From 15th May 2020 till 15th June 2020, EMPOWER Malaysia organised an essay competition for aspiring writers aged 13 to 23 with the theme “The Freedom to Express Myself without Fear”. This essay highlighting the danger and fear in response to the freedom of expression is written by Gina Nicole Fernandez, aged 18. Her entry was one of the Top 20 essays chosen in the competition.

The concepts of freedom of expression and fear are incredibly subjective. Freedom of expression has to be in accordance with the law. There are various laws in a majority of countries that are imposed on speech, behavior, etc., causing freedom of expression to have limits, thus making the term “freedom” itself pretty redundant. For example, many countries have laws against defamation. Hence, this establishes that no one has total freedom of expression.  This is also probably for the best, as sometimes, total individual freedom has to be sacrificed in order to prioritize the betterment of society as a whole.

However, some countries tend to exploit their power and impose unjustifiable restrictions on self-expression in order to control the narrative and criminalize any form of criticism. This has been incredibly evident in communist regimes and also in some democratic regimes. This is a critical issue that needs to be more heavily prioritized by media outlets, supranational organizations, and world leaders.

Fear in itself is a choice and an illusion, we choose to fear certain things, for example I could be deathly afraid of moths, while others may simply view them as harmless creatures. In the context of freedom of expression, some people may simply fear those who disagree with their point of view and label that as online harassment or trolling. When we choose to express ourselves freely, we must accept that there is bound to be a reaction whether that be a negative one or a positive one. Let’s establish one thing, our freedom to express ourselves cannot overrule another person’s freedom to do the same, even if that means getting trolled online, as hurtful online comments are in fact part of freedom of expression.

A Nazi sympathizer may tweet things that support his beliefs and be met with a plethora of online attacks. He may argue that he cannot freely express himself as he fears facing harassment online but is that necessarily a bad thing? He is entitled to express his views as long as it is in accordance with the law in his country and those attacking him online are also equally entitled to express their views whether that is with slanderous words or productive discourse.

However, what should truly be considered is freedom to express ourselves without danger. Danger is real; it’s not a choice or an illusion.  Danger is defined as the possibility of suffering harm or injury. We should be able to express our opinions without being subjected to physical attacks. Death threats are not simply a fear but in fact are dangerous as there is a possibility of real physical harm and injury, however death threats seem to be so incredibly prevalent on social media in response to self-expression that it is deemed offensive by the masses. It is common for politicians, political commentators and activists to receive death threats online.

For years, we have seen many activists being subjected to threats of physical harm and facing actual physical harm for expressing their views. Whether it be Malala getting shot in the face by the Taliban for fighting for women’s rights to education in Pakistan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali receiving constant death threats for her views on religion. This is what I am truly concerned about in regard to self-expression. 

I want to be able to state my opinions without the possibility of being beaten up or killed and I want this not just for myself but also for all others around the world. I want for my fellow women around the world, to fight for their rights without being brutally beaten and murdered, as true progress is halted when violence is introduced. Many activists are continually silenced by threats of violence and this often leads towards many important movements being demolished.

Danger in response to freedom of expression is something that will continue to exist and may never be fully eradicated, however, we as a society need to try our best to do what we can to stop it. We should not sit idly by when we see people receive death threats online. Whether we agree or disagree with that person’s opinion, we should instead report these comments. We should also recognise when we ourselves perpetuate this type of behaviour and seize to make these sorts of threats of physical harm online in response to opinions we deemed offensive regardless of how enraged we may feel.

In extension to the real world, governments and lawmakers should try their best to implement a policy that helps safeguard the ability for people to express themselves freely without danger and protect activist that fight for important issues.

World Leaders and influential people also need to set an example, if we have world leaders and other various influential figures abusing their power and threatening others who go against their opinions or who criticize them, with harm and injury, this will once again trickle down to everyday people and make it seem to them as though that type of behavior in response to opinions they don’t agree with is justifiable.

In conclusion, when fear leads way to danger, is when true concern should arise.

The views, opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EMPOWER Malaysia.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

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