On Contextualising Freedom of Expression

In mid January, a media trainer at the Fojo Media Institute, Linnaeus University, asked me to participate in a project dubbed “Freedom of expression: around the world in eighty days”. It is a project whereby, some twenty four journalists from countries as diverse as Thailand, Sri-Lanka, Egypt, Lebanon, Zambia, Rwanda and others relate their own experiences (personal) and journalistic, to the theme of free speech or freedom of expression.

In mid January, a media trainer at the Fojo Media Institute, Linnaeus University, asked me to participate in a project dubbed “Freedom of expression: around the world in eighty days”. It is a project whereby, some twenty four journalists from countries as diverse as Thailand, Sri-Lanka, Egypt, Lebanon, Zambia, Rwanda and others relate their own experiences (personal) and journalistic, to the theme of free speech or freedom of expression.

I was requested to do a piece on “The strive for free speech or lack of it in Rwanda”. Embarking on this small project, I had a deep realization that given what I would be saying in my piece, a view point of sorts, it was important that I had to put across this context of free speech in a country like Rwanda.

I have interacted with media practitioners from different parts of the world. This brings out the realization that there is always need to put things into context.

And to always endeavor, when given the opportunity to explain that (historical) context, of a specific society or country in relation to different issues of global concern like freedom of speech or expression.

For example, I recall at a seminar, when the former publisher of The Toronto Star John Honderich told us something to the effect that that the law in Canada, in relation to media practice can just be summarized as: “The Media is Free.

PERIOD!” Of course he also elaborated on how ethics and such other related issues are enforced.

A number of people with the liberal western outlook, look at regulations in most developing countries in relation to media, as a way of curtailing freedom of expression, and protecting undemocratic governments from public scrutiny.

In a number of cases, that may obtain but at the same time, it is in my view, part of the conventional western neo-liberal way of life and thinking, that has steadily, over time, become the dominant, conventional and supposedly universal way of looking at issues, mostly of global nature.

This is also an opinion that has gained currency among many media practitioners in Africa. A good number of them have middle class out look influenced by western global dominance.

Simply put, they are trying to be politically/socially correct. So, this creates the necessity as stated above, to always bring out context and circumstances when one seeks to give a view point on such a topic as freedom of expression, and even in the wider perspective of society.

In my piece, I argued that given the history of our country, regulating the media is simply a practical necessity. But that is one thing.

In fact I believe that regulating would not even be necessary if all who are media practitioners clearly internalized the consequences of whatever they put out and exercised responsibility.

But we live in strange times where one can never know the intentions of everyone.

I also further argued that there is need to ensure that free speech does not degenerate into free hate speech. This, I believe does not just obtain for those in the media, but all citizens at whatever level, but most especially those we may regard as opinion leaders.

For example a pastor in church must exercise a great sense of responsibility when preaching. A teacher in class must always realize the full impact of his words before his students.

Free speech, must therefore, in the opinion of this column, be accompanied by a sense of responsibility. That, in the best case scenario, is a matter of common sense.

But as they say sometimes common sense is not so common. We witnessed that in the past and the utterances of someone aspiring to national leadership, have continued to make us believe so.

So as we listen to those peddling the line of people fearing to say whatever they want to say, we must understand where we have been and know that that same history has not only reaffirmed the necessity or regulating means of speech like the media, but also that Rwandans drew some lessons from that.

That they now, majority of them are busy doing what develops them and talking about plans for the future rather than indulging in divisive chatter and hate speech of yesteryears, that still remains in the words and minds of some who run away, after their criminality of 1994.

The hate talk of those who ran away from justice, continues on internet discussion boards under the illusion that Rwandans in Rwanda have time for that.

frank2kagabo@yahoo.com

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