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Is freedom of expression at risk?

Published:Thursday | May 29, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Jaevion Nelson

Freedom of expression/speech is arguably one of the most fundamental rights we enjoy. If nothing else, Betty-Ann Blaine, Daniel Thomas and Shirley Richards, who have been at the forefront of recent protests at the University of the West Indies, subsequent to the removal of Professor Brendan Bain as head of CHART, are right about its importance.

While the public has been misled into believing that the Bain-UWI-Civil Society issue is about freedom of expression, it gives us an opportunity to have a discussion on this important issue.

Ever so often, an alarm is raised about a possible threat to this important right and we are prodded into some sort of action. What really is freedom of expression? How is freedom of expression being threatened and by whom? What does the Constitution of Jamaica and international law say about freedom of expression? How do we protect this right? These are questions we should be asking regardless of our conviction on the Bain issue or gay rights.

According to the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), "freedom of expression is a principle contained in various human rights documents. Its objective is to ensure that people are able to communicate and express opinions, in public, private, either written or spoken, without the interference of the state or others."

Section 13(3)(c) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedom guarantees this. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Jamaica became party to on December 19, 1966, articulates that (1) "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and (2) "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."

Simply put, it means that people do have a right to have dissenting views on any issue. Secularists are free to express their views about religion and the need to separate the Church from the State. Pastors can say casino gambling and flexi-work week are dangerous and should not be supported. Gay rights advocates can say that Parliament has no business in their bedroom. Christians can certainly say homosexuality is 'unnatural' and is immoral.

NOT AN ABSOLUTE RIGHT

One thing missing from the chants and protests is the fact that freedom of expression is not an absolute right; that there are limitations. As APC notes on their website, "it generally only has applicability where the purpose of expression is lawful, and where the act of expression does not infringe on the human rights of others."

Article 19(3) of the ICCPR further states that "The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; [and] (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals."

With rights come responsibilities. It is important for us to be mindful that we don't harm or restrict the rights of other people in exercising or enjoying our freedom of expression. Those who are overcome with anxiety that this right is being threatened must consider the fact that people, regardless of position in society, will and must be held accountable for what they say.

I do concede that in some cases when people are held accountable for what they have said about a minority group, it is not always justified. Human rights activists must understand that balance is critical in this regard. Not everything said is necessarily offensive and no matter how ridiculous something may sound, it is not always reason to lobby for sanctions to be applied to an individual. The oppressed should never become the oppressor.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.