Freedom of Speech is a Human Right

Human rights are a birthright and inherent to every single one of us. The post World War 2 period has preoccupied itself with the issue of human rights, recognising the atrocities that had pertained then. We can appreciate, therefore, why even the Vienna Declaration impressed upon the United Nations to uphold human rights as an essential part of democracy and development; and to ensure that it makes concerted effort to ensure they prevail. It is in this regard that we cannot divorce a nation’s democracy and development from its human rights and the exercise thereof. While democracy, on the one hand, is the expression of a people’s choice for a political system of their own; human rights are a means by which that society interfaces with their political, social, cultural and economic environment. It can, therefore, be argued that human rights are a necessary ingredient of democracy and development.

As a country, we have a proud history of the written word dating as far back as the early part of the 20th century. African intellectuals took to writing, whether it was the chronicling of life in South Africa by Sol Plaatjie or the Izwi Labantu by Jabavu and Rubusana. The liberation movements and various non government organisations, throughout this period produced various publications. These were either in protest against the government of the day or as expressions of everyday life in our country. This necessitated that there is a plethora of voices and a plurality of views on our society.

In recognition of national Human Rights Day, to be celebrated on March 21st – this Saturday – the provincial government of the Western Cape has posted a “Know Your Rights” page. On the page it summarises South Africa’s Bill of Rights; among whose rights it lists the “freedom of expression”, which it explains as “all people (including the press) can say whatever they want”. The irony of it all is that it is the same provincial government that has expressly decided to can funding for the Cape Times. The reason is because the Cape Times has opted to exercise its human right of freedom of expression and, to “say whatever they want”.

This act comes on the eve of our country celebrating Human Rights Day and is carried out by a government that has professed, publicly, to be the defenders of our Constitution. We are of course, to wonder which Constitution they uphold or that they do so selectively. Freedom of expression, as asserted to by the provincial government’s homepage, is an integral part of the Bill of Rights, which is Chapter Two of our Constitution.

The attitude of the DA provincial government and its leader reflects what is gradually emerging in some circles in our society, where only a certain privileged and elite class has arrogated to itself the right to determine who can say what in society. Consequently, only those who agree with a particular worldview and propagate certain viewpoints should be allowed space to prevail. Therefore, freedom of expression is tantamount to either mimicking or only singing praises to only a particular race, class or government.

The right to express oneself; including the press, is something we fought for under serious repressive conditions of apartheid. In fact, the very act of withdrawing funding for the newspapers because they write whatever they want is reminiscent of the apartheid era. The apartheid government not only withdrew advertising, which is an important source of revenue for the media, but also censored what they wrote. In recent times even the ANC has come under sharp criticism for what those in the media considered to be attempts to curb freedom of expression and the citizens’ right to information.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) s that, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek and receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. Inherent in the content of the declaration is that it is not only those views or ideas that resonate with us, or in favour of our views, that should be protected and defended.  The right to freedom of expression, as stated in the declaration, is to hold opinions without interference and to seek and receive and impart information and ideas. It is, therefore, the responsibility of every nation and their governments to engender a culture of a plurality of voices and views. Our failure to want to curb or censor such views is an indication that we are not true to this human right. In fact, Professor Noam Chomsky cautions that, “if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise…”

Our ability to exchange views and information of any kind is an essential component of a democracy. In a democracy, it is through such exchange that the citizenry is able to communicate its thoughts and perspective on how it is governed. As such, it comprises the necessary ingredient to a functioning and developing country. The media, as a public trust, is a means by which the citizens should be kept informed so they are able to make the appropriate and necessary judgements, or assessments, about those in power.

The right of freedom of expression with regard to government is important in a democracy. It is a means by which the government not only hears from the people, but also an opportunity to for it to interact and respond to what the populace articulates. In this regard Mohit Singhvi reminds us that this right of the individual and media, to freely express themselves “is also equally important to governments because when criticisms of a government are freely voiced, the government has an opportunity to respond to the grievances of the citizens. On the other hand, when freedom of speech is restricted, rumours, unfair criticisms, comments and downright falsehoods are circulated through private conversations and surreptitiously circulated writings. In that context, the government is in no position to counter such views, because they are not publicly stated. It is in the government’s interest to allow criticisms in the public arena where it can answer its critics and correct its mistakes if any.”

We have all been stung by those who tell the truth. This is, however, no cause to inhibit the right of people express themselves. In fact, if anything at all, it is for the cause of good and strengthening of our democracy and the development of our society as a whole. As Mohit Singhvi again reiterates, “free speech is the cornerstone of a free society as it is an inherent, inalienable right of the citizens of a democratic country. It is a basic human right enjoyed by all such citizens,… and is the foundation over which other basic human rights are built. Often regarded as an integral concept in a democratic set up, without free speech no justice is possible and no resistance to injustice and oppression is possible. Thus freedom of speech is significant at all levels in society.”

Freedom of speech is a basic human right of every South African, including those whose views we may not like. As we celebrate our national human rights day, we should not only profess to believe in this right but must also uphold it; and remember those who laid their lives to enable us to enjoy it.

Jessie Duarte: Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress.

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