Freedom of expression is a tenet we cannot replace

Violent political language, rhetoric and threats by political figures and civil society leaders undermine freedom of expression, lowers the quality of public debate and restricts diversity of opinion.

It obviously undermines the freedom to have debates on politics, economy and society, and it cultivates a culture of intolerance, violence and fear in South Africa.

Without freedom of expression ­citizens cannot make informed decisions about policies, political leaders and other leaders. There cannot be democracy without freedom of expression. Furthermore, there can be no free and fair elections unless there is freedom of expression.

But freedom of expression is also crucial for development. Without freedom of expression, development, industrial and growth policies cannot be fairly scrutinised, alternatives will not be freely made available and not debated widely.

Without freedom of expression, ­corruption cannot be tackled, because those exposing, fighting and prosecuting corruption are censored.

Similarly, gender equality, as expressed in equal access for women to rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment, cannot be realised if women cannot exercise their rights to opinion, expression and information without discrimination.

If people fear they cannot criticise a political party, leader or government because they will be violently attacked, insulted and marginalised, they and others will refrain from giving their opinions and ideas.

To vote rationally, citizens need diverse information about policies, facts about the state of government, the economy and political parties. They also need credible information on political leaders and their real intentions.

Voters need to know, for example, if the radical “struggle” rhetoric of leaders masks corruption, or that leaders calling for preserving African “culture” in real life often rarely care about preserving culture, or that some leaders or parties calling for “radical economic transformation” themselves often do not believe in such policies. Or that many leaders and parties supposedly fighting corruption are often funded by gangsters, criminals and the corrupt.

108913154 - Freedom of expression is a tenet we cannot replace
The Congress of the People met at Kliptown in 1955 to adopt the Freedom Charter. Picture: Robben Island Museum

A number of international courts, tribunals and treaties have affirmed the indispensability of freedom of expression for democracy.

As early as 1983 the High Court in Nigeria, during one of the most repressive periods in that country, remarked that freedom of expression was “no doubt the very foundation of every democratic society, for without free discussion, particularly on political issues, no public education or enlightenment so essential for the proper functioning of responsible ­government is possible.”

The African Charter on Human Rights calls freedom of expression a fundamental human right, essential to ensure respect for all other human rights and freedoms.

It argues that respect for freedom of expression “will lead to greater public transparency and accountability, as well as to good governance and the strengthening of democracy.”

The charter even condemns African cultures, traditions and customs that “repress” freedom of expression.

The Inter-American Court, for example, argued that it “is essential for everyone to be able to question and inquire about the capacity and suitability of candidates, as well as to disagree with and oppose their proposals, ideas and opinions, so that voters can form an opinion to vote.”

South Africa’s Constitution states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

Traditionally, freedom of expression has been suppressed by African governing parties, governments and leaders. However, freedom of expression is also increasingly being threatened by African non-state actors such as Boko Haram, the Islamist group in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, or warlords in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In South Africa, violent political language, rhetoric and threats by populists are now endangering freedom of expression, and therefore democracy, development and peace.

Without freedom of expression, democracy, development and peace are not possible. The fundamental right to freedom of expression should be defended at all costs.

The Independent Electoral Commission must punish parties, non-state actors and non-governmental organisations, their leaders and supporters who suppress freedom of expression.

Punishment should include fines, withdrawal of funding, banning from elections and jail.

* Gumede is executive chairman, Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org) and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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