Speeches at the award ceremony for the Freedom of Expression Foundation Tribute to Utøya Island and Jørgen Watne Frydnes

August 21 2021

Utøya Island and CEO Jørgen Watne Frydnes were awarded the Freedom of Expression Foundation Tribute at a formal ceremony at the Fritt Ord Foundation’s premises in Oslo on Saturday, 21 August 2021.

Watch the video of the awards ceremony here.

The Tribute was awarded to the organisation Utøya Island and to CEO Frydnes for the work they have done in transforming Utøya Island from the site of a terrorist attack and heinous mass murder to an arena for knowledge, discussion and resistance. The awards ceremony was led by Bård Vegar Solhjell, deputy chair of the Fritt Ord Foundation Board.

Bård Vegar Solhjell’s award speech to Utøya Island and Jørgen Watne Frydnes

Today, Utøya Island and Jørgen Watne Frydnes are being awarded the Freedom of Expression Foundation Tribute for transforming the site of a terrorist attack and heinous mass murder into an arena for knowledge, discussion and resistance. Congratulations!

Utøya was once a rather nondescript island situated in the Tyri Fjord, barely visible from the European highway that winds its way down from the highlands of Sollihøgda. But it was no ordinary island. It was a political island. The island was important and unique to the Workers’ Youth League, known as the AUF, and the labour movement. The name was familiar to those interested in Norwegian politics, yet unknown to most other people.

The terrorist attacks on the Tower Building in Government Complex in Norway’s capital city of Oslo and on Utøya Island changed all of that. Instead, Utøya Island became the site of one of the most brutal right-wing extremist terrorist attacks of our time. The scene of a crime. But also far more than that. Over the past decade, Utøya Island has been transformed into an open, inclusive arena for discussion and learning. This was not an obvious outcome. It did not simply happen. Quite to the contrary, it was created. Thanks to making systematic efforts, having clear objectives and embracing resistance. But what actually happened?

“We are going to take Utøya Island back” said then AUF leader Eskil Pedersen already the day after the terrorist attack. That statement galvanised this goal for the AUF, getting the efforts off to an expeditious start. Financial and moral support poured in, as the work to shape the future began. The organisation Utøya Island AS was founded. The first plans for the future of the island were presented already the following year.

The intervening years have been characterised by efforts to bring these plans to fruition. Difficult years, due to the tremendous challenges involved in achieving broad agreement on or at least an understanding of the plans among the survivors and those close to them, as well as in society at large.

They were also formative years. It was during these years that we saw the advent of the conceptual basis for Utøya Island as it stands today, along with the three pillars on which Utøya Island rests – and which Fritt Ord honours today: Remember, engage, learn.

Remember, because Utøya Island will forever carry the memory of the heinous mass murder of 69 souls, and the formidable physical and mental injuries perpetrated on a multitude of others. The island has become a memorial to the victims, and they have played a part in shaping its future. However, their memory is kept alive in other ways as well, for example, when school classes commemorate the birthday of one of their classmates who is no longer with them.

Engage, because no terrorist act is to get the best of those it was intended to harm. On the contrary, engagement will prevail. It is fascinating to note that many more summer camps are organised Utøya Island today than 10 years ago. School classes, confirmation classes and others have gone there to cultivate their convictions about how important it is to foster diversity to offset extremism.

Learn, because we are not born to promote democratic values and stand up against anti-democratic or hateful attitudes. Quite the opposite, we can absorb it, learn it, understand it. The Hegnhuset Centre is at the heart of learning on Utøya Island. There, instruction is grounded in values, attitudes and practice, because a culture of democracy must be created and nurtured. The goal is to empower young people by enhancing their democratic skills, including their knowledge, values and debate culture.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how crucial it was to have a goal with a message as clear as taking back Utøya Island. It felt surprising, verging on insensitive when it came so quickly after the ordeal. Perhaps that was exactly what made it a defining moment. It was a powerful political act. It made the taking back of Utøya Island part of the response to the terrorist attack. Recovery is a sign of resistance, a statement full of fighting spirit to promote resistance. Perhaps that was the first sign that the reaction was not simply to remember, but also to defeat the ideology of right-wing extremism.

This was also important because the years after 22 July 2011 did not lead to any political reckoning with right-wing extremism. The Labour Party was a victim of the terrorist act. In fact, the party had to govern the country and deal with the consequences of the attack at the same time. Given the brutality of the terror, it was natural for our leaders to console people, to try to unite them, and to seek a viable path forward. For several years, the debate on party politics ended up mainly focussing on emergency preparedness.

