25 February 2013

Gambia: The Importance of Freedom of Expression to Development


The University of the Gambia's Social Science Club held a seminar on the 21st February, 2013, on the theme "the European Union's 17 points proposed political dialogue, merits and demerits" at the Brikama Campus on the 21stFebruary, 2013. Amadou Barry a student at UTG moderated the ceremony.

The invited guests included the Minster of Foreign Affairs Madam Susan Waffa-Ogo to dilate on the "Future of Gambia-EU relation" upon EU's request for the Article 8 political dialogue and the Minister for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, Dr. Momodou Tangara who was expected to expound on the topic 'impact of article 8 political dialogue on Gambia's Sovereignty'.

Halifa Sallah dealt with the topic "EU's 17 points proposed political dialogue, the merits and demerits".

Mr. Gibairu Janneh,the Secretary General of the Gambia Press Union (GPU) harped on the topic "importance of Press freedom to national development".

However, The Minister for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, Dr. Momodou Tangara and the Minster of Foreign Affairs Susan Waffa-Ogo, did not turn up because of official engagements.

In this edition, we publish the full text of the paper presented by Mr Gibairu Janneh, titled "THE IMPORTANCE OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION TO DEVELOPMENT". Mr Halifa Sallah's presentation will be published in subsequent editions.


The importance of free expression as a basic and valuable characteristic of society cannot be underestimated. One of the difficulties inherent in discussing freedom of speech is that it contains what is often described as the paradox of freedom. The classical exposition of this paradox was described by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty in Utilitarianism Etc: London (1910) p 83

"... there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it might be considered."

In other words, unless the enemies of freedom possess the liberties which they are keen to abuse, then we deny the essence of what we ultimately stand for and are therefore no better than those to whom we are opposed. Or as Voltaire has been paraphrased,

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

On a more practical plane, freedom of speech serves many functions. One of its most important functions is that decision-making at all levels is preceded by discussion and consideration of a representative range of views. A decision made after adequate consultation is likely to be a better one which less imperfectly mirrors the opinions, interests and needs of all concerned, than a decision taken with little or no consultation. Thus freedom of speech is important at all levels in society. Yet it is most important for government. A government which does not know what the people feel and think is in a dangerous position. The government that muzzles free speech runs a risk of destroying the creative instincts of its people.

Freedom of speech is also important to government because when criticisms of a government are freely voiced, the government has the opportunity to respond and answer unfair comments and criticisms about its actions. On the other hand, when freedom of speech is restricted, rumours, unfair criticism, comments and downright falsehoods are circulated by word of mouth. These have a habit of spreading across the length and breadth of the country through conversation and surreptitiously circulated writings. The government is in no position to answer these views, because they are not publicly stated. It is in a government's interest to have criticisms in the public arena where it can answer its critics and correct its mistakes. The government generally has access to electronic and print media far in excess of individuals and groups. It is able to present its view only if the opposing views are in the open and known.

Therefore,, the freedom of speech is the single most important political right of citizens, although private property is required for its operation. Without free speech, no political action is possible and no resistance to injustice or oppression is possible. Without free speech elections would have no meaning at all. Policies of contestants become known to the public and become responsive to public opinion only by virtue of free speech. Between elections the freely expressed opinions of citizens help to restrain oppressive rule. Without this freedom it is futile to expect political freedom or, consequently, economic freedom. Thus freedom of speech is the sine qua non of a democratic society.

Freedom of speech involves toleration of a great deal of nonsense and even of matters which are in bad taste. As Justice Douglas of the American Supreme Court, who have argued for near absolute freedom of speech and against the restrictions based on many of the common exceptions puts it. In Roth v US 354 US 476 (1957) a case about obscenity, Justice Douglas said in dissent:

"The test of obscenity the Court endorses today gives the censor free range over a vast domain. To allow the State to step in and punish mere speech or publication that the Judge or jury thinks has an undesirable impact on thoughts but that is not shown to be part of unlawful action is drastically to curtail the First Amendment."

Why does freedom of expression and freedom of the media matter?

Before focusing on the importance and role of a proper legal framework, we may need to reiterate a few things about why freedom of expression, freedom of the media matter.

