Addis Standard

Freedom of expression defines the rise and fall of nations

Mesenbet Assefa

I was provoked to contribute to the debate on the right to freedom of expression when I read your Editorial about the significance of freedom of expression in serving as a market place of ideas in a democratic society. Given the topical significance of the subject, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of the foundational principles and raison d’être which try to respond to the question why do we protect freedom of expression in a democratic society. While the theory of the market place of ideas and the search for truth are some of the most important justifications for the protection of freedom of expression; I would even argue and take the argument further stating that freedom of expression defines the rise and fall of nations.

The metaphor of the market place of ideas argues that similar to the market place for goods where competition between different business entities enhances pricing and helps in the growth of national economies, freedom of expression also affords individuals the opportunity to contribute different ideas in the economic, social and political life of a community. In a broader sense, however, the justification for the protection of freedom of expression can be categorized into the following major grounds. These include the promotion of democracy, the search for truth, the protection of the dignity and personal development of individuals, promoting autonomy and rationality of individuals (particularly the audience) and the Prevention of abuse of government authority.

The Central argument of my piece is drawn from a recent book edited by Deirdre Golash Freedom of Expression in a Dicerse World. In this book Professor Richard Baron Parker convincingly argues that one of the principal reasons that determined the progress of states over the past two centuries has been the degree of protection afforded to freedom of expression in their societies. In articulating his premise, he argues that the three essential elements for the flourishing of any organized political society, democracy, scientific inquiry and the free market, which he refers as social technologies, can be better advanced if the right to freedom of expression is better protected. His argument should be given greater significance given the exceptional protection that freedom of expression plays in the US, the single super power in the world. Freedom of expression in the US enjoys unparalleled constitutional recognition. As laid down in the US Supreme Court land mark decision of Brandenburg v Ohio (1969), the Court ruled that speakers engaged in public discourse may not be punished for advocating criminal activity or violence, including terrorism, unless government can show that this advocacy is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action”. As a matter of subsequent constitutional dispensation of the Supreme Court there has been no case where the First Amendment of the constitution allows limitation in the context of public speech. Thus, freedom of expression enjoys an absolute protection in the context of public discourse.

In the context of other democracies, while it should be acknowledged that freedom of expression can be limited to protect compelling interests of the state such as national security, public order and the protection of the reputation of others, states recognized the quintessential role freedom of expression in a democratic society. In particular in the context of political expression and public deliberation, one has to recognize its unparalleled place in a democratic society. Thus, any limitation on freedom of expression should be scrutinized by courts and other oversight mechanism with the highest rigor. This has been certainly the case if one looks at the experience of many countries.

In the context of Ethiopia, we also need to acknowledge the overriding significance attached to freedom of expression in building a democratic society. If dissident voices are going to be constantly hammered and persecuted, it will have far wider implications not only on the democratic credentials of the government but also in the socio-economic development of the country. As Professor Parker has wittily stated if the important social technologies – democracy, the free market and scientific enquiry that define the development of states are going to be enhanced, we need to have a high regard for freedom of expression. While the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) Article 29 guarantees the right to freedom of expression, this constitutional framework should be protected by judicial vigilance and civil society engagement which seem to be highly limited in this regard. Constitutional recognition cannot be a guarantee for the protection of freedom of expression or human rights more broadly. Any State committed to respect for human rights, the principles of democracy and self-government should have not just a formal constitutional recognition of the right to freedom of expression, but also substantive appreciation of the values of free expression in society and a political commitment towards its meaningful implementation.

If the ideals of revolutionary democracy and developmental state are going to be continuously used as dogmas, then as a society we will risk having what Mill characterized as “dead dogmas” which have lost any socio-political significance in a society. What provides vitality for democratic self governance and vibrant scientific and social progress is the ability of individuals to speak their mind and challenge the existing discourse. Ethiopia has an immense social capital, tolerant society, a history of independence and other significant societal and historical virtues. We should be able to use these to enhance the social technologies of democracy, free market and scientific inquiry which have convincingly defined the progress of humanity over the past two centuries.

 The writer is Lecturer of Law-Addis Ababa University School of Law & PhD Candidate, Irish Centre for Human Rights National University of Ireland, Galway. He can be reached at Tsehay2000@gmail.com