The past few months have seen a recurring pattern in current affairs, where there has been conflict regarding the balancing of the right to freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression is protected in democratic countries because this right is seen as a cornerstone of any democratic system. It has been argued, however, that the right to freedom of expression is afforded too much strength and power in certain societies, and not enough protection in others.


What does freedom of expression mean in a democratic society?
The right to freedom of expression is afforded a varying amount of strength and protection among democratic countries. In a speech at the University of Cape Town in 1966 made to the National Union of South African Students, Robert F Kennedy defined freedom of speech as not only an element of individual liberty, but also as a tool to hold governments accountable to their obligations. Thankfully, section 16 of our current constitution clearly outlines what freedom of expression entails, including the right to freedom of artistic creativity and the freedom to impart information and ideas. In France, which has been in the spotlight recently after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, free expression is also a right enshrined in the French constitution. Article 11 of this document says that the free expression of thoughts and opinions is “one of the most precious rights of man”, and therefore every citizen has the right to speak, write and print freely in France. The United States, however, affords the strongest protection to freedom of speech in the first amendment of their constitution.


Can freedom of expression be limited?
In each of the countries mentioned above, there are varying degrees of freedom of expression. Both France and South Africa have provisions in their constitutions which limit freedom of expression and criminalise expression which incites violence and hatred based on nationality, religion and a host of other factors. In the United States, on the other hand, citizens have the right to express any form of emotion, as long as it does not incite a clear and present danger to themselves or those around them. Therefore, freedom of expression, while being a fundamental component in a democracy, is not an absolute right if used incorrectly in the eyes of that country’s laws.


The situation in Denmark
Denmark has joined the list of countries which have been targeted by extremist groups in response to the works of a controversial Swedish cartoonist and his depiction of prophet Muhammad. Two people were killed after suspected gunman 22-year-old Omar El-Hussein attacked a café during a debate featuring the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had depicted the prophet in some of his cartoons. One person was killed outside the café and, after the gunman was unable to enter the café meeting, a nearby synagogue was targeted where another person was killed. This attack, in light of the Paris attacks earlier this year, has challenged what constitutes freedom of expression in Europe, as well as globally.


SONA 2015 and freedom of speech
The jamming of cellphone signals in Parliament during the 2015 State of the Nation Address has triggered condemnation from all sides of South African society after the jamming prevented journalists from reporting the happenings during the address. The discovery of the signal problems was made by the Beeld news editor Pieter du Toit who released a tweet which detailed how the Parliament technical staff had confirmed finding a signal jamming device in Parliament. Opposition parties have rallied in outrage, claiming that this action is a direct restriction of freedom of speech. In a statement issued by Democratic Alliance MP Gavin Davis, the incident has been labelled as an “unprecedented contravention of media freedom” according to the party. The DA, EFF and Freedom Front Plus have all agreed that the jamming was “in direct violation of the constitution” as well. Cope has made a statement calling the incident a “threat” to freedom of speech. The ruling party, through their national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa, have also condemned the jamming of the signal. The ANC released a statement supporting “the free flow of information and media freedom”. The signal was eventually restored later on in the evening. Parliament will launch a probe into the matter on orders from the Speaker of the House, but opposition parties have also called for an independent probe by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.


The importance of freedom of expression to students
In an article published by The Guardian in September 2014, the results of a US poll regarding the importance of freedom of speech has shown that students are more concerned about their right to freedom of speech than adults in the same poll. 65% of students questioned believed that freedom of speech was their most important right and 61% of students agreed that they should be allowed to freely express their opinions about their teachers and administration on social media without fear of repercussion. This is in comparison to the two-thirds of adults interviewed who disagreed with these statements. Jon Sotsky, a director for the Knight Foundation that conducted the poll, attributed the strong support shown by students towards the fact that many students see themselves as creators of online content, and not as just consumers thereof.

The French philosopher Voltaire once said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” It is in light of this statement that we need to acknowledge not only our fundamental right to express our opinions, but also our inherent responsibility to exercise this right with tolerance and respect. It is through this balance of understanding and tolerance that freedom of expression can continue to thrive.


Illustration: Jaco Stroebel

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