Long time ago terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris ignited a debate on freedom of speech and of expression.

One side argued that these freedoms have a red line that should not be crossed, while the other maintained that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gives an open door to any form of boundless free speech and expression.

Let me first say, that the wise woman (Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the widow of President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States) and wise men who drafted the UDHR were very well intentioned but committed one assumption; that it was obvious to any right thinking individual, while applying article 19, that reason, conscience and common sense would always prevail without being specified in the article.

It is clear, therefore, that if article 19, is considered as a dogma and looked at in isolation of other provisions and intent of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, then this creates a short sighted assumption that freedom of speech and freedom of expression have no limits. For example, article 1 of the UDHR says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. The fact that ,human beings have reason and conscience, it helps to use them in all aspects of their lives, including personal judgment of the purpose, intent and possible actions and reactions of the application of free speech and free expression, hence the complementarity of the two articles.

For purposes of comparison, let us again consider article 24, of the same declaration which says; “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”. If this article was lifted and applied literally by contractual employees, some would for example, abscond from work any time they wanted claiming that article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives them the right of unlimited rest and leisure!

Come to think about what happened in Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. A musician Simon Bikindi, a journalist Hassan Ngeze who wrote the infamous Hutu Ten Commandments and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza (RTLM), in a case that was commonly referred to as “the hate media trial” were sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to more than 30 years in prison each for the words that they said, sung or wrote.

The trio claimed that they exercised freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Their conviction, trial and sentencing by the ICTR, was evidence that even the International law recognises that there is a red line while exercising freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

The UDHR is neither a law nor a dogmatic code of conduct. It is a document that states basic rights and fundamental freedoms to which all human being are entitled. The provisions of the UDHR serve to form the general human rights principles over which individual nations align their domestic legislations regarding basic rights and freedoms.

Media and human rights watchdogs and activists have conveniently misinterpreted article 19, which does not in any way endorse the content of free speech and expression.Furthermore, there is a misinformed perception that freedom of speech and expression disregards national laws.

There is a common belief today that the genuine collective pursuit of the common good, universal justice and human rights, regardless of diversity inform of culture, religion, race, colour, society values etc, has been eroded by hypocrisy, greed, individualism and moral deficiency.

It is obvious that when freedom of speech and expression is abused it is likely to create social disorder, violence and in extreme cases death of innocent lives as was the case in Rwanda in 1994.


Gerald Mbanda is a member of Pan African movement.
Twitter: @GeraldMbanda

The Express News Rwanda


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