By Foday Samateh
I once reviewed a book on media persecution in The Gambia and titled the piece “Freedom of Expression is Forbidden Here.” With the fall of the despotic rule a year ago, what was once a fight for idealism has become a reality. A glance at the media landscape on any given day will show that freedom of speech is not only an acclaimed right, but the most asserted in the exercise of or demand for other rights.
How is it going so far? Exactly as should be expected. Like democracy itself, freedom of speech is always a beautiful concept but hardly a harmonious affair in practice. A nation of diverging views on just about anything from the government to individual rights and liberties is sure to be bursting with conflicting opinions. Those who share the same opinions reinforce one another’s stance on issues, if they aren’t already bound by ideological or organizational alliances. And those who hold differing opinions are considered wrong or, worse, suspected of harboring questionable motives.
At the moment, there are four broad distinct groups among the multitude of voices speaking out on the happenings of the day. Those who waged what was dubbed “the struggle” against the despotism and now set their gaze of vigilance on the new government in case it proved itself faithless rather than faithful to the hard-won republican project. Those who had also been on the frontline of the struggle and now enlisted themselves as the sentinels of the new order defending it against critics and detractors. Those who had been silent when it was perilous to speak out, but now found their voice to assert their citizenship. And those who had defended the despotic rule when it denied democratic rights, and now exercise their own newly-acquired democratic rights to still glorify the dark days as blissful time in the country. All other voices overlap to some extent with the sentiments of these four.
It goes without saying, decorum is a wistful expectation in a democracy. The people being the sovereign, entitled to a say in who govern them and on what terms and conditions, posits that the people are the ultimate decision makers. But just as it’s impractical for the people in their entirety to rule themselves, thus necessitating the need for a representative government, the people as a whole can hardly, if ever, form a consensus on any issue. Therefore, republican rule requires that, in most instances, the majority stand for the whole. This is especially true in elections and public opinion, the two greatest sources of legitimacy for governing authority and government policy. Majority is the metonymy for the people in a democracy. To prevail in elections to run the government and set the national agenda, one has to be in the majority. But a majority’s existence implies the same of a minority who enjoy all the rights to take part in the process of forming a majority. There is also the simple fact that no majority has the right to remain the majority. Today’s majority can become tomorrow’s minority or can give way to a new majority. And those in a majority on one issue can simultaneously find themselves in the minority on another issue.
To gain power, a party of like minds must go up against rivals to win over the majority in an election. Once they got elected, the victorious party’s next political preoccupation becomes holding onto power. And to be successful in that goal for any length of time, they must persuade the majority to stick with them as the better choice for the country compared to the rival parties. The parties in opposition striving to defeat the incumbents at the polls will do the same: trumpet their own merits and denounce the ruling party as a colossal failure, a total disaster for the country. The fight for power is waged primarily through freedom of expression in the media and other public forums like political events. With each round of partisan clash, the rhetoric escalates in posturing, pandering, parsing, piety, sanctimoniousness, hyperbole, half-truths, untruths, mendacities, obfuscation, character attacks, smear campaigns, slanderous allegations, factionalism, regionalism, tribalism, sectarianism, you name it. This constant acrimonious competition for power — in which anything goes so long as it can stretch the meaning of freedom of speech to the very limits — to win over the majority is what makes democracy messy, noisy and contentious.
The restoration of democracy in the country has also been the rebirth of freedom of expression. On the one hand, a nation exercising their free speech rights is exhilarating. Nothing in all human ideals is more just, more natural, more democratic. For a devotee of democracy, the sight is a testament to freedom; the feeling, profoundly fulfilling. The right of citizens to express their thoughts about their own lives and the life of the nation plays second fiddle to only the right to life. It’s the most cardinal of all other freedoms. That’s why the fight for it isn’t only a duty, but an essential one. Any price paid for the cause is worth the cost.
Amid the euphoric celebration of the great virtues of free speech, we must, on the other hand, take stock of its downside. Divisiveness is inherent in the nature of free speech. Demagoguery is permissible. Propaganda makes it nefarious. And incitement renders it dangerous. Where to draw the line between what’s justified and what’s unjustified free speech has been for centuries in the past and will be for centuries to come a bitter contention. The Courts do help by delineating the parameters of constitutionally sanctioned speech. Though the verdict of law stands until it is repealed or overturned by a supervening law, the controversy in the public domain often remains. Generally, opinions about a speech come down to opinions about the speaker as much as about the content of the speech itself. For instance, Fatou likes the speaker and therefore likes the speech. Mariama dislikes the speaker and therefore dislikes the speech. Rarely, though, Fatou likes the speaker, but dislikes the speech; or, Mariama dislikes the speaker but likes the speech. On those rare occasions for Fatou, the speaker disappoints because (1) the speaker reneges on a pledge that Fatou supports (but Mariama opposes), (2) the speaker criticizes Fatou’s side of the political divide or (3) the speaker praises Mariama’s side (which Fatou opposes). For Mariama, the speaker surprises for the same reasons, hence she, unlike Fatou, likes the speech if not the speaker.
With the exception of those exceptions, the nation’s politics rumbles with partisan noise and rancor. The partisans are fighting to win over the nation — the majority actually — to determine the country’s future, if only for a time. Nothing else explains the speeches, debates, spiels, bickering, name-calling, insults, screaming matches, spewing of nonsense, disinformation, defamations, innuendos, exaggerations, doom and gloom pronouncements, paradisal perorations, claims of a government hard at work, counter-claims of a government clueless at the helm, the appeals to give the government more time to put things in order, the vows to give the government no more pass on anything, etc. Did I mention that freedom of speech is always a beautiful concept but hardly a harmonious affair in practice?
It speaks to the beauty of democracy that anyone can speak their mind. At the same time, it speaks to the problem of democracy that anyone can speak their mind. A nation of great minds and narrow minds, cool heads and hotheads, compassionate hearts and vindictive hearts, all enjoying free speech rights, will experience the blessings and the curses of democracy. This is true for our republic as it’s for any other republic.