Singapore – Debates over freedom of expression have been at the centre of Indonesia’s decade-old democratic journey. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, similar issues feature prominently in ongoing political upheavals. These debates have been mainly domestic in scope, which is not surprising since all politics is ultimately local. Yet, there is something to be gained from keeping track of global developments in the area of freedom of expression.

Recently, we had the opportunity to be part of an international conversation on this topic. In September 2007, we were the rapporteurs for an informal seminar on freedom of expression organised by the Asia Europe Foundation (ASEF) in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

One of the key conclusions from that seminar was the bankruptcy of the notion of an Asian-Western divide over the principle of freedom of expression. Instead, there are many key ideas that cut across national boundaries.

It is clear that freedom of expression is not only an individual right but also an essential ingredient for societal progress. It is vital for development. The new global economic competition requires education systems that nurture open and creative minds – inconceivable without freedom of opinion and expression. It is also indispensable for democracy.

Governments cannot be truly accountable to the people without the scrutiny of independent media.

No freedom is absolute. It is legitimate to require that the individual’s freedom of expression be exercised in ways that take into account the rights of other individuals as well as public interest. People have a right to protect their private lives and their reputations, and no one has the right to incite hatred or violence. International standards allow restrictions on speech to uphold public order, public morality and national security.

However, such restrictions are frequently misused by governments to suppress legitimate speech and protest. Around the world, journalists, bloggers, artists and others continue to be victimised for their work. Any restriction on expression should pass three tests. It should be based on law rather than arbitrary action. It should serve aims that are recognised internationally as legitimate – which do not include the need to protect the position of those in power, and any interference with freedom of expression must be necessary and proportionate, unlike the all too common tendency of authorities to engage in overkill.

There is a global trend to combat governmental secrecy by guaranteeing access by citizens to official information. More and more countries in Asia, as elsewhere, are instituting freedom of information laws.

The “right to know” supports transparency and good governance, and counters official corruption. Such laws have been introduced recently in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Even Britain, from which some countries’ secrecy laws came, has embraced the principle of open and transparent government.

There is also growing awareness of the limitations of the free market and the profit motive in providing the amount and quality of information and ideas that society needs. The dominance of media corporations needs to be balanced with government policies in support of media diversity, including independent public service media and alternative grassroots media.

Finally, there is recognition that freedom of expression does not mean removing the state from the equation. Quite the contrary: the state is needed to uphold the rule of law. In many parts of the world, including here in Asia, government censorship is not the only or even the most serious threat to media workers and artists. Unpopular but legitimate speech is routinely attacked by non-government interests – including angry mobs – that go beyond vigorous complaint and use violent means to silence those with whom they disagree.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 60 years old last December – proclaims the principle that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It is time to put that ideal into practice. While it is far from being realised, there is today a deeper understanding of its importance and of how this human right can be secured for all. There is no single formula, but our interactions across the region convince us that people everywhere believe passionately in their right to speak their mind.

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* Kevin Boyle is a professor of law at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. Cherian George is an assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication of Information at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Jakarta Post, 7 January 2009, www.thejakartapost.com
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