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close this bookThe Courier N 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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close this folderCommunication and the media
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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 accountable.

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.