Free speech and the lessons of history

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DEMOCRACY is the best form of government. Consequently, the most successful countries of the world are mostly democracies. These are countries that allow independence of thought and freedom of expression.

They do not repress individual rights to free speech in an attempt to protect the pretensions and follies of a privileged few. They allow every one, even the dregs of the society, a voice, and no individual, irrespective of his status, is above criticism and censure.

Central to the beauty of democracy is the jewel of democracy: freedom of expression. But paradoxically, free speech can be ugly. It has a loud mouth and can be harsh and noisy. It wields a big pen and can be obnoxious, unruly and caustic. It is, sometimes, intrusive, divisive and disruptive.

It has profaned the sacred, violated the sacrosanct and debased the exalted. But then, ironically, it magnificently serves the public good. It fosters equity and social justice by drawing attention to the travail and deprivation of poverty, exposing the indulgence and extravagance of affluence and railing against the excesses and arrogance of power. It elevates the people’s awareness and awakens