Is freedom of speech a basic human right? It might seem obvious to you that freedom of speech is a good thing, even fundamental to the idea of democracy, but it isn’t always so simple. What if the person speaking is inciting hatred or, by speaking, is infringing on the human rights of others? Who gets to decide what limits there should be on freedom of speech, particularly in our global society with the ability to instantly communicate with people across the globe through modern technology? The notion of freedom of speech, often synonymous with freedom of expression, has historical roots in the West. In 1689 the English Bill of Rights was passed granting freedom of speech in Parliament after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
This overthrew James II and established the ultimate authority of the institution you see behind me. However, one really important example of the challenges that freedom
of speech poses is much more recent: the case of apartheid South Africa. Apartheid was a political system of racial and ethnic separation entrenched by the white nationalist party governing South Africa from 1948 to 1994. In the country’s first democratic election the African National Congress was elected as the majority party and it has remained in government ever since. After 1994, the new government drafted a constitution including a bill of rights that’s been praised as one of the most progressive in the world.
Clause 16 states: everyone has the right to freedom of expression. Which includes, freedom of the press and other media, freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity, academic freedom, and freedom of scientific research. It also warns, however, that this freedom of expression does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm. The Constitutional Committee was determined to ensure that human rights violations such as those perpetrated under apartheid would never be allowed to reoccur.
In the late 1990s the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known as the TRC, exposed the extent of these abuses when survivors and families of victims testified to the atrocities they’d experienced under apartheid, but the TRC also granted perpetrators of violence a public platform, because their applications for amnesty were conditional on ‘full disclosure’. They thus had the opportunity to draw attention to what they’d done and what they believed. Two key South African figures in the 20th century, Nelson Mandela and Steven Biko, were subjected to human rights violations as a consequence of their beliefs. What can we learn from these examples and how are they related to questions of freedom of speech and expression?
Mandela was first arrested in 1962 and incarcerated for 27 years before being released unconditionally in 1990. He subsequently became the country’s first black president. At the famous Rivonia trial, where Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting acts of sabotage, in 1964, he expressed his views in a long statement from the dock where he spelled out his non-racial philosophy for all people to live in harmony. It was an ideal for which he declared he was prepared to die. The African National Congress of which he was a member had already been banned and it was made a criminal offence to possess or display a photograph of Mandela, or even to quote his words.
The figure of the man himself was virtually erased from view, even as his legacy lived on. Today, his inspirational life and ethos of reconciliation are recognised in this statue of him in London’s Parliament Square. Steven Biko, a black community leader, was arrested under the apartheid State’s detention without trial measures in August 1977. He died whilst in police custody a few weeks later. He’d been beaten, tortured and left for 24 hours without medical attention before his death. Biko was the key proponent of the Black Consciousness movement, urging black people to uphold their personal and collective dignity. The then Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger famously declared that Biko’s death left him cold.
Both these extraordinary humanitarian leaders who shared a vision for a future in which all people would be equal, regardless of their race or gender, were silenced. Their freedom of expression removed, through bannings and incarceration and, in Biko’s case, through death. The media and especially the mass media play an important role in communicating and circulating ideas in the public sphere. Documentary films of Nelson Mandela’s life memorialise his famous speech from the dock and attest to his experience of incarceration replicated in fiction films such as ‘Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom’. Richard Attenborough’s feature film ‘Cry Freedom’ embeds Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness philosophy within its plot when Biko played by Denzel Washington is called to give evidence and defends his philosophy.
The film was banned in South Africa but it allowed Biko’s un-gagging on the international stage. Documentary and fiction films based on the proceedings of the TRC have extended these debates on freedom of expression, human rights and forms of justice. The freedom of expression clause in South Africa’s Bill of Rights is a measured and rational response to a traumatic experience of apartheid. It enshrines the basic human rights of all people and is an example for countries and people across the globe. The question remains, however, as to the forms of public platform we should allow in the often irreconcilable circumstances of human rights violations such as those in apartheid South Africa.