In Defence of Freedom of Expression
culled from VANGUARD, November 8,
Freedom of Expression is a
fundamental human right and one of the values at the root of human civilization
and enlightenment. This is affirmed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (UDHR) which 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.
Without freedom of expression, there is no culture, no tradition, no
morality, no science, no technology, no philosophies, no ideology, and no
values. Without freedom of expression, there is no society or civilization. In
fact, I dare say that without freedom of expression, there is no human being.
This is because one of the characteristics that set us-human beings apart from
other animals is not just our capacity to think and cogitate but also our
capacity to speak and express ourselves in language. The drafters of the UDHR
were aware of the value of free expression that they envisioned "the advent of a
world in which human beings shall enjoy free speech and belief..." and
proclaimed it "the highest aspiration of the common people".
Today, this aspiration is on the verge of being lost or destroyed due to
religious fanaticism and bigotry. We saw all these played out in the cartoon
controversy that engulfed the world early this year. Now that the dust of the
riots and demonstrations have settled, let us look again at the illogicalities
that underlie the whole drama. The premises are as follows: Firstly, cartoons
were published in a country and reprinted in others. Secondly, those who felt
offended started burning flags and embassies of countries in which the cartoons
In Nigeria, they started burning worship centers and killing those who belong
to other religions in demonstration of their anger. Now what does this portend
for the world, for human rights especially for freedom of expression? Gloom,
doom and darkness.
This is because if every time individuals or groups who feel offended by any
publication resort to arson and attacks like we saw during the cartoon riots,
then there will be no flag or embassy left anywhere in the world. If countries
start boycotting goods of other nations where offensive materials are published,
then there will be nothing like international trade. If groups start burning
buildings and structures-like worship centers-in demonstration of their anger
over offensive publications, then there will be no structure left standing
anywhere in the world-even churches and mosques. Worse of all, if groups start
killing those who belong to other religious, philosophical or ideological camps
in demonstration of their anger over offensive cartoons and writings, then
nobody will be alive today. This is because virtually, every thing published
causes some offence to some people somewhere.
Many of the things written in our scriptures or preached in our churches,
mosques, shrines, temples and synagogues offend some individuals and groups. In
fact, there is no way we can live or express ourselves without causing some
offence or without being offended. Human beings are condemned to live with and
tolerate offensive thoughts and ideas. It is therefore imperative for all of us
to defend the right of every individual to hold or express views and opinions
without fear of giving offence. In fact, we must protect the rights of those
whose thoughts and views give offence. That is why I must commend a group of
liberals, democrats, human rights activists and comrades who met on Saturday,
March 25 at Trafalgar Square to promote free speech under the theme: March for
Freedom of Expression.
The group has the following as mission statement: "The strength and survival
of free society and the advance of human knowledge depend on the free exchange
of ideas. All ideas are capable of giving offence, and some of the powerful
ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo and Darwin, have given profound
religious offence in their time. The free exchange of ideas depends on freedom
of expression and this includes the right to criticize and mock. We assert and
uphold the right of freedom of expression and call on our elected
representatives to do the same. We abhor the fact that people throughout the
world live under mortal threat simply for expressing ideas and we call on our
elected representatives to protect them from attack and not give comfort to the
forces of intolerance that besiege them".
One of the endorsers of the March for Freedom of Expression, the British
Humanist Association has this to say in praise of free speech: "Free speech is
the touchstone of free society- with it comes a society that is open to change,
can debate differences, and in which everyone can learn and grow.
Without it, we can become closed off and segregated and mistrustful of
others. At a time when the need to understand differences and accommodate
dissent is so great, we cannot do without the liberty of uncensored speech. The
best way to nurture hate is in the dark and free speech shines a light on our
society that is needed now more than ever"
Mr. Igwe is Executive secretary, Nigerian Humanist Movement.