freedom of expression

Freedom of Speech in a democratic country

Dilhani Thantirimudalige

Freedom of speech is the standard of measurement of any democratic country in the world.

The index level of happiness and living standards of a country are based on the extent of how well freedom of expression is practiced. This fundamental essentiality was first introduced and practiced in ancient Greece as early as the 6th Century B.C. At the time, all Athenians, including philosophers and playwrights openly discussed/criticized religion and politics if they were found to not be in the best interests of the common people. However, the term “freedom of speech” has been taken out of context and given various forms of interpretation over different periods of time in human history.

Well established democratic countries such as United States of America, United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Switzerland all guarantee freedom of expression to their people. Some countries that don’t fare too well in terms of freedom of expression are those of authoritarian regimes, dictatorships or futile democracies like North Korea, Egypt, Syria, China and Pakistan.

The ideal condition would be for governments around the world to maintain a balance between freedom of speech side by side with law and order. Turning a blind eye to law and order to protect freedom of speech or curtailing freedom of speech to maintain law and order are not ideal conditions. Both must work together for the best interests of all under any government in power.

Bringing our focus now on Sri Lanka, one could observe that there is a consistent improvement in the area of free speech and free press over the recent years. Its ranking has steadily increased from 141 out of 180 countries in 2017, to 131 in 2018, and most recently to 126 on the World Press Freedom Index updated of 2019.

Article 14(1) of the constitution grants a citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression, including through publication. Freedom of expression is the absence of restraint upon the ability of individuals or groups of individuals to communicate their ideas and experiences to others. This also incorporates the right to hold public speeches, political rallies, performances, visual arts and even by way of a social media status update. However, these freedoms are subject to the rights of others and legal limitations, such as defamation, invasion of privacy, secrecy laws etc.

Digital media has brought new challenges and opportunities to Sri Lanka. It has flattened the hierarchies of communication and reshaped relationships between authorities and citizens. Access to various new technologies has made it possible for anyone to engage in public debate.

In this context, not only journalists but average citizens too can express their ideas on social media platforms by sending footage that is telecast, print, or broadcast to the world. This is essentially a part of self-expression which needs to be allowed and includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by the governing authority. At the same time, freedom of speech and expression can’t be absolute. People can’t cause violence, hatred, bigotry, and tensions to express themselves in the name of freedom of speech. This will ironically harm the very reason why freedom of speech is allowed in the first place. Freedom of speech should not lead to chaos in a country. The ban of certain social media platforms in April 2020 with the news of Corona in Sri Lanka was not because the government wanted to stifle democratic values but to prevent the spread of fake news and put a curb on artificial tensions in the country.

Debates and discussions continue about social media threats in a hostile and divided environment where information is in surplus and misinterpretation is thriving. The challenge at hand is to increase awareness and prevent the influence of e-violence while promoting freedom of expression.

The recent 20th Amendment was passed as a bill to the yet Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka raising serious concerns to the media community given that the media is the fourth pillar of democracy and plays the role of watchdog in the democratic process of the country. While acknowledging the continuation of the constitutional Right to Information (RTI) within Article 14A, it is necessary to emphasize that the core of RTI in Sri Lanka is the Right to Information Act, No. 12 of 2016 which established an independent Right to Information Commission and put enforceable procedures in place within Public Authorities for the exercise of that right. Journalists and citizens alike have enthusiastically used the RTI Act since 2017, making Sri Lanka a global role model of best practice.

In conclusion, every constitution that Sri Lanka was governed by has been known to protect the rights of free speech, expression, and publication. On the flip side, everyday life events tell a completely different story when it comes to taking full responsibility of protecting the rights of its citizens. There is a sense of fear that the media are yet not fully protected and are vulnerable to danger. Dr. Jorden tells us that ‘free speech is the fundamental problem-solving mechanism of humanity”. Thus 20th amendment or not, knowing that you are free to express yourself makes all the difference. Without the freedom to question, criticize, and challenge systems a country cannot make progress.

