British lawmaker and Professor of Political Philosophy, Lord Bhikhu Parekh, once wrote: “Although free speech is an important value, it is not the only one. Human dignity, equality, freedom to live without harassment and intimidation, social harmony, mutual respect, and protection of one’s good name and honour, are also central to the good life and deserve to be safeguarded.”
Lord Parekh added: “Because these values conflict, either inherently or in particular contexts, they need to be balanced.”
When Lord Parekh stated those words, it is like he had anticipated that Ugandan activist, Stella Nyanzi, would be charged with cyber harassment for referring to Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, as a “pair of buttocks” on her Facebook account. Now, due to the fact that this is an ongoing case, I will refrain from discussing the contents of the alleged posts.
What I will do however, is make my point that freedom of speech cannot be used as cover to bring into disrepute anyone’s name; not the person of the president, or the average citizen. I hope to make my case by referring briefly to two closed cases in Kenya; a 2014 case concerning Robert Alai, and a 2015 case concerning Alan Wadi Okengo.
In December 2014, Robert Alai, a Kenyan blogger, was charged with undermining the Kenyan presidency after he sent a tweet which in part referred to President Uhuru Kenyatta as an ‘adolescent president’.
The following year, another Kenyan, Alan Wadi Okengo, was found guilty by a magistrate court for using his Facebook account to insult President Kenyatta, and for saying that members of the Kikuyu ethnic group should be confined to certain parts of Kenya. In Kenya, such insults are unlawful under section 132 of the Kenyan Penal Code.
Nonetheless, if I may, let me put a pin in the legal mumbo jumbo for now and assess whether there is ever a case for using the right to freedom of speech to insult the person of the president or the average citizen. I will ask: is it not possible to successfully protest without inflicting damage on someone else’s human dignity, president or not?
To understand the two opposing arguments we must first appreciate the overall paradigm of democracy and its principles. This is because, at its most basic, democracy refers to a process of political authority or legitimacy, and the way of conducting the affairs of a political community that it implies.
Therefore, democracy, which stands for the view that citizens collectively are the source of political authority, offers all citizens the right to speak in the name of the community, including taking binding decisions.
In addition, in a democracy, it can be argued that the will of the people is the sole source of legitimacy, and their well-being is the sole basis of laws and policies which are enacted through representation in parliament or its equivalent.
However (and this is where it gets interesting), as we have witnessed in the past, there are times when this democratic process breaks down and we feel that our views have not been properly represented either individually or collectively.
An example of this breakdown is when members of the civil society or independent citizens put to task a government for not delivering on simple basic services.
Inadequate provisions of education services, healthcare services, and so on, are some of the reasons why a stand-off between the government as a collective, and individuals or civil society, may occur.
But, here is the thing; while I agree that in an open, democratic society, freedom of speech is essential (including freedom to challenge the status quo) because it is one of the ways that societies are able to hold their leaders accountable for their actions, I greatly disagree with the notion that freedom of speech should be granted no matter how vulgar, profane or distasteful a particular form of expression may be.
Take for example, Okengo’s statement which suggested that members of the Kikuyu ethnic group should be confined to certain parts of Kenya. Upon close examination, such a statement qualifies as ethnic discrimination – something that can evolve to a more serious outcome.
And on the matter of insulting the person of the president, this isn’t just wrong because of the Office in question, it is wrong because it puts into shame one’s good name and honour.
Forget politics for a second, insults traded online or not, are profane and should be dealt with accordingly. This is because; I find it necessary that a society looking to have constructive open-minded discussions on various matters including sensitive ones, should avoid making room for threats, abuse, or insults.
Also, a civilised society shouldn’t be too quick to want to defend the rights of individuals expressing vulgar language at the expense of recipients as if those recipients (whether in the wrong or not) have no right to human dignity. I do not find this course to be constructive or fair.
To sum up, while I strongly believe that principles of democracy such as freedom of speech are important for the good of many societies, failure to manage the balance between free speech and protecting the dignity of others can only do more harm than good.
In many cases you will find that insults achieve little except to earn one a jail sentence.
In essence, I stand by the belief that we should all be able to freely scrutinise and comment on whatever we feel concerns us, but only on condition that our dissent does not infringe on the rights of the next individual, including human dignity.
Let us encourage being responsible the same way we encourage the right to speak.