Freedom of expression is the freedom to express oneself through speech, religion, assembly, writing, arts, and the use of the press without interference. It is the freedom to express ones thought, idea and opinion without unnecessary and unjustified restrictions. It encompasses not only the right to hold opinion without interference but also the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers, and in whatever medium, either orally or in written form. Freedom of expression is not limited to dissemination of information and ideas that are favourably received or inoffensive but includes those that offend, shock, or disturb the state or any section of the population. It also extends to negative freedom, not to speak or to remain silent, or to speak only when one chooses. Freedom of expression is fundamental in democratic societies, because it is essential for the self-realisation of the individual and the promotion of democratic process, as it enables people to impart and receive ideas and information, which are important elements in ensuring harmony in pluralistic societies with divergent opinions and ideas. The function of the media is also crucial in developing societies. If the media is adequately equipped, it could play significant roles in the development of a country, as an agenda-setter and a mobiliser. Also, the role of the press as a platform where issues of national interest are debated could lead to better governance and release of stored-up pressure that could have been expressed in rather violent ways.
Despite the importance of freedom of expression to the political and economic development of a country there seems to be consistent attempts to suppress it in many countries of the world. Thus, in such countries, the relationship between the press and the government has been a marriage of recurring conflicts and mutual suspicion. This stems from the enormous power of the press to influence contemporary thinking, to mould and articulate public opinion and to set the agenda for society while performing the traditional roles of informing, educating, entertaining, and acting as watchdog of society.
The importance of freedom of expression lies in its very nature—the right to express opinion, without which all other rights may suffer repression. It has strong and important linkages with other rights and freedoms, because once people can print or freely say the truth about what is happening in a given society, it will be difficult to repress other freedoms and rights.
Thus, freedom of expression plays central roles in the protection of other human liberties, and there are linkages between adequate protection of freedom of expression and respect of other rights and freedoms. It will be more difficult to abuse other rights and/or freedoms in a society with adequate mechanisms for the protection and promotion of freedom of expression- where people can freely express themselves, and where the press provides the platform through which people can state their views on issues of governance, society and polity, than in a society with poor records of freedom of expression protection.
Massive and systematic violations of human rights occur more easily in closed and dark societies. Gross human rights abuses occur more in such societies because evil deeds thrive in the dark, not in open societies, where people can freely express themselves, and where the press is not gagged, but have the freedom to provide the platform upon which people can express themselves. In closed societies, it is easier to trample on other rights and freedoms, because such assaults are hardly reported or discussed.
Also, there are linkages between human rights abuses and armed conflicts. Outbreaks of conflict are usually in response to prolonged and systematic violations of basic human rights, like, right to education, freedom of movement, right to vote, freedom of expression, right to life, and right to dignity. If unchecked, these violations could lead to violent conflicts.
Gross violations of human rights intensify in armed conflict situations. Human rights violations, in the forms of abuses of right to life, right to property, freedom of movement, right to fair trial and right to dignity usually occur in armed conflict situations with impunity. Also, humanitarian atrocities such as, violation of the person, enlisting of children as child soldiers, summary execution, forced deportation, torture, enslavement, extermination, enforced disappearance of persons, sexual slavery, and enforced prostitution are common in armed conflict situations.
These gross violations of human rights are now commonly called unimaginable atrocities, repugnant to the conscience of humanity and coded as crime against humanity, genocide and war crimes, depending on the forms and contexts. The truth is that, at the foundation of these crimes are systematic violations of human rights which are possible in dark society, where freedom of expression have been banished and trampled upon.
- Linus Nnabuike Malu PhD Candidate Peace Studies