Thus, in several ways, it was the opposite of a political reckoning. It seemed almost as if politics had been taken out of the equation. Several of the survivors who have published books and articles this spring and summer have pointed this out. They felt that they were of interest as survivors, but not as active political actors in the subsequent debate. Tonje Brenna said it like this: “Had a football tournament fallen victim to a terrorist attack, I think we would have applauded at the first football match played by the survivors. We would have been proud of those football players who launched initiatives like ‘soccer for safety’ or ‘defend democracy.’ But responding to politically motivated violence with political debate and activities is considered inappropriate, almost unacceptable”.

Taking back Utøya Island was, in itself, precisely this type of political statement. It demonstrated in actual practice that engagement is not easy to stop, and that ideas about democratic engagement and diversity will not give in to terror.

The terrorist attack on 22 July 2011 was an assault on so much. It was not least an assault on freedom of expression. The response has been to be more protective of it, by taking back Utøya Island and using it to reinforce much of what the terrorist tried to suppress. This Tribute recognises that Utøya Island, and all those who helped take the island back, took responsibility for speaking out and creating this important democratic arena.

No man is an island. That is certainly true, and no island is a man. However, Jørgen Watne Frydnes comes close to being exactly that for Utøya Island.

Jørgen Watne Frydnes was hired early on to lead the work of taking Utøya Island back. Just weeks after the terrorist attack, he was in place, systematising the work of fund-raising for the island. The following year, in 2012, he was named CEO of the Utøya Island organisation. He is leading the work to create the Utøya Island we see today, through actively and creatively bringing in external expertise from Norway and abroad. He led Utøya Island through the difficult years of 2013 and 2014, when he was virtually a travelling diplomat, trying to establish a viable dialogue about the future of Utøya Island across polarised terrain. He led the project into a new phase when the Hegnhuset Centre was completed in 2016, channelling focus on activities and content. He is also leading it today, during an operational phase in full activity.

This spring, Frydnes published the book "No man is an island”. It is impressive to read how he understood that it would take a very special way of working to move past the difficult years, as the plans for Utøya Island evolved. He had to reach and establish a dialogue with every single family left behind after those who lost their lives. Everyone had to heard and to be part of the process in order to move on. He dreaded the visits, as they exposed him to an avalanche of anger, attacks, and emotions. He was not welcome everywhere, and it was not possible to reach complete agreement among all the survivors. Perhaps understanding, and the feeling of having a say and being heard have had to be enough.

He wrote: “I believe one of the most important reasons that the work on Utøya Island is now considered relatively successful, is that the project embraced external and internal resistance with open arms”. As a former politician, and now a senior civil servant, I must say I was fascinated by this statement, since I’ve never thought that the foremost characteristic of politics was to embrace resistance with open arms Again and again, I see evidence that this is not any government’s greatest strength. It is impossible to have followed along with Utøya Island for the past decade without being struck by the vast difference between the progress being made in creating today’s Utøya Island, and the complex and polarised process of erecting permanent memorials on Utøya Island and in Oslo.

Like many others, I thought that 22 July 2011 would fundamentally change the Norwegian political debate, and lead to a massive rejection of right-wing extremist ideas and their potential consequences. That did not happen. According to the Police Security Service, PST, these ideas are even stronger today. Perhaps, as the Fritt Ord Foundation’s Executive Director Knut Olav Åmås wrote this summer: “Most of us underestimated how much vigorous resistance is required to fight intolerant and extremist statements”.

At the same time, I believe the resistance stands stronger today. In the past six months, an entirely different type of debate has gained a foothold. Party politics has become part of it. The 22 July survivors are making their mark in a different way. Are we also seeing the contours of a generation gap in society’s view of right-wing extremism, where the younger generation has a depth of understanding and a willingness to resist that are stronger than earlier generations?

Those of us who represent independent institutions engaged in the field of democracy and freedom of expression can also contribute. Fritt Ord has long considered projects in the wake of 22 July to be especially important. We have provided financial support to nearly 100 projects related to 22 July, not least to support literature and documentary films. We pledged NOK 500 000 for the Hegnhuset Centre, and awarded the Freedom of Expression Foundation Tribute to Pål Sletaune and Sara Johnsen for the series entitled “22 July”.

The Utøya method is to serve as a democratic workshop for promoting knowledge and civic engagement. On the island, new generations are learning to participate in demanding debates on freedom of expression, freedom of expression culture, and extremism. This work is especially important for those of us involved with Fritt Ord, and that is why we pay tribute to it.

This is what we have learned: that the political reckoning with right-wing extremism is not a reckoning at all, but a continuous effort to build and develop a society that can stand up against right-wing extremism. That work does not rest with an organisation, a speech or an initiative, but rather with all the people in all their different positions. We cannot simply wait for or meet up at the reckoning. We are the reckoning. Or we are not.

