Freedom of Expression - Our Rights and Responsibilities
As we continue to move the discourse on media information literacy, I will today attempt to discuss the issues surrounding freedom of expression, its indispensability in a democracy and its attendant responsibilities.
The good news for all is that ECOWAS member states (Sierra Leone included) have constitutional guarantees on Freedom of Expression. Furthermore, ECOWAS countries have also ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and Article 13 affirms the right to democratic participation. To a large extent, these measures have contributed to the vibrancy and growth of democracy in Sierra Leone and across the sub-region.
As a Journalist, I always espouse Freedom of expression as my fundamental human right. The ability to express our opinions and speak freely is essential to bringing about change in society, allowing a society such as ours to develop and progress.
Free speech, it must be emphasised is important for many reasons. Let's take for example our struggle against colonialism and the birth of nationhood. We also recall the important role of speech in the civil rights movement in the United States: John Lewis who is described as the 'conscience of the United States Congress' and who lived through the civil rights movement passed away last week. Like the great Martin Luther King Jnr., John Lewis used speech in activism and later became a Congress man, where he applied the power of free speech within a democratic dispensation.
Closer to home, the Sierra Leone 1991 constitution guarantees for every citizen the right to freedom of expression. State and non-state actors are striving towards achieving this but this qualified right should not be used to incite violence and unrest in society. We need free speech in-order to take maximum advantage of the contributions and creativity of the masses. This is particularly needed at this time as we transition through political independence towards economic freedom.
As we appreciate and enjoy these freedoms, we however need to be mindful that the very constitution that grants us the freedom of expression also places responsibilities in respect of speech. It grants the state the power to manage the exercise of speech in a manner to safeguard the overall security of us all. Indeed, there is space within every democratic dispensation for free speech within the confines of law and order, whilst noting that Freedom of Expression is not an absolute right but rather a qualified right.
This notion is now internationally recognised and particularly following from the role of irresponsible speech in the Rwandan genocide. We should take maximum advantage of what free speech grants us and forge our energies towards economic freedom.
In conclusion, by all means we should continue to safeguard freedom of expression as guaranteed by the constitution. But let us remember that there is an element of responsibility in every right. Striking that balance remains work in progress and we should strive to get better.
Yeama Sarah Thompson