Tuesday, May 28, 2024
UncategorizedFreedom of speech and expression, is there limitation?

Freedom of speech and expression, is there limitation?

At this stage of Ethiopian political reform – which is the most desired and acceptable move by the government – it shouldn’t be missed that some people are losing sight of freedom of speech and expression and equating it to freedom of lawlessness and anarchy, writes Sisay Woldemichael.

Freedom of Speech and freedom of Expression ought to be seen as fundamental to human life to which it is to be remembered to be god given right.

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are principles that supports fundamental rights that is exercised in a free and democratic society to which freedom of an individual and/or a community is guaranteed with out fear of attribution, censorship or punishment.

The notion that Western countries are only privileged to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of expression is far from the truth. Countries like Ethiopia are eager and entitle to exercise it. Eager because the people have heard it and/or may have seen it briefly, but has not had a chance to exercise it. Entitled because the people have the right under the constitution to be protected by it.

Freedom of speech and expression is recognized as a human rights issue under article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and recognized in international human rights law in the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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Article 19 reads: “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

Article 19 starts its wording by “everyone” to include women, minorities, the educated, uneducated, communities, young and old, etc.. from the lenses of individuals not the state.

This paper is to discuss the rights and freedoms of those who seek to exercise it and whether there should be limitation of that right in the context of current Ethiopia.

Currently in Ethiopia, we have seen waives of political commentators, political parties and individual “activists” claiming to speak for the people and the country, asserting historical misinformation, to satisfy “the base” or their audience for political gain.  Bloggers and Facebookers are the biggest contributors of the confusion.

It is one thing to rely on facts that are well researched to back up the claim, it is another to simply regurgitate what an individual thinks, to be true, or in the name of freedom of speech, to say what “the base” like to hear that is contrary to the principles set out on article 19.

It is my humble opinion that such uncontrolled discussion in the context of Ethiopia, may have serious negative consequences. I am not suggesting censorship.

Do we need limitation of those rights?

In the western world such as Canada, guarantee of rights and freedoms, are subject to limitations under section 1 of the Charter, as long as the limitations are demonstrably justified.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom reads:

Guarantee of Rights and Freedoms

Marginal note: Rights and freedoms in Canada

  1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

What is that mean? It means the freedom guaranteed may not be seen as obsolete. The fundamental guaranties can and should not be harmful, libel, slander, fighting words, hate speech, incitement etc..

The limitations are idea’s that is set to prevent offensive principles to which “power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty).

The idea of having to scrutinize speeches and expressions to determine if they amount to offensive principles and used to justify the limitation may be deemed offensive to the principles of fundamental justice, however, it is a tool to prevent harm to society and community.  

The burden to prove may shift from those who seek to use it to those who seek to prevent it. Nevertheless, it is a lawful act that could be determined by legislation.  

Claims such as X amount of people killed in Y area without verification could led to incitement. Claims such as areas bounded by Z geographical boundaries belong to certain ethnic group without its historical context may led to incitement. Claims such as X ethnic group hates Y ethnic group historically, without verifiable and documented history amount to hate speech.

Claims like this and more, in the name of freedom of speech and expression that are inflammatory in nature to the point it may incite, harm or provoke people to do harm into others,  need to have the constitutional limitation that are demonstrably justifiable.

Everyone is entitled for its opinion but not entitled for its facts. Facts are different to which it must meet the legal standard.

At this stage of Ethiopian political reform – which is the most desired and acceptable move by the government – it shouldn’t be missed that some people are losing sight of freedom of speech and expression and equating it to freedom of lawlessness and anarchy. One thing must be clear to all, NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW.

Ed.’s Note: Sisay Woldemichael is a Judiciary (Justice of the Peace) and former adviser of communication to the Chief Justice of Ontario, at Ontario Court of Justice in Canada. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

Contributed by Sisay Woldemichael


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