communicate is a terrible threat to the power-abusers of the world. In their desire to hold on to power at any cost, they attempt to shut down newspapers and presses, ban books and periodicals, impose censorship on what students can read in schools, and terminate telephone and Internet services. They enforce their control of information by intimidating those who challenge their warped thinking through loss of employment, court actions, imprisonment and even death.

The abusers are on the losing side, however, in spite of their fear tactics. All we need do is look at the success of this month’s populist revolution in Egypt, for example.

Using all the communication media at their disposal – and in particular, cell phones and texting – Egyptians were able to organize with great courage; and through the power of the spoken and printed word, they showed the world what freedom to speak and read can accomplish.

Consider also how, right here in our own Bow Valley, the Cochrane Eagle website ( has become a popular forum for discussing controversial issues.

In particular, members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations at Morley and Eden Valley have found in the newspaper’s website an avenue of freedom to articulate forcefully and clearly their objections to perceived arbitrariness and abuse of power within their tribal government. If you haven’t been following the debate that has been raging on the website, be sure to go to it and browse through the past few months of comments at the end of news items and columns related to Stoney Nakoda issues, and in particular, comments appended to articles written by up-and-coming columnist Preston Twoyoungmen, of Morley.

Speaking of things Stoney, I must once again heap praise on Judge John Reilly’s recent book, Bad Medicine. This best seller is a shining example of how breaking the code of secrecy and silence imposed by abusers can set people free to think and act well for their own benefit, and for the long-term benefits of their community.

Here in Cochrane, our own Nan Boothby Memorial Library is doing its part to recognize Freedom to Read Week. It’s hosting a free public forum on the topic Thursday, February 24, from 7 to 8 p.m. I’ve been invited to be one of the panelists that evening.

Speaking of the Nan Boothby library, I’m always amazed at the reading resources that are available to us in the Cochrane area through this important service to our community.

Are you aware that, for only a very modest Nan Boothby annual membership fee, you can access not only the more than 35,000 books, periodicals, CDs and DVDs in the library’s own collection; you can also access virtually any book in any library in Alberta? In addition, free Internet service, including wireless (Wi-Fi friendly), is available at the library.

Returning to the larger question of freedom to read, there’s more to this than just politically motivated censorship, of course, although I think that is one of the gravest issues we must face today.

There are four other hindrances to freedom to read that we can and must address: literacy, visual handicaps, affordability and availability.

One big advantage of having our own public library is, as we’ve already noted, the ready availability of so much to read, whether we could ever afford to purchase the book or periodical ourselves or not. For the visually handicapped, talking books and other aids are also available.

About literacy, this remains of paramount importance for any democratic society, and it’s closely tied to political will.

Unfortunately, we still have far too many in the world out there who intentionally strive to keep the masses ignorant so that they will not become threats to illegitimate power.

In this regard, literacy and the freedom to read must be seen as twin fundamental human rights. Both must never be taken for granted.

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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