Freedom of speech: the right we love to deny others


 By Njundu Drammeh

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light’ Plato
Since the advent of New Gambia, one of my most cherished freedoms is the ‘freedom of speech’, the right to say or write what the law permits and often even what is not permitted, without editing and without fear of the midnight knock or picking by the nefarious and ubiquitous NIA or the much dreaded ‘Junglers’. Visit Facebook or Serre Kunda Market or any public gathering and you would confirm my assertion. Gambia is marching forward.

However, this seems to be a right we love only for ourselves, not for the other person. We can say or write what we want, without inhibition. But the moment someone has a dissenting opinion, palatable or not, we are up in arms. We vilify, castigate, lampoon, deride, insult, put down or counter in the most vociferous tone. We are right and everyone else is wrong, dead wrong. Yaya Jammeh was the only one with the right opinion; all of us were dead. Now we have New Gambia and ‘I am the only one right and all else wrong’….


Unless we put equal worth or value on every opinion; unless we give equal to every opinion in the market place of ideas, we may never find durable solutions to our problems. Harold Laski advised that there is a ‘peculiar evil’ when we try to silent the expression of an opinion for we rob humanity of the opportunity of exchanging error for the truth. If the opinion is ‘wrong’ the people lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

If every voice and opinion should count, then we must subject every opinion to scrutiny, at the market place. There cannot be sacred cows. The holiest of men cannot be admitted to posthumous honour until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed” says J.S. Mill. Jefferson swore eternal hostility ‘against every form of tyranny over the minds of men.’ Voltaire was willing to defend to his death a man’s right to say anything even when he absolutely disagreed with it. People are better governed by truth and reason and for democracy to better succeed all avenues that lead to the discovery of truth must be left open. In the words of J. Williams Fulbright: “We must learn to welcome and not to fear the voices of dissent. We must dare to think about unthinkable things because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action become mindless.”

One of the ways to gauge the enjoyment of freedom of speech is the presence of intellectual freedom, the space environment created for intellectuals to engage in academic debates and criticisms. The denier of this right to the intellectual is the intellectual himself or herself. I see the intellectual using the latitude and liberty of his or her pen or keyboard to vilify and cast aspersion on the dignity of people who disagrees with him or her or commit an insignificant error of fact or judgment. Their languages are always vitriolic and acidic. Yet, I reckon their acerbic remarks smack of fear, of the inability to read between the lines or see the woods for the trees and dilate on issues as they are, uncoloured by academic cants, rhetoric and literary gimmickry.

Since the intellectual shapes opinions, nurtures the mind for academic exercise and helps direct national development efforts, they should show themselves as examples of courtesy, civility and liberality. The basis of civility is respect for others and for self. Acting or behaving otherwise is, by every standard, unethical and un-intellectual.

Intellectuals should argue on issues, with open and analytical minds and open to alternatives. They should not attack personalities or pour their spleen or venom on the unimpeachable dignity of others. Intellectuals should not try to win scores or points, and are not expected to engage in sophistry. Intellectuals should examine issues as they are, uncoloured by academic pedantry, polemics or snobbishness. Intellectuals should enlighten as a fulfilment of their social responsibility, not as an aid to climb a social or political ladder. Intellectuals should appeal to the serious side of people’s minds, excite and awake in them passion and interests that are or were dormant and give them new leases of life. Intellectuals have the capacity to grasp complex issues and reconcile opposite and diverse views and opinions and yet hold their heads high.

Development is not linear and no single idea or opinion has birthed a realistic, achievable development roadmap. It is from the melting pot that great edifices are hatched. Thus, it is important we always remember that greatness lies not in being strong but in the right use of strength. That power-educational or otherwise-without responsibility is the prerogative only of the ‘weak’. It is important we always remember that life is not about keeping scores. It is not about the titles, honours and grades that one has won or the many marks and scars that one has sustained in the battlefield. Life is not about killing a fly with a sledge hammer or huffing and puffing at every issue that is not even worth the brass button on one’s coat. Life is about overcoming ignorance and respecting the opinion of people even if one holds them in contempt. Most of all, life is about using one’s pen and power to contribute to the intellectual and moral development of the group or nation one belongs to. These choices are what life is all about.

After 22 years of authoritarians, we have serious nation building to do and the intellectual will have to contribute in shaping and directing the route to The Gambia which galvanised the rich and the poor, the young and old, the man and woman to harness their powers and overthrew the dictatorship, at great personal cost and sacrifice. Thus, the job ahead is too great and the days are too bright for us to be bickering in the darkness of deadening competition and internal ego struggle.

‘What you hold to be true about the world depends on what you take into account, and what you take into account depends on what you think matters’. Susan Mark (The Riddle of All Constitutions)
Dictatorship is born the moment one thinks he or she is infallible or has monopoly of the truth.
Whose truth?