Freedom of expression: the first freedom
by Frances d'Souza
Frances d'Souza who is Executive Director of AROSE 19, a nom
governmental organization which campaigns against censorship globally, explains
why Freedom of Expression is for her the most important human right
In the absence of freedom of expression, it is almost impossible
to protect other rights, including the right to life. Once governments can draw
a cloak of secrecy round their actions and remain unaccountable, massive human
rights violations can, and do, take place. For this reason alone, the right to
free expression, specifically protected in international human rights treaties,
must be considered a primary right. It is significant that one of the first
indications of a government's intention to depart from democratic principles is
when it increases its control over information, usually by gagging the media. At
the one end of the spectrum, supposedly minor infringements of this fundamental
right occur daily in western democracies; for example the abuse of national
security laws to prevent publication of information which might embarrass the
authorities. At the other end of the scale are regimes of terror which brutally
suppress opposition, information and even the freedom to exercise religious
beliefs. Without free speech and an independent media, it is easier for
governments to employ propaganda to promote ethnic conflict, war and genocide.
The right to freedom of expression is formally protected in
major international treaties including the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and
* This text is an abridged version of a submission made by the
author to a public hearing hosted by the European Parliament's Committee on
Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence and the Sub-Committee on Human Rights and
the Committee on Culture, Youth, Education and the Media, April 25, 1996.
Political Rights (Article 19), and the European Convention on
Human Rights (Article 10). It is also enshrined in many national constitutions,
although this does not always guarantee its protection. Freedom of expression is
something which applies even in countries which have not ratified the relevant
international treaties. This is because the Universal Declaration is so widely
accepted that its provisions now form part of customary international law.
While it is generally agreed that freedom of expression is the
cornerstone of democracy, international treaties permit certain restrictions.
Unlike the American First Amendment rights which allow few, if any, checks on
free speech, the international treaties aim for a balance between competing
rights. Thus, for example, free speech may be limited where it impinges on the
individual's right to privacy, or where it involves incitement to violence or
hatred. Given that the permitted restrictions are necessarily broad, the limits
of free speech are constantly being tested in national courts and in regional
tribunals such as the European Commission and Court of Human Rights. In recent
years, several landmark cases have helped define what restrictions may be
imposed by governments and under what circumstances. In particular, it has been
emphasised by the European Court that any restriction should 'pass' a threepart
test; it should be prescribed by law (and thus not be arbitrarily imposed), it
should be proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued, and it should be
demonstrably necessary in a democratic society in order to protect the
individual and/or the state.
Who censors what?
Despite the rules governing restrictions on free speech, many
justifications are still invoked by governments in suppressing information which
may be inimical to their policies or interests. These include arguments in
defence of national security or the 'public interest'. The mechanisms used to
restrict the free flow of information range from subtle economic pressures, and
devious methods of undermining political opponents and the independent media, to
the enactment of restrictive press laws and rules for licensing journalists. In
extreme cases, they may involve the illegal detention, torture and disappearance
of journalists and others associated with the expression of independent views.
The right of free speech may appear less important than, for
example, freedom from torture or extrajudicial killing. It is also sometimes
difficult to persuade the public that censorship, generally associated with
banning obscene materials, is a bad thing! It requires a recognition of some of
the fundamental principles of democracy to understand why censorship is so
dangerous. Democracy implies that people can make choices about the issues that
affect their lives, including what they wish to see, read, hear or discuss.
While this may seem a luxurious freedom, mainly preoccupying the wealthy West,
it is a comparatively short distance between state censorship of an offensive
book to the silencing of political dissidents. And the distance between this and
the use of violence to suppress opposition is even shorter. Censorship tends to
grow rapidly from small beginnings. Allowing a government the power to deny
people information, however trivial, not only leads to laws and procedures which
can and will be used by those in authority against those with less authority. It
also denies people the information they need to render their governments
There have been some terrible examples of the role of censorship
in recent years. We have seen it in the republics of the former Yugoslavia where
the media were manipulated for propaganda purposes. We have seen it in Rwanda
where the government associated radio incited citizens to kill each other in the
name of ethnic supremacy. And we have seen it in Iran which maintains the threat
of murder against a citizen of another country because he wrote a book which
displeased the authorities.
There are clear links between access to information (or rather
the lack of it), and war. Democracy empowers people by increasing participation
in decision-making at all levels. The poor, who are denied access to information
on decisions which deeply affect their lives, are powerless and have no voice.
They cannot influence the ruling elites whose interest in consolidating their
own power and position may be served by initiating conflict.
It is significant that of the 126 developing countries listed in
the 1993 Human Development Report, wars were being waged in 30 and a further 33
were suffering severe civil conflicts. 55 of these 63 countries were to be found
at the lower end of the Human Development Index which is an indicator of
poverty. It is reasonably safe to assume that most people never welcome war.
They may be coerced into supporting 'their' side in a conflict by their
governments, using propaganda designed to whip up fear and extreme nationalist
sentiment. If the majority had a democratic voice, they would undoubtedly object
to war. But voices are silenced. Thus, the freedom to express one's views, to
challenge government decisions and to insist upon political rather than violent
solutions, are necessary aspects of democracy which can, and do, avert war.
State-sponsored propaganda in Rwanda, as in the former
Yugoslavia, succeeded because there were no ways of challenging it. One can
conclude that it is impossible for a country to wage war in the absence of a
compliant media willing to indulge in government propaganda. Governments needs
civilians to fight wars for them and the media is needed to reinforce government
policies and intentions at every turn. In a totalitarian state where the
expression of political views, let alone the possibility of political
organisation is suppressed, one has to ask what other possibilities are open to
a genuine political movement intent on introducing justice. All too often,
terrorism and violence are the only perceived options available to communicate
the need for change.
What NGOs can do
The work of human rights organizations has to become much more
proactive and should be concerned with providing early warning and preventive
action. Monitoring freedom of exprmsion, especially freedom of the press, offers
an excellent context because it is widely recognised that would-be dictators
always seek to silence people's voices through banning newspapers or other
methods of censorship. One has to assume that when censorship begins in earnest,
worse human rights abuses will follow and this should be the point for action.
Had there been a greater international lobby for an independent media, for
access to information and for participation in decision-making in the former
Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Burma and many other countries, some of the gross
violations which continue to occur, could have been prevented.
Censorship is the first instrument of a government intent on
departing from democratic procedures. In this sense it is an early warning
signal and at ARTICLE 19, we believe we have a special responsibility to
understand better how democracy is destroyed through censorship and how we can
alert the international community to act to prevent it.
By way of conclusion, anything which can build strong and sound
media infrastructures, at the earliest to pportunity, in transitional
democracies, is both a gift and a great investment. A crusading press, prepared
to separate fact from opinion and to verify its sources, can create a level
playing field in which all sectors of society have a voice. This would preclude
political control and manipulation for nationalistic power purposes. There is
also a need to strengthen local monitoring groups which have the capacity to
verify information. International organisations should amplify the voices of
local organisations and bring them to the attention of the international
community. It is only where there is a strong human rights culture in a given
country, whether it has achieved democracy or not, that political changes can be
seized upon and shaped into the democratic process.
To achieve these objectives, NGOS need to work with governments
which are obliged by international law to uphold fundamental rights. We need
organisations such as the KU, the UN, ASEAN, and others, to insist on respect
for human rights in their dealings with third countries. We also need the
general public to be aware of what fundamental rights are, what are the
consequences of infringement, and how they can, as individuals, successfully
challenge restrictionss imposed on them by their governments. Above all, NGOS
need to work with multilateral organisations to determine where slender
resources can most fruitfully be targeted.