‘Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress and for each individual’s self-fulfilment’ (Robertson G. , as cited in Petley 2009). The growing concern caused by possible abuse of censorship in modern societies has raised numerous debates in regards to an appropriate balance between censorship and freedom of expression.
This essay will argue that notwithstanding the fact that liberty of speech should hold a central place in today’s world in order to be consistent with democratic values and public interest, nonetheless this right can never be absolute due to possible repercussions resulting eventually in possible social chaos. Therefore, government’s interference in some cases is necessary to not only preserve the balance against certain rights, but also to comply with general duties involving responsibility for national security, protection of its citizens and prevention of public disorder or crime within the country.
The scope of this essay will focus on defining censorship, analysing its function and most common forms as well as examining possible justifications and consequences of imposing restrictions on the public’s freedom of expression. Censorship gives governing bodies the right to not only control exchanged information, opinions and ideas but also allows to examine different forms of communication including but not limited to, press, TV, radio broadcastings or Internet, usually in pursuance of suppressing objectionable or offensive material.
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This right has inevitably been a hallmark of authoritarian regimes throughout the history where absence of democratic values makes it easier for government to impose repressing conditions on citizens (Petley, 2009). The Most effective form of controlling undesirable contents was prevention from ever being produced at all, what would probably be met nowadays with a wide objection across democratic countries (Petley, 2009). Censorship though is still present and exercised across different societies where expressions can often be circumscribed because they are deemed obscene, unpatriotic or immoral.
From critical point of view imposing too many restrictions on a public’s right to free speech will create an intimidating environment which eventually under such pressure incline citizens to restrain themselves and discourage from a freedom of expression (Petley,2009). While this kind of suppression would seem conflicting with the values of a free country, it must be noted that certain issues are worthy of censorship and action is needed to be taken in order to provide appropriate protection to society as a whole.
However, from historical point of view as well as today’s events surrounding censorship, it can be derived that very often authorities have tendency to abuse restraining power without having appropriate justification for their actions. The most common areas affected by excessive censorship are press, media, art and literature. These things are responsible for shaping people’s views, providing information and influencing public opinions.
Considering that neither democracy nor freedom can be preserved without keeping the public properly informed, press nonetheless can be harmful not only for national security but also young impressionable citizens (Petley,2009). Therefore, governments should act in accordance with its duties to protect the citizens and maintain stability in the country. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as often their power is abused by exercising censorship in extreme forms.
For example intimidation of journalists is common and an increasing problem nowadays in developing countries which is one of the concerns conflicting with an appropriate execution of the law (Petley, 2009). Although some argue that press is essential during the times of fear and crisis in order to keep the public informed about current situation, authorities often use different forms of intimidation to prevent journalists from investigating events, such as in war zones, by excluding them, harassing or even attacking (Petley 2009).
Destruction of art and literature as well as prohibition of publishing and accessing certain types of works are yet other examples of inappropriate and overused censorship infringing public’s right to know. Presented approach of misused right to censor results in impairing the flow of information, repress important data, and restraining disagreement (Graber, 2003). However, in the light of today’s claims for freedom of expression the question arises though when censorship could actually be considered appropriate and justifiable?
The most problematic part of censorship is probably determining what deserves to be censored in the first place. As much as the use of censorship can inevitably be abused, it is also possible for speech to cross the line and express offensive or harmful intent which shows that there are situations in which society could actually benefit from certain restrictions. Although in order to justify imposed restrictions there must be reasonable grounds for it (Petley,2009). The problem must clearly be seen as a threat or danger to the individual, certain groups or society as a whole.
Some opinions or ideas can be identified as threatening, immoral or offensive and as a result seriously affect a wider group of people which makes it difficult for governments to avoid censorship in such an instance. Hate speech is one of the examples where freedom of expression needs to be appropriately regulated not only to protect minorities from serious racial hatred and prejudice but also to avoid acts of violence being a possible response to such behaviour (Petley,2009).
Another problem arises at times of war, where free press is considered to be essential in keeping a public informed about current situation, although government must then act to protect sensitive information about military missions or anti-terrorist operations, from the enemy. In this case ‘the fewer people with access to state secrets the better’ (McMullen, 1972). Some standards regarding the censorship and freedom of speech are therefore needed to protect society.
Thus Article 10 of Human Rights Act states that while freedom of expression is a foundation of a democratic country, the exercise of these freedoms must be subjected to certain restrictions regulated by law in order to ensure public safety, national security and protection of individual rights of people within the society. The censorship inevitably meets with abundant objection in democratic societies, however this essay has shown that there are some exceptions where imposing restrictions is essential to protect citizens.
It is for government to comply with duties it has towards the public to ensure that appropriate and justifiable actions are undertaken. The abuse of neither the right to censor nor free speech can be exercised within the democratic society. Therefore the appropriate approach for balancing censorship with a freedom of expression should be undertaken where free speech should be used in civilised and logical way and censorship imposed only where absolutely necessary
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