OPINION: Freedom of Speech vs. Peace

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Freedom of speech - is enshrined in our constitution, by virtue of Section 25.

This right these days is very much in the news.

The answer is that free speech is indeed a fundamental right. But then, it is important to remind ourselves WHY, and to have reasons ready at our fingertips WHEN that right is called into question.

What is freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech, also called free speech: the right of people to express their opinions publicly without governmental interference, subject to the laws against libel, incitement to violence or rebellion, et cetera.

There is no place on the earth, that has utterly unregulated speech, the UK, and the United States included. Every country puts some limits on speech. Even in the US, which probably has the most robustly protected free speech in the world.

Section 25 of the 1997 Constitution, endorsed and approves the followings:

•           Freedom of speech and expression;

•           Freedom of thought, conscience, belief and academic freedom;

•           Freedom to practice any religion;

•           Freedom to assemble and peaceful demonstration;

•           Freedom of association, that include to join unions and political parties;

•           Freedom to petition the Executive for redress for grievances. Among other rights.

However, this list of rights is subject to the laws, henceforth – Section 25 sub (4), and it reads:-

“The freedoms referred to in subsections (1) and (2) shall be exercised subject to the law of The Gambia in so far as that law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the rights and freedoms thereby conferred, which are necessary in a democratic society and are required in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of The Gambia, national security, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court”.

So in essence the law gives those rights with the RIGHT HAND and take it back with the LEFT HAND ironically. I think defenders of free speech will agree with me that – free speech isn’t free –

In The Gambia, we also have freedom of speech and expression regulated in the Criminal Code – by virtue of Section 178 that defines LIBEL. These are printed materials that are intended to defame a person unlawfully published before the eyes of the law, is called “libel” and the offender is liable on conviction to a fine of not less than D50,000 and not more than D250,000 or imprisonment of not less than one year or both the fine and imprisonment. And Section 179 of the aforesaid code, also define defamatory matter – that is injurious, derogatory, contemptuous or insulting to a person’s reputation. It is immaterial as to whether the person concern is alive or dead.

Interestingly, there is sufficient freedom of speech for political activities in the political arena. This is the type of speech that most decent people are really concerned about. But you can’t LIBEL people or try to incite violence or hate speech others all under the guise of freedom of speech.

Hmmm! How does it reconcile with freedom of speech or immunity or privilege when an MP was kicked out of Common for the day for calling the PM “Dodgy Dave”. So National Assembly Members you have been warned. Suffice to say even NAMs don’t have the license to say things about you that you don’t like.

I believe strongly in free speech system that we have in The Gambia, but we cannot pretend that free speech is a victimless crime. While free speech may produce social good much of the time, but there is no guarantee that on balance it does more good than harm.

PEACE - on the contrary – means freedom from disturbance; tranquility. Better still peace on the other side of the scale can also mean a state or period in which there is no war or a war has ended. “We make war that we may live in peace” – Aristotle. “You either get tired fighting for peace, or you die” – John Lennon. Martin Luther King once said “Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace”.

Tellingly, all what we are saying is to give peace a chance. Without peace there cannot be any meaningful development, without development there cannot be justice, and justice and peace are said to be two sides of the same coin. Yes some will argue that, we cannot separate peace from freedom, but we want a freedom that comes with responsibility. Peace is a reward in itself, so making peace and maintaining peace is everyone else’s business. “Our peace shall stand as firm as Rocky Mountains” – William Shakespeare.

However, The Gambia is at a cross-roads, if we traded peace for freedom of speech or if we sacrifice peace at the expense of free speech that will tantamount to a universal or national suicide. And in a universal or national suicide, there is no winner.

Sadly, if free speech cannot defend itself in free debate, but rather in the courtroom, then it isn’t really free speech at all, it is just a fancier version of the right of a smoker to smoke, and the right of the public not to be victims of passive smoking.

What freedom of speech does not cover?

Freedom of speech does NOT mean that a person can say whatever they want to say. Freedom of speech means that someone’s right to say something is protected within certain limits. A person may have to suffer the consequences for saying something, but they still have the right to say them. Now the question is does it worth, facing the consequence or does it worth the trouble after saying something that you think is your so called right. I think President Mugabe is within his right when he said “freedom of speech is guaranteed, but what is not guaranteed is freedom AFTER speech”.

The argument isn’t complete without defenders of free speech conceded something that most speech advocates don’t like to admit:

Free speech does do harm; and indeed it does a lot of harm.

Victims of “hate speech” suffer as much as or even more than victims of hate crime. A system that tolerates “hate speech” is probably a corrupt system, but defenders of an absolute right can’t pretend that no one gets hurt.

Thus, in a climate of free intellectual exchange, hateful and bigoted ideas are refuted and discredited, not merely suppressed and condemned.  

The position of Islam on freedom of speech

In order to unite mankind, Islam instructs us to only use speech to be truthful, do well to others, and be fair and respectful to others.

The Quran instructs people to speak the truth (33:71), to speak in a manner that is best (17:54), and to refrain from inappropriate speech (4:149). Islam only encourages freedom of speech, if the intention is to serve a good purpose. However, if our intentions are to insult others or to promote disorder or division, we should refrain from it.

The position of Christianity on freedom of speech: Romans 12:17-21

17 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay”, says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his heads. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”.

“An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind” – Mahatma Gandhi.

True freedom of speech must have boundaries set by standards that define what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Those standards being established, penalties must be imposed upon those who violate them.

Common sense should dictates that, if any man’s freedom of speech imposes harm on another, then it is not the freedom that is defined in our Constitution. If any man’s use of his freedom of speech intends to bring another man down, then we have the right to rise up and say that is not the kind of speech that we will tolerate.

Let’s us not allow few small-minded bigots (intolerants) destroy the good image of our country. Though, not every bigot is a conservative (old-fashioned) and not every conservative is a bigot.

Good luck may the law be with you.

Author: Kawsu Jadama