Human rights are the foundation of human dignity, freedom, justice and peace. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights laid out equal rights for all people and three fundamental principles governing human rights: rights are universal, meaning that rights apply to everyone whoever or wherever that person is; inalienable, in that they precede state authority and are based on peoples' humanity; and indivisible in that all rights are of equal importance.

The UDHR was also intended to provide a common framework and understanding across nations for preventing the religious, racial, political and sectarian strife which plagued humanity throughout its history, culminating in the Second World War. This idea is forcefully expressed in the preamble of the UDHR, which explicitly mentions freedom of speech and beliefs together as the highest aspirations of the common people.

Expression and Information are two sides of the same coin.

At its very first session, in 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59(I) which states: "Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated."

ARTICLE 19 considers freedom of expression as a cornerstone right - one that enables other rights to be protected and exercised. The full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression is central to achieving individual freedoms and developing democracy and plays a critical role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty.

It makes electoral democracy meaningful and builds public trust in administration. Access to information strengthens mechanisms to hold governments accountable for their promises, obligations and actions. It not only increases the knowledge base and participation within a society but can also secure external checks on state accountability, and thus prevent corruption that thrives on secrecy and closed environments.

If people are not free to say what they want, to disseminate information and expression their opinion on matters of political interest, and to receive information and ideas from a variety of sources, then they will not be able to case an informed vote or to participate in governance in other ways. The right to freedom of expression and freedom of information are also key in any system for protecting and promoting the enjoyment of all other human rights - whether civil or political rights, or economic, social and cultural rights.

The guarantee of freedom of expression applies with particular force to the media. The European Court has consistently emphasised the "pre-eminent role of the press in a State governed by the rule of law" and has stated: "Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.


For ARTICLE 19, freedom of expression (FoE), including access to information (FoI) and a free press, is a fundamental human right. The full enjoyment of this right is the most potent force to strengthen peace and pre-empt conflict. It is central to achieving individual freedoms and developing democracy and plays a critical role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty[1].

ARTICLE 19 sees and approaches freedom of expression as a cornerstone right or, to use Donnelly and Howard's categorization, 'empowerment' right - one that enables other rights to be protected and exercised. It allows people to demand the right to health, to a clean environment and to effective implementation of poverty reduction strategies. It makes electoral democracy meaningful and builds public trust in administration. Access to information strengthens mechanisms to hold governments accountable for their promises, obligations and actions. It not only increases the owledge base and participation within a society but can also secure external checks on state accountability, and thus prevent corruption that thrives on secrecy and closed environments.

More specifically, freedom of expression and freedom of information is absolutely critical to achieving and sustaining poverty eradication and human rights, for the following reasons:

1. Development, poverty and the rule of law: The achievement of the MDGs, and successful development in general, relies on an enabling legal and policy environment in which freedom of expression, access to information and an independent media are respected and can thrive. These require developing and adopting freedom of information laws, decriminalizing defamation and putting an end to the abuse of defamation laws by those in power to stifle legitimate criticisms and investigative journalism, building constitutional guarantees to freedom of expression, vetoing or withdrawing of laws that repress the media, eliminating laws designed to exclude or marginalize certain ethnic, linguistic, religious or other minority groups in their efforts to compete in the marketplace on an equal footing with the dominant groups in society, including by setting up media outlets, removing discriminatory laws and practices which prevent women, among other things, from working as journalists, etc.

2. Development and the right to a say: If development is to be realised, people need the freedom to participate in public life, to put forward ideas and potentially have these realised and to demand, without fear of recrimination or discrimination, that governments uphold their obligations. The lack of effective voice of the most disadvantaged groups perpetuates inefficient, and sometimes corrupt, forms of governance and service delivery that keep the poor in a subordinate position. Freedom of expression allows individuals and communities the possibility of becoming active in the development process, thereby increasing its long-term suitability and sustainability.

3. Development and the right to know: The knowledge and experience of people living in poverty is often undervalued, and their perspectives on their needs and on solutions to their own problems are often ignored. Poverty eradication entails fundamental reforms to promote broader political participation, to ensure accountability and transparency of government, and to create a strong role for community groups in policy-making. It also requires ensuring that poor people have access to relevant information to take their own informed decisions and realise their rights. The free flow of information strengthens accountability and transparency, prevents corruption, and increases the capacity of community groups to participate to policy-making. As Dfid has argued, in societies where information flows widely and access to communication services is widespread, markets and government institutions are likely to become more efficient, transparent and accountable. The institutions and organisations that serve the poor and defend their interests can be more effective. Information and knowledge that are vital to the poor can be more easily and widely accessible[2].

