All over the world today, both in developing and developed states, liberal democracies and less free societies, there are groups who struggle to gain full access to freedom of expression for a wide range of reasons including poverty, discrimination and cultural pressures. While attention is often, rightly, focused on the damaging impact discrimination or poverty can have on people’s lives, the impact such problems have on free expression is less rarely addressed.
We are not talking about the classic examples of challenges to freedom of expression where repressive regimes attempt to block, limit and inhibit across a population as a whole. Rather we are looking at cases where in both more and less free societies particular groups face greater barriers to free expression than the wider population. Such groups can often be denied an equal voice, and active and meaningful participation in political processes and wider society. Poverty, discrimination, legal barriers, cultural restrictions, religious customs and other barriers can directly or indirectly block the voices of the already marginalised. How much do these barriers and lack of access to freedom of expression matter? A lot – as the examples below tell us.
Why is access to freedom of expression important? Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It also underpins most other rights and allows them to flourish. The right to speak your mind freely on important issues in society, access information and hold the powers that be to account, plays a vital role in the healthy development process of any society.
The lack of access to freedom of expression is a problem that particularly affects the already marginalised – that is, minorities facing discrimination both in developed and developing countries, from LGBT people in African countries, to disabled people in Western Europe. While the scale of their struggles varies greatly, the principle is the same: within the context of their society, these groups face greater barriers to freedom of expression than the majority. If they are unable to communicate their ideas, views, worries and needs effectively, means they are often excluded from meaningful participation in society, and from the opportunity to better their own circumstances. In other words, discrimination is one of the core elements of unequal access to freedom of expression.
Access to free expression is also vital both to support the development process and as a development goal in its own right. The connection was perhaps most famously put forward by Amartya Sen in his widely cited book — Development as Freedom — where he argued that expansion of freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development
It is striking to note the way in which cultural and religious customs are sometimes used to clamp down on various minorities’ rights to expression and assembly in many countries around the world. Human Rights Watch’s latest world report states that “traditional values are often deployed as an excuse to undermine human rights.” One example of this is the caste system still in place in countries including India, Nepal and Pakistan. This is culturally-based discrimination on a major, systematic scale. A significant proportion of the Dalits, (lower-caste people, or “untouchables”) are barred from participation in public life and have a limited say in policies that directly affect them. In May 2008, the Dalit community in the Nesda village in the state of Gujarat attempted to stage a protest after being excluded from the government’s development funds allocation, by refusing to fulfil their historic “caste duty” of disposing of dead animals. The dominant caste in the region promptly blocked the protest through a ‘social boycott’, forbidding any social or economic interaction between Dalits and non-Dalits. This is only one example of Dalit’s being barred from having a say in development matters directly relating to them. When they attempted to stage a peaceful protest, they were only further marginalised, and their weak economic, social and political position further cemented. It’s a vicious cycle.
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