Utøya Island is once again a political island. It is a political island that now reaches many more people and much further afield than before. It demonstrates the power of free speech and the democratic mode of thought. It is part of the reckoning with right-wing extremism ideology.

Utøya Island and Jørgen Watne Frydnes are part of the reckoning. This is why they are being awarded the Freedom of Expression Foundation Tribute.

Jørgen Watne Frydnes’ speech at the awards ceremony

This is a tale of pain and hope. Of powerful stories, gruelling dilemmas and the importance of communication. This is a tale of a balancing act between remembering what was and creating what will be – of the work to create something meaningful out of something meaningless.

Our basic tenet has been that extremism and malice shall not prevail. The voices of politically active young people shall not be silenced by violence. The terrorist wanted the history of Utøya Island as a centre of democratic power to be precisely that, i.e. history. He had to be proven wrong. Utøya Island could not be defeated.

But would it be possible to achieve AUF’s principal vision that the perpetrator would not succeed in shutting down Utøya Island, at the same time as we managed to carry out the survivors’ wishes? We had to travel to every corner of the country to try to find answers.

Generally speaking, the good, difficult and painful conversations have helped us achieve what we have so far. We have listened, we have learned, and we have changed course along the journey. We have been open to criticism, open to objections, open to advice. Doubt is a prerequisite for good ideas. Recognising mistakes is an important step in development. Listening is the first step in learning.

The fact that we have welcomed friction, discussion and debate has been decisive for our work on Utøya Island these past 10 years. Such factors are also decisive for a smoothly-functioning democratic society because democracy epitomises precisely the willingness to compromise, to strike a balance among people who are unable to agree.

In 2015, the AUF took its summer camp back. There can be no stronger signal than that in the post-22 July era. A number of other young people’s organisations now hold their summer camps on the island too. Today, the summer camps on Utøya Island are a clear example of young people’s response to and resistance against terror and violence.

The memorial on Utøya Island, Lysningen (The Clearing) was also erected in 2015. The Hegnhuset Centre opened the following year.

Since it opened its doors in 2016, our main responsibility at the Hegnhuset Centre has been to fill the building with activity. To build a democracy workshop.
In 2011, it was hard to imagine that the need for such a building, such a place, would prove to be so important 10 years later.

I was naive. I believed that we would be able to sit here today, and that the hate and the conspiracy theories would have been lessened automatically. Most of us underestimated how much vigorous resistance is required to fight intolerant and extremist statements.

Since 2016, nearly 50 000 young people have visited Utøya Island to remember, learn and add to their engagement. They learn about the terrorist attacks on the Government Complex and Utøya Island, at the same time as they explore and discuss what they themselves believe is needed to safeguard democracy. What do they consider to be threats against a democratic way of life? How can democracy be strengthened?

They practice how to respond to hate speech, recognise conspiracy theories, argue to support their views, listen to the opinions of others and deal with disagreement. They discuss dilemmas like how to protect freedom of expression and religious freedom at the same time.

These are complex and demanding issues without clear answers and where potential solutions must be weighed up against each other. In this context, there must also be room here for disagreement. Accordingly, this is good training for active members of society.

Making Utøya Island what it is today would not have been possible without the efforts of thousands of individuals. When I am the one to express gratitude for this tribute, I do so on behalf of all those who have contributed to this important work.

By way of conclusion, I would like to thank Fritt Ord. When we needed money to set up the Hegnhuset Centre and when we applied for funding for pilot programmes for the democracy workshops we aspired to conduct, the Foundation generously provided funds.

It is a great honour to receive the Freedom of Expression Foundation Tribute, and we appreciate it deeply. Thank you.

Now, I am looking forward to working together to lay the foundation for intensifying the arguments against the rhetoric of hate and extremist statements. We will work together to face down conspiracy theories and xenophobia, countering them with clear arguments and vigorous resistance. Regrettably, like other places all over the world, Norway has also seen the growth of hate outpacing the mobilisation of resistance.
Our plea is not to let social anxiety and fear of unpleasantness be obstacles to discussions about extremism, hatred and intolerance. AUF, the survivors and those left behind should not have to bear the responsibility for telling the stories all on their own. They should not have to explain why 22 July is still relevant today.

We need to look at those who were affected – to really see them. Counter hate with arguments against it. Restore safety. This was the request we got from the commemorative ceremony in 2011. On Utøya Island, these words have been translated into action.

The struggle against hatred and intolerance is a matter that concerns all of us. Building a safe, tolerant and free society involves all of us.

Utøya Island is proof positive that hate will never win. Hope is stronger than fear.

We are looking forward to continuing this work with renewed vigour. This prize is an injection of energy for us and a great source of inspiration. On behalf of all of us on Utøya Island: thank you!

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