4. Empowerment and Freedom of expression[3]: It is those communities most affected by poverty which are least able to impart and obtain information, especially relating to basic services. As a result, they are excluded from public debate and unable to influence decisions that have a profound effect on their everyday lives. The alienation of poor communities from the public sphere prevents them from being able to represent their interests at national level, rendering them vulnerable to misguided policy-making. Information empowers communities to battle the circumstances in which they find themselves and helps balance the unequal power dynamic between them and their governments. In a 2004 report issued by the United Nations Development Programme on democracy in Latin America, the authors argued that democracy must extend beyond the ballot box and be deepened through an expansion of 'social citizenship' and an intensification of efforts to combat poverty and inequality. Democratic reform should not only be focused on government but also tailored to create the mechanisms necessary for citizens to adopt an active role in public life.

5. Development and the media: The media has a specific task of informing the public; it can enhance the free flow of information and ideas to individuals and communities, which in turn can help them to make informed choices for their lives. A free and professional media, using investigative methods, plays a key role in providing knowledge and in giving voice to the marginalized, highlighting corruption and developing a culture of criticism where people are less apprehensive about questioning government action. Furthermore, development information and the role of the media is not restricted to mainstream models, but that there is an increasing role for alternative media and informal communications networks that need to be strengthened and included in any infrastructural development plan. In addition, the informational role of the media is of use to the public and to governments.

6. Corruption and freedom of expression[4]: The poor bear the greatest burden of the corruption, due in part to the lack of access to information about the acquisition and use of public funds which allows malpractice to continue unchecked. Corruption, broadly defined as 'the abuse of public power for private gain', allows inefficiency to persist and distorts the potential for growth. It discourages foreign investment and corrodes the budgets allocated to public procurement that enable basic infrastructure in poverty stricken areas to be built, such as roads, schools and hospitals. When corruption misdirects the assignment of unemployment or disability benefits, delays eligibility for pensions and weakens the provisions of basic public services, it is usually the poor who suffer most. In a corrupt society, the maximum resources available for public services and anti-poverty programmes can never be fully utilised because a percentage is always lost to individual gain. High levels of corruption both reduce the effectiveness of aid-funded projects and weaken public support for assistance in donor countries. Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and access to information laws, constitutes a critical tool in the fight against the corruption that is having a pernicious effect on development and the attainment of the MDGs the world over. If the public administration must publish regular accounts, including the particulars of specific deals that have been negotiated, if companies are forced to set out their side of the arrangement for public scrutiny, and business is agreed with the expectation that the details will one day come to light, the margin for corrupt activity is dramatically reduced[5].

7. Social and economic rights and freedom of expression: Access to information and freedom of expression are vital to effective strategies to promote and protect the right to reproductive and sexual health and to a sustainable environment.


A common justification for the restrictions upon the liberty of individuals is the supposedly overriding interests of efficient government and the public benefit. It is conveniently overlooked that what constitutes "efficient government" and "public benefit" are subjective concepts, the interpretation of which will be in the hands of legislators, bureaucrats and judges with human failings and feelings, lack of vision, imperfect knowledge and understanding, subjective views and personal prejudices. However, while public benefit is an important factor, the test for allowing restrictions upon free speech should strive to be somewhat more stringent. Legal restraints upon individual freedom of speech should only be tolerated where they are absolutely necessary to prevent infliction of actual harm or to secure the liberties of others. A more or less remote possibility that someone will be harmed or unbased claims that the stability of society will be undermined is not sufficient justification for legal prohibition.

A balance must be struck between the ability of individuals to be unrestricted in the free expression of thoughts and ideas, and the need to ensure that governments are able to efficiently carry out their function of administration, law and order, and preserving the rights of individuals vis-a-vis each other.

Paper Presented By Gibairu Janneh At a University of the Gambia Seminar - 21st February 2013

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