In Defence of Freedom of Expression

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In Defence of Freedom of Expression 

 

By

 

Leo Igwe

 

culled from VANGUARD, November 8, 2006

 

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 were printed.

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.

 

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