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Freedom of expression and information

Mar 15, 2010, 12:06 PM | Article By: Lawyer Assan Martin

An individual's fundamental rights and 4th pillar of democracy

One would first like to point out that the word "Freedom" denotes "laws" and it does not mean the ordinary simple meaning. Free to do anything or say anything.

It is important to note that freedom of expression deals with laws that govern various forms of expressions, such as writing books, articles, making speeches or broadcasting, discussion and debates. The term expression may include virtually all ways in which individual may put forward a viewpoint, or argument to promote a cause.

It is clear, however, that in most modern democracies access to forms of expression for the most effective promotion of ideas or points of views is limited. In particular, censorship is a mechanism that controls the flow of information to the public domain. As a result, the possibility of an individual, or groups of individuals being able to promote a particular idea or view becomes very limited.

Equally, freedom to information between individuals is very imperative in our democracies, and as such it enhances our system of accountability between institutions and citizens. The freedom to publish information about the working of a government is based on democratic values. This idea of expression can be justified as it clearly supports making available of as much information as possible to enable citizens to exercise their democratic responsibilities.

On the other hand, the flow of information can also help government to share information with public or private institutions in their quest to search for solution or data on national problems. The only time that governments may refuse to share information is situation where genuine national security interest becomes an issue or any information classified as state secrets.

It is important to mention that freedom of expression and information in the 21st Century is now considered the 4th (forth pillar) or branch of government, apart from the executive legislature and the judicial. The reason being that, it is fundamental for people to be informed and for governments to report back to its citizens in the interest of accountability. Without the access to information and the dissemination of information a society can be disadvantaged about the running of their national affairs.

Many constitutions and international legal instrument give protection of freedom of expression and information a high priority.

One may refer to a few conventional provisions and some within our local jurisdiction. Virtually all the key international legal instruments have provisions relating to importance of free speech and information, considering a few such as Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights - (1948) that providers that "an individual has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right include freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

In additional - The African Charter for Human and Peoples Right made similar emphasis and this provision promotes freedom of expression and information.

National constitutions have also stipulated so much on the concept of freedom of expression within their societies.

However, the virtue of freedom of expression and information cannot be over-emphasized as it is based on the arguments from the "truth" "democracy" and "self-fulfilment."

This later argument is based on the ideal that freedom of expression is tied with their nature of humanity, as we are distinguished from animals because of our abilities to communicate and to express our feelings in a variety of ways. If we restrict our ability to express ourselves, we are to some extent denying our humanity, and this will prejudice our full development as individuals.

It is true that the progress and prosperity of any society depends on the participation of its individuals in governments; how it citizens are informed and the capacity for citizen to express their views for the truth.