We need responsible use of freedom of expression


Freedom of expression has been defined as the right to communicate one's opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship. There is also the connotation that it includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.

Analysts, in this context mostly agree that Governments tend to restrict speech with varying limitations. Reference and deliberation in this regard has surfaced recently with the decision by our government to make use of the Digital Security Act.  

Academics, activists, media representatives and politicians have sought to point out that such an effort on the part of the government will curtail our right of freedom of expression and also limit our rights as citizens of an independent country. They are also affirming that some of the measures being adopted to fight abuse of civic rights will essentially on the other hand curtail our basic rights.

They are in this regard referring to the existing principles related to the Law of Torts and underlining that legal limitations need to be contained through existing laws pertaining to defamation, libel and slander. 

They are drawing attention to the fact that common limitations on speech relating to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, right to privacy, public security, public order, public nuisance and any form of oppression can be dealt with under the Penal Code.

They are also referring to the Harm Limitation Principle and urging that limitations be justified under this principle depending upon whether any expression might influence a third party's opinions or actions adversely to the second party. 

It needs to be also remembered here that the term "offense principle" is also used to expand the range of free speech limitations to prohibit forms of expression where they are considered offensive to society, special interest groups or individuals. For example, freedom of speech is limited in many jurisdictions to widely differing degrees by religious legal systems or codes meant to stop incitement towards ethnic or communal hatred.

The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 

Article 19 of the ICCPR states that "everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice". Article 19 additionally states that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities” and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary ". 

This would particularly pertain to “respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals".

Concepts of freedom of speech and expression have gradually evolved over time. Early human rights documents like England’s Bill of Rights, 1689 legally established the constitutional right of 'freedom of speech in Parliament'. Subsequently the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted during the French Revolution in 1789, specifically affirmed freedom of speech as an inalienable right. 

The Declaration provided for freedom of expression in Article 11, which states that: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law”. 

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  adopted in 1948, states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Today, freedom of speech, or the freedom of expression, is also recognized in international and regional human rights law. The right is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’Rights. 

One is also reminded in this regard of John Milton and his observation that  freedom of speech needs to be understood as a multi-faceted right that includes not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but three further distinct aspects: the right to seek information and ideas; the right to receive information and ideas and the right to impart information and ideas. 

International, regional and national standards also recognize that freedom of speech, as the freedom of expression, includes any medium, be it orally, in written, in print, through the Internet or through art forms. This means that the protection of freedom of speech as a right includes not only the content, but also the means of expression. 

It needs to be understood that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are very closely interrelated. For example, the right to freedom of expression is also related to the right to a fair trial and court proceeding which may limit access to the search for information or determine the opportunity and means in which freedom of expression is manifested within court proceedings. 

It must however be understyood that as a general principle freedom of expression may not limit the right to privacy, as well as the honor and reputation of others. This has assumed special importance given the advent of digitalization and social and mixed nedia. However greater latitude is sometimes given when criticism of public figures is involved.

It is generally agreed that the right to freedom of expression is particularly important in today’s world for all the different forms of the media- broadcast, print, electronic and digital. This is so because they play a special role as the bearer of the general right to freedom of expression for all. However, Judith Lichtenberg has outlined certain conditions whereby freedom of the press might constrain freedom of speech. 

This would be applicable if, for example, the media suppresses information or stifles the diversity of voices inherent in freedom of speech. In this context Lichtenberg has argued that, at times freedom of the press is used simply as a form of property right where the principle of "no money, no voice" applies in most situations.

Freedom of speech is generally accepted as being fundamental in a democracy. The norms on limiting freedom of expressionor public debate are consequently interpreted as being unacceptable even in times of emergency. One of the most notable proponents of the link between freedom of speech and democracy has been Alexander Meikejohn. 

He has argued that the concept of democracy is that of self-government by the people. He has correctly put forward the idea that for such a system to work an informed electorate is necessary. 

As such, in order to be appropriately knowledgeable, there must be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas. Accordingly, democracy will suffer and fail to reach its potential if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism. Such manipulation, one can only agree will negate the democratic ideal.

The World Bank attaches particular importance to freedom of speech. It is a factor which receives attention in formulating their Worldwide Governance Indicators for nearly 200 countries. This is done because such freedom is understood to facilitate transparency and accountability that has a significant impact in the quality of governance within a country.

However, while advocating freedom, one also needs to remember that the State has to look after the interests of all its citizens irrespective of colour, gender, religious belief or ethnic background. If any of these stake-holders suffer then the entire paradigm is affected. 

We need to remember in this regard the unfortunate efforts undertaken by the Dutch cartoonist Kurt Westergaard that alienated people of the Islamic faith throughout the world including many from other faiths. That fiasco proved that freedom is a human right but it does not mean that tangential reference can be made against others that will affect their rights related to freedom. That cannot be associated as acceptable democratic behavior.

This is a sensitive paradigm and one needs to tread within this matrix with caution. It must also be understood that interpretations of both the harm and offense limitations to freedom of speech are culturally and politically relative. For instance, in Russia, the harm and offense principles have been used to justify the Russian LGBT propaganda law restricting speech (and action) in relation to LGBT issues. 

A number of European countries that take pride in freedom of speech nevertheless also outlaw speech that might be interpreted as Holocaust denial. These include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and Switzerland.

There are various dimensions related to this entire question of freedom of expression. Advocates from different sides have ttheir own explanations. However, one aspect is undeniable; Discussion is knowledge in the making. We need to undertake such a course of action. 

At the same time, the different stake-holders have to remember that decisions need to be based on the principle contained in the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press. However, the State also has the right to take pre-emptive action to ensure that deliberate violations aimed at creating or inciting lawlessness or disrupting of stability or communal harmony in the name of politics does not harm its citizens or disrupt their basic rights to pusue socio-economic activities or education or health care.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at <muhammadzamir0@gmail.com>