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Why freedom of expression is critical in the human rights and governance discourse - IGDzw

Why freedom of expression is critical in the human rights and governance discourse

Why freedom of expression is critical in the human rights and governance discourse

Often times, words or expressions such as fundamental freedoms, democracy, human rights and governance are used interchangeably as though they refer to one concept. Undeniably, these terms are related to the enjoyment of democracy and good governance. In this article, I argue that freedom of expression is critical for both the realisation of human rights/democracy and a product of the entrenchment of the same. By this, I mean freedom of expression can be an ingredient to democracy, good governance and human rights or a product of the same. To make my argument easier to glean, I first look into the meaning of freedom of expression as it is understood in the human rights and democracy discourse. I will show how the concept is an ingredient to the enjoyment of democracy and human rights and lastly how it can be a product of the two.

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression ‘refers to the ability of an individual or group of individuals to express their beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and emotions about different issues free from government censorship.’, (Freedom Forum Institute 2020). That individuals and groups can express themselves without fear of victimisation in the aftermath of their expression is enshrined in many democratic constitutions in the world. The United States of America, often referred to as the paragon of democracy in the world, has what is known as the First Amendment which guarantees fundamental freedoms. According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, the First Amendment

‘protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of of expression from government interference. It prohibits any laws that establish a national religion, impede the free exercise of religion, abridge the freedom of speech, infringe upon the freedom of the press, interfere with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibits citizens from petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances’.


This first amendment was adopted into the Bill of Rights in 1791. Students of history will remember that the first amendment was adopted some 15 years after the US had gained independence from Great Britain. The discrimination against black citizens which culminated in the Martin Luther King inspired revolution for equality shows some challenges with the constitution and its implementation. The revolution reflects that, despite having a bill of rights that guarantees fundamental freedoms, some Americans were being treated as more equal than others. Critically important is the fact that the First Amendment served as a shining example for upcoming democracies like that of Zimbabwe.

The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the media in section 61. This constitutional provision protects citizens from state censure should they criticise, rebuke or disapprove state programs. In the same section, there is a prohibition from inciting public violence and hate speech. The question that now needs to be addressed is whether freedom of expression promotes democracy and human rights or it comes after the attainment of the two? The two examples cited above serve to answer this question.

What comes first between freedom of speech and democracy/human rights?

This question might seem straight forward to some legal minds and political scientists, but it requires some analysis. I say so because some countries have attained democracy/human rights first before allowing citizens to freely express themselves. By the same reasoning, some countries have also stressed on freedom of speech as an engine to stimulate the realisation of democracy and human rights. There are other countries in between the two sides of the continuum that have constitutions which guarantee freedom of speech but there have been problems with implementing the provisions of such freedoms.

As I said earlier, the USA is regarded as the paragon of democracy in the world. This is so because when it gained independence in 1776, its constitution was generally democratic. As time progressed, the constitution was amended to fully recognise fundamental freedoms. In 1791, 15 years after independence was attained, the first amendment was adopted to promote freedom of speech and democracy. A closer look into this development will show that even though America promoted the freedom of speech and other freedoms in 1791, it would take America some 200 years to fully recognise freedom of speech, assembly, religion and democracy/human rights in general. When Martin Luther King rose to demand equality between black and white Americans, he formed  the civil rights movement that demanded the real enjoyment of democracy and human rights from 1955 onwards. His famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963 remains true to the demands of equality, freedom of speech, assembly and religion. It is important to note that technically, America was not democratic in practice by this century. There are developments that happened between 1791 and 1955, or ‘critical junctures’ as Acemoglu and Robinson like to call them in their famous Why Nations Fail book. The industrial revolution which originated in Great Britain would spread to America to spur economic growth and development. This critical juncture transformed America from a promising emerging country to a fully developed country. When Martin Luther King rose to prominence, America was already developed. With some form of inclusive political and economic institutions, It became easier to demand a fully democratic America that respects the rights of every citizen. With this In mind, it can be argued that development came first, then the institutionalisation of democracy and lastly the enjoyment of freedom of speech and assembly.

In the global South, Zimbabwe prides itself of having a democratic constitution that respects fundamental freedoms and human rights. What is problematic is the implementation of that constitution. To argue that once Zimbabwe realises its own version of ‘critical junctures’ to spur development, freedom of expression will be recognised is not remote in the circumstances. In a developed Zimbabwe, the freedom to express displeasure against the government will not result in arrests and detention without trial as we have witnessed in Hopewell Chin’ono’s case. That claim would however be a betrayal of the principle of globalisation. The world is now connected, nation states must move together in economic, social and political development. America may have followed Rostow’ five stages of development, with stage five being a democratic and human rights stage, Zimbabwe is certainly not following that path because of globalisation.

In conclusion, the intricacies discussed above make freedom of speech an interesting discourse in the democratic and human rights disciplines. However human rights are entrenched in the society, citizens must feel safe to express their will, thinking and disapproval of certain developments in a country. Apprehending those who decide to speak against a certain way of doing things must not be admonished in this era.



Constitution of Zimbabwe., 2013. Available at;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Ny/RV=2/RE=1599849834/RO=10/ [Accessed on 11 September 2020].

Egemenoglu, E., 2020. First Amendment, Cornell Law School. Available at [Accessed 11 September 2020].

Freedom Forum Institute., 2020. What is Freedom of Expression, Freedom Forum Institute. Available at  [Accessed 11 September 2020].


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