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References & Further Reading:

  1. https://www.globalmediajournal.com
  1. https://srilankabrief.org/2020/07/sri-lanka-human-rights-under-attack-lawyers-human-rights-defenders-and journalists-arrested-threatened-intimidated/
  2. “World Press Freedom Index.” RSF. Accessed 2020.https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2018. “2019 World Press Freedom Index.” RSF. Accessed 2020. https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table. “Sri Lanka.” IFEX. Accessed 2020. https://ifex.org/location/sri-lanka/.
  3. “Sri Lanka.” Freedom House. Accessed 2020. https://freedomhouse.org/country/sri-lanka.
  4. Fisher, Max. “Sri Lanka Blocks Social Media, Fearing More Violence.” The New York Times, April 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/21/world/asia/sri-lanka-social-media.html.
  5. “Sri Lanka: Will Impunity Ever End?: Reporters without Borders.” RSF. Accessed 2020.  https://rsf.org/en/sri-lanka.
  6. “Activities.” Sri Lanka . Accessed 2020. https://srilanka.travel/activities.
  7. Crawley, William, David Page, and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena. Embattled MediaDemocracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2015.
  8. “The Constitution of The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,” Accessed 2020. PDF.https://www.parliament.lk/files/pdf/constitution.pdf
  9. Marasinghe, M. Lakshman. “Recent Developments in Sri Lanka on the Freedom of Expression.” Verfassung Und Recht in Übersee / Law and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America33, no. 2 (2000): 157-75. Accessed 2020.jstor.org/stable/43238843.
  10. [ Whittaker, Zack. “Sri Lanka Blocks Social Media Sites after Deadly Explosions.” TechCrunch. TechCrunch, April 21, 2019. https://techcrunch.com/2019/04/21/sri-lanka-social-media-explosions/.
  11. [ Marasinghe, M. Lakshman. “Recent Developments in Sri Lanka on the Freedom of Expression.” Verfassung Und Recht in Übersee / Law and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America33, no. : Sri Lankan Police Refuse Protection to Journalists Threatened with Death: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, January 28, 2020. https://rsf.org/en/news/sri-lankan-police-refuse-protection-journalists-threatened-death.
  12. Wade, Matt. “Freedom of Speech Vanishing in Sri Lanka.” The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald, October 25, 2009. https://www.smh.com.au/world/freedom-of-speech-vanishing-in-sri-lanka-20091025-hepd.html.
  13. Sri Lanka: Flickering Hope: Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence in Sri Lanka. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa37/9715/2019/en/
  14. “President Calls for Strong Executive, Guarantees Democratic Freedoms for All Sri Lankans.” EconomyNext. Echelon Media, February 4, 2020. https://economynext.com/president-calls-for-strong-executive-guarantees-democratic-freedoms-for-all-sri-lankans-46103/.
  15. open-access/digital-media-and-freedom-of-expression-experiences-challenges-resolutions.php
  16. https://www.cpalanka.org/a-brief-q-and-a-on-the-proposed-20th-amendment-to-the-constitution/
  17. https://www.fmmsrilanka.lk/the-proposed-20th-amendment-to-the-constitution-poses-a-severe-threat-of-violating-the-freedom-of-expression-and-the-media-freedom/
  18. https://srilankabrief.org/2020/09/the-proposed-20th-amendment-poses-a-serious-threat-to-freedom-of-expression-media-freedom-in-sri-lanka-free-media-movement/
  19. https://economynext.com/sri-lankas-media-freedom-will-be-threatened-by-proposed-20th-amendment-fmm-73997/
  20. http://www.ft.lk/front-page/Nine-media-industry-bodies-raise-serious-concerns-over-proposed-20th-Amendment/44-706291
  21. http://www.dailymirror.lk/print/slide-1/NFF-Accurate-on-attrition-of-auditor-general-in-proposed-20A/329-198448
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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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