By Dr. Austin Maho
The sine qua non of any democratic society is freedom of speech and the freedom of the means of exercising free speech.
It is the norm in a democracy that people are free to hold and express even the most obnoxious and absurd views without let or hindrance by the state.
The beauty of democracy is that those who hold contrary views are equally allowed to express their views openly.
Freedom of expression is the bulwark and basis of any democratic society. The underlying philosophy of freedom of speech in a democratic society is rightly expressed in these Voltairean paraphrases:
“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
“Think for yourselves and allow others the privilege to do so too”
The underpinnings of freedom of speech is equally hinged on the free market principle which holds that in a free market place of ideas and opinions, the best ideas will always prevail.
It is for this reason that prior restraints is always frowned upon.
Consequently any law that seeks to curtailed freedom of speech in a democratic society is not considered as law.
This is because without freedom of expression or the rights to lay before the public domain our thoughts and feelings we have no real freedoms or democracy, what we are left with under such situation is authoritarianism, despotism, tyranny and repression.
In a democracy sovereignty resides with the people and government fear the people because they draw their power and authority from the people.
As Thomas Edison said: “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”
In Nigeria today do government fear the people or the people fear the government?
Is the basic ingredient of a properly functioning democracy, which is freedom of expression not being eroded with the swift ban of Twitter; plans to prosecute users of the platform under an unknown law and the proposed new regulation and clampdown on other social media platforms and the broadcast media?
Perhaps before we go further we should ask ourselves why has the American government been unable to place a ban or proscription on the activities of racist and hate filled White supremacists groups like the neo-Nazists, the KKK, QAnon and others who frequently use social media to propagate hate, fuel conspiracies and incite their members?
The answer is constitutionally enshrined. A close look at the First Amendment rights or bill of rights in the US constitution shows that there is no freedom of speech limitation or exception.
This was recently affirmed in a US Supreme Court Judgment in the case between Matal v. Tam (2017) were the Justice Samuel Alito held that:
“The idea that the government may restrict speech expressing ideas that offend…strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate”.
The same view was express by Justice Anthony Kennedy who held that:
“A law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an egregious form of content discrimination which is presumptively unconstitutional …instead; our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society”.
In the United States freedom of speech and the means of expressing them is expressly protected against prohibition or restriction or at the whim of the US President.
This explains why the United States and several European countries have always been wary of some provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial discrimination, ICERD, because the balance always tilt in favour of freedom of expression and the need to safeguard free and open discussion of any issue. Freedom of speech is the pillar on which other societal freedom rests.
It is impossible to have free citizens without freedom of speech.
Any law that seeks to curtail freedom of expression is antithetical to the norms of democracy hence there is always a careful balance between freedom of expression and the need to protect public decency and national security or to protect the Tweet of a petty despot.
National security issues must not be conflicted with issues of free speech. In a constitutional democracy like ours the rights enshrined in section 39 of the 1999 constitution should be revered.
In these fractious times the government must resist the urge to trample on the rights of citizens. Trying to silence those who are exercising their rights of freedom of speech using any platform of their choice must be denounced and resisted.
It is ludicrous that after two decades of unbroken democracy we are on reverse gear in promoting the basic rights of citizens. President Buhari’s bruised ego and those fanning it are not bigger than Nigeria!
Nigeria operates a constitutional democracy based on the rule of law we are free citizens and not subjects of an imperial leader.