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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Freedom of speech


In the past few days, a lot of the discussions in the country, especially on social media, have been about the invitation by the Gambia Police Force of one Mr Alhagi Bora of the Kerr Fatou Media platform, to answer questions about comments he made during a show. It is reported that he made statements which were seen as incitement to violence and therefore violated laws on freedom of speech.

Many rights’ defenders have raised concerns that this action of the police is a form of censorship and thus violates the rights of the man, as he merely expressed his opinions even if they seem unpalatable to some. Some people see it as a slow return to the days when no one could say anything against those in power without some repercussion. They say that this is a way of muzzling of dissent and therefore inimical to democracy. 

Some of those who agree with the action of the police on the other hand, believe that freedom of speech is not absolute and that when someone makes certain statements which have the potential to disturb the peace, it is necessary for the authorities to question him/her in order to understand the intentions of the said individual. This, they say, is to ensure that there is no breakdown of law and order.

Both these views have some merits in them, but every case has to be viewed independently to see whether or not a line has been crossed. It is only then that one can decide and put mechanisms in place to safeguard the interest of the public. In doing that, or any other thing by state actors, care must be taken to ensure that the rights of all are protected.

Safeguarding public interest and protecting the rights of all individuals requires walking a very tight rope which can seem blurred sometimes. Analysts will say that where the rights of one individual end is where the right of another begin and therefore in exercising one’s right, one has to keep the rights of others in view as well.

It is extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, to police thoughts. One cannot in any way or form police the thoughts of people. That is why it is mostly futile to try to control the opinions of people. If they air their opinions/thoughts which cannot disturb the peace, then it is better to ignore them.

If the state or its agencies do not agree with such opinions, let them counter them in a similar manner. In that way, the public is given the opportunity to weigh it and form informed decisions. This is actually the main thrust of the idea of free speech in a democracy.

The question is: who decides what incitement is and what is not. Is it the police or the courts? If it is the courts, then the police can only seek the mandate from them and not hold an individual for long without arraigning the person in front of a court of law.

It must be remembered that is the bedrock of democracy. Having a free media and citizens being able to express opinion on national and international matters.

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