10 reasons freedom of expression is important

1. Freedom of expression is a foundation for many other rights

Freedom of expression is a human right and forms Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of expression covers freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and gives individuals and communities the right to articulate their opinions without fear of retaliation, censorship or punishment. (The right to freedom of expression wouldn’t be worth much if the authorities also had the right to imprison anyone who disagrees with them.) An effective media also depends on the legal basis that freedom of expression gives the right to function and report freely, sometimes critically, without threat or fear of punishment.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute right: it does not protect hate speech or incitement to violence. That said, many other rights which are intrinsic to our daily lives build on and intersect with this protection for free thought and individual expression. Freedom of expression covers everything from satire to political campaigns to conversations in your own home. It’s a fundamental human right which allows for citizens to speak freely and without interference.

2. A free press helps inform the public

Knowledge is power. In print, on line, or on TV or radio: without a free exchange of information, people can’t be fully aware of what’s going on around them and so can’t meaningfully participate in their communities or democracies.

Local and national reporters, bloggers and news outlets can keep people informed about what is happening in the world around them. Freedom of expression is the legal underpinning which allows people to access information about current events and matters of public interest – whether that’s from large media companies, local newspapers, or from each other through citizen journalism and social media.

When freedom of expression is respected and recognised the media are able to freely report on politics, economics and societal events as they occur.

3. Informed voters = stronger democracies

A democratic society hinges on the people being able to hold informed opinions and express them – both in voting booths and more broadly in their day-to-day lives. It’s important that people are able to ask tough questions of the people in power and find out about decisions which affect them and their fellow citizens.

Freedom of expression is a core value in the democratic process. It ensures people are able to discuss, exchange, and debate ideas. This human right allows individuals and communities to find information which is important to them and share it with others, without censorship or reprisals.

Through the media and through public debate – on and offline – freedom of expression supports the development of informed citizens and voters.

4. Fairer elections = more, better democracy

If you don’t know all the facts: how do you know who to vote for? To vote for the candidate who best represents your own views, you need to have accurate information. Elections give huge amounts of power to individuals, parties and institutions, so it’s crucial that the media are able to report accurately and critique the work of people who hold office – even when it is unflattering.

In the run-up to elections the importance of the media is amplified. However, often in the run-up to elections, powerful individuals and institutions aim to affect votes by influencing or restricting the information people receive from the media.

Freedom of expression is crucial to the process of participating in a democracy. It influences everything from newspapers to social media posts and campaign adverts. By allowing voters to make their voices heard and make educated choices about the topics which matter to them, freedom of expression strengthens democracies.

5. Discovery of truth

It’s crucial to quality journalism to be able to ask difficult questions, follow interesting stories, query inconsistencies and report accurately on the issues. By dedicating time, energy and skill to finding out what’s going on in the world around us, a free press is able to bring important information out into the public arena.

Accurate information is of huge importance to public debate: forming shared values and influencing policies at local, national and international levels. Investigative journalism is one of the most public-facing ways of sharing new information. Freedom of expression supports and protects the press’s ability to freely research and report in the public interest.

6. An independent press can hold powerful interests to account

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Independent reporting shines a light on sometimes-hidden topics and provides crucial checks and balances on powerful people and institutions. While an accurate press is not always flattering, it is crucial to hold the powerful and wealthy accountable.

Public attention creates scrutiny and is a disincentive for corruption or human rights abuses. The truths that quality investigative journalism uncovers can topple governments, alter international policies, and improve human rights standards internationally.

A strong, independent media ensures transparency and helps reduce maladministration. Freedom of expression protects the rights of reporters, bloggers and news outlets – and the general public – to speak critically.

7. Without freedom of expression: reporting is restrained

Truth or danger? In places where freedom of expression is not respected the media face a choice: self-censor or put yourself at risk.

When the media cannot accurately tell the whole story, it’s impossible to achieve balanced, high quality journalism. In countries where the media are pressured to only report on things which align with the ideological or political framework: journalists are forced to self-censor. Some do not report the full story, while others choose to report on other, ‘safer’ topics instead.

While some brave journalists continue to report on topics regardless of censorship, and often risk fines, legal cases, prison sentences or violence.

A respect for freedom of expression is an essential element for a functioning and accurate media.

8. Freedom of expression gives a platform to other human rights

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it: does it make a sound?

If human rights are abused and no one knows: how does anyone stop it?

Freedom of expression underpins a wide variety of other human rights both directly and indirectly. It can shine a light on human rights abuses such as torture, LGBTI persecution and interference with indigenous peoples’ land rights. Without accurate reporting many human rights abuses would not be known about, and might continue with impunity. Freedom of expression allows people to tell their stories, help advocate, and hold governments to international human rights standards.

From access to information to freedom of assembly: freedom of expression allows for active participation in civil society and for that civic engagement to be heard. From petitions to boycotts, from public protest to collective organisation for workers’ rights – freedom of expression facilitates action and allows events to be reported on. A robust media – of citizens or news organisations – can act as a public watchdog, bringing important issues into the light. Because if no one knows: no one cares.

9. Marginalised and minority issues heard

Marginalised and minority voices are, by definition, more likely to be left out of mainstream discussions. Freedom of expression guarantees individuals and groups the right to tell their own stories, without censorship or fear of attacks. Improved representation can help improve understanding and opens to the door to creating better discourse and a more connected society.

Freedom of expression helps a wide variety of marginalised causes and voices to be heard: from workers’ rights to women’s rights, disabled or LGBTI communities, ethnic and religious minorities, economically disadvantaged groups, age groups, and many more.

The right to freedom of expression also guarantees people the right to speak their opinions even when they are unpopular or go against the status quo: from ecology issues to disaster relief to speaking critically of how services such as care homes are run. Freedom of expression ensures people can advocate for themselves and others.

10. Art, academia, comedy and more: freedom of expression protects more than just the press

Freedom of expression doesn’t begin or end with journalism. From academic study to political satire to fine art: freedom of expression underpins the right to analytical, critical and artistic engagement with the world around us.

Being able to think freely, discuss and debate ideas and points of view is integral to academic study – from the arts to the sciences. To develop ideas which help us better understand our past, present and future it’s essential that individuals, groups and institutions can put forward opinions, concepts and theories without fear of repercussions.

From stand-up comedy, and satirical cartoons to literature, theatre and the visual arts: freedom of expression is a cornerstone to creating a healthy and vibrant arts culture.