Sometimes known as free speech, freedom of expression (FOE) has long been regarded as a fundamental right, essential to the realization of our full human potential, a foundation for other rights and freedoms and for social and economic development.
Often used interchangeably with “Freedom of Speech” and closely related to “Freedom of the Press,” FOE refers to the right of every person to hold opinions without interference and to be able to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds using any media and regardless of political frontiers.
Freedom of expression is a complex concept. It exists in balance with duties and responsibilities that affect both the sender and receiver of information. For example, most countries have laws against distributing hate literature and child pornography. In this case, FOE is limited because the content of the information may offend cultural norms or cause harm to someone.
You exercise FOE every time you state an opinion. In a coffee shop, you might say that the coffee is too strong. Or you might say that you prefer tea. No one is likely to prevent you from saying these things or threaten you. This is a simple situation, but when public comments address issues such as politics, religion, sexual orientation, race, gender, class, or ethnicity, some people might object.
Although there are internationally recognized limitations to FOE, some people try to use these laws as an easy excuse to actually limit legitimate FOE. For example, citizens legally protesting a government policy might be accused of spreading hatred against the government and then be prevented from voicing a legitimate complaint. It is the struggle to find a balance between citizens' rights to express themselves freely and the internationally acceptable limitations that fuels debates over freedom of expression.
Freedom of Information (FOI) is a related concept to FOE. It is necessary to ensure that all citizens have the full benefit of FOE. FOI is the right for all citizens to access information held by public bodies or state agencies, to examine it and to seek clarification if things seem wrong about the information.
This unit will help you to understand the concepts of freedom of expression and freedom of information and to identify the conditions favourable to FOE and FOI as well as potential threats. Finally, we hope this unit will encourage you to promote and defend FOE and FOI through practical action.