The right to free expression

The right to free expression

Let’s talk about the right to freedom of expression specifically in relation to politics.
In my opinion, the right to freedom of expression is exceptionally pivotal in creating a democracy where the state and its organs are held accountable.

The limitation of this right must be minimised and absolutely justified to ensure that there is no irrational censorship of the citizenry.
Instead, citizens must be encouraged to express themselves and constructively criticise the leadership.
This is especially relevant in the social media era where leaders are able to interact with citizens directly and by assessing their popularity from statuses on users’ profiles.

Smart leaders capitalise on these technological advances by not only predicting the effect of their campaigns during election time but by also improving their strategies to increase the number of votes.
But is it possible to cross the line? Our cultural background as Africans encourages young people to respect older people without any reservation.

It may be a cultural shock for many to hear someone in their 20s making disparaging comments about people in leadership whereas in western countries it is the norm.

In some African countries speaking negatively about leadership is still frowned upon and even prohibited by law.
The extensive election discourse on social media last week highlighted the stance of Lesotho on freedom of expression.
Regardless of the profanity used towards leaders on various media and social media platforms during this time, the political climate still offered an open environment where citizens could express themselves without fear of incarceration.

This is something to be proud of when you consider that the Ugandan activist Dr Stella Nyanzi got arrested for referring to President Yoweri Museveni as “a pair of buttocks” in a post she made on Facebook.

Her comment followed the failure of the government to follow up on the promises they made during election campaigns where they vowed to offer free sanitary towels to schoolgirls once they were elected.  Leaders must be held accountable for commitments made during campaigns since that forms the basis to which the electorate make their decision.

Failure to adhere to promises prompted Dr Nyanzi to challenge leaders on misleading the electorate on an issue that affects millions of girls who miss school on a monthly basis due to lack of sanitary towels.
Despite her right as a citizen to question these circumstances, the government charged her with cyber harassment and offensive communication.

In other words, according to the laws of the country, she crossed the line. Technically the limitation is justifiable because it is a legal sanction through legislation.
The limitation of the right to freedom of expression emanates from its conflict with other rights or offences such as defamation and its ability to cause harm to society.

Some comments have the potential to alarm and create divisions amongst citizens who are loyal to political parties regardless of whether offensive comments are true or false.

Research indicates that the main motivation of voting for one political party over another is loyalty rather than approval of policies or belief in the party’s ability to change one’s life.
The decision is based on emotions and not rationality. Support is based on how people identify with a political party and this is developed by family and social influences.

This deeply rooted identity with political parties strengthens resistance to change.
In extreme circumstances, loyalty to one party can evoke aggression amongst the electorate particularly during election time in an effort to defend the political party from bad reputation.

As a result, the freedom of expression must be exercised with caution. This must go beyond the parameters of politics.
Recently, some pupils’ acceptance into Harvard University was revoked after their conversations in a group chat on Facebook was discovered.

We have also heard that potential employers peruse the profiles of job applicants on social networks to determine the personality and lifestyle of applicants beyond the CV and motivation letter which are not always accurate.
Therefore, prudence is required in deciphering what is appropriate for the public.
Nevertheless, human rights violations cannot be acceptable, and a democratic state should provide an environment where citizens can criticize the leadership without fearing for their lives.

Conversely, citizens have a responsibility to exercise their rights wisely. Social media platforms provide public information that can be extracted and interpreted or misinterpreted by anyone.
This demands a holistic assessment of shared information to avoid any form of harm or disrepute.

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