by Dr. Sakulen A. Hargura
“In a free state, tongues too should be free.”
Freedom of speech is a fundamental and an inalienable part of all constitutions penned in post-agrarian revolution era. So ingrained is the concept of free speech that to violate it is tantamount to dictatorship. All totalitarian regimes in the past began their control of the masses by muzzling the people, hence violating this right. Only by suppressing the truth and spreading the lies do dictators hold on to power.
Philosophers as well as leaders, more so political leaders, have struggled with the idea of free speech. For the philosophers it is about balancing the line where ones freedom of expression equates to infringing on the rights of another free citizen. Political leaders however do not concern themselves with the ideological concepts and debates but rather have always found the whole idea of freedom of speech wanting. The struggle, though hinged on the same idea, is worlds a part.
To the ruling class, there is only so much the common citizen can say before harming or defaming the leader. In a democracy it is about how truth is told while in a dictatorship it is about whose truth is told. To tell the difference is no rocket science.
However, in modern day democracies, more specifically in stunted African “democracies”, not only has threshold for defamation been set so low but the fibre of tolerance has also been lost to the winds of power. The term for gagging the free minds: Hate speech.
What is hate speech? Is it a form of defamation? Who decides that the words off a tongue contain in them the poison that is hate? Just how is a whole commission constituted to hunt for slanderers while a private citizen can simultaneously sue for defamation or character assassination? What assurances can the laws give that the same cannot be used to bar the free minds from speaking freely? Does truth, however unpalatable to those in power, constitute hate speech when revealed to the unsuspecting public against the will and wishes of corrupt leadership?
These are some of the many questions that go unanswered as many young activists are bullied with arrests on flimsy grounds of hate speech, sued for revealing the truth about those in power.
In the modern day world of super power states and bodies like UN that play the oversight role, outright dictatorship that ensues after a coup is discouraged (if not hindered) by the inevitable embargoes that then erode the gains such crazy leaders could derive from staying in power. The days when leaders attempted coups purely for public interest are gone. These days it is all about self interest or the interest of a third party (that heavily invests in the coup by oiling the war machinery of the soldiers on the ground).
The dwindling numbers of coups should not augur the notion that leaders have somehow lost the urge to cling to power once they set foot in the highest offices. It is not the craziness that is lost but rather the fear of repercussions that is forcing rogue, power-hungry political leaders to resort to less damaging ways to cling to power. It is just a matter of one age-old primitive feeling hindering open expression of the other. Many have perfected the art of modern day dictatorship, which mostly plagues developing democracies. Some otherwise developed democracies such as Russia, and lately Turkey, have also seen a fair share of this.
These leaders prosecute to persecute. They do not ban free expression but bring libelous suits to silence their critics, mostly activists, in the name of defamation. With money and power, they intimidate the critics. They also maximize on all opportunities to crash their opposition, including the free press (which is not loyal or perceived to be a hindrance). Erdogan of Turkey, for example, has filed over 2000 lawsuits for defamation and closure of multiple media houses, and caused the arrest of many journalists.
Our own leaders have recently resorted to these tactics to not only silence their critics but also curb free discussions regarding their corrupt deals. There is a commission (the NCIC) used to subjugate the voices of reason with words such as “hate speech” freely thrown around. The aim is obviously to drive fear into the hearts of activists, many of whom have no means to defend themselves against such law suits or even a possibility of an inquiry by a commission.
The repressive media bill by Kenyan parliament was also one such awful step in the wrong direction. It was an arrow tactfully placed in the quiver of the leadership that wants to defile our already malnourished, juvenile democracy. It set to lower the threshold for tolerance and fertilize the ground for totalitarian leadership to prosper. We may not be there yet, but all the ingredients are in the kitchen. The same tactics of fear-mongering to dissuade critical yet poor minds with hefty financial penalties have been used as a deterrent for the oppressed poor.
While there is no absolute freedom of expression, because of obvious violation of individual rights, the threshold for “hate speech” should be set high enough to accommodate the free unwavering minds and pens. Those in positions of power, more so political leaders, should be subjected to a much higher scrutiny since they are trusted with national coffers. Those that bravely wade in darkness to reveal truth that is of public relevance should not therefore be approached with “guilty until proven otherwise” attitude by the police or any other body that wields the power to investigate and prosecute. In fact, the law should set bar of tolerance way higher for criticism of those holding public office and the political leaders.
Sakulen Hargura is a medical doctor presently pursuing masters in surgery in Turkey. He loves to read, and writes poetry as well as a weekly opinion piece for the Marsabit Times.