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The Right To Freedom Of Expression

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

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Freedom of expression is intimately connected with other human rights because it enables public scrutiny to curb the excesses of potentially repressive governments. It cannot exist, side by side with violence; yet violence makes Its absence hard to detect. After all, there is little need to imprison political opponents if they are too frightened to speak.

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Several Eastern European countries have made substantial advances in freedom of expression over the past five years - most notably Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Before the revolution in Czechoslovakia most media were controlled by the state. But once the revolution got going official newspapers began to report openly. People sometimes bought five newspapers each. They listened to the radio and watched TV constantly, so as not to miss any news. Slowly reporting became more factual, although comment was scant.

In March 1990, Parliament amended the 1966 Press Law to allow all adults the right to publish periodicals. And today censorship is forbidden. Diversity of opinion has burgeoned. The press has expanded massively with 25 new newspapers and magazines registered between December 1989 and January 1990 alone.

In June 1990, the first free parliamentary elections for 44 years were held, involving 22 political parties. The growing freedom of expression has been accompanied by a relaxation of physical oppression. Critics of the regime who were imprisoned have been released and the death penalty has been abolished.

A more open press has also emerged in Hungary since 1989 when the first independent daily newspaper was launched in the south. Books are no longer censored. The state monopoly on radio and television has been abandoned. And in 1990 Hungary held its first free elections since 1947.

Namibia has liberalized fast since 1988 when it was decided that South African and Cuban troops would leave the country. Exiles have poured back in their thousands and in 1989 more than 710,000 Namibians elected a National Assembly to draft the country's first constitution. Independence was declared on 21 March 1990, and the human-rights guarantees in the new constitution generally meet the basic international human-rights standards, including a liberal attitude towards freedom of expression.



Burma (Myanmar) has been in turmoil since 1988, when more than 3,000 civilians were killed by Government troops during student-organized protests for democracy. Despite severe restrictions on the freedom of speech and assembly, 233 new political parties were formed in the run-up to an election which resulted in a huge victory for the country's biggest and most vociferous pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy. However the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was then placed under house-arrest and the military government continues to rule through martial law.

Repression is intense. Suspected political dissidents are tried by military tribunals. Meetings of more than four people are banned. Overnight travel outside an individual's own town must be reported to military authorities.

Political freedom is practically non-existent, and the written press, television, and radio are owned and controlled by the military. Those accused of anti-government activities face one of three sentences: three years' imprisonment, life imprisonment, or death.

For many years before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein's Government had brutally repressed members of opposition political groups (Shias, Kurds and their sympathizers).

Thousands were jailed, tortured or executed, and many more were exiled to Iran. The Iraqi Government dropped chemical weapons on its own people to stop rebellions and destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages. The cruelty was extended to Kuwaitis after Iraqi soldiers invaded.

Nothing has changed since defeat in the Gulf War. Over 100,000 books are forbidden. Political singers have their songs silenced. And anyone who dares insult the President or the authorities risks life imprisonment, the confiscation of all their property - or death if 'the insult was flagrant and aimed to stir public opinion against the authorities'.

In Iran freedom of expression remains very limited, despite the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the succession of the more moderate President Rafsanjani. The only acceptable parties are those that support the regime or are apolitical. All media are censored, from literature to television and cinema.

Capital punishment is common, and those who commit illegal sexual acts, like adultery, prostitution, or homosexuality, are often publicly beheaded or stoned to death. Religious minorities experience terrible abuses of all their rights while women can be imprisoned, fined, or flogged for wearing 'improper' clothes.

Sources: Human Rights Watch World Report 1990; Information, Freedom, end Censorship World Report 1991; Third World Guide 1991-2, Montevideo; consultations with experts in the field.

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New Internationalist issue 229 magazine cover This article is from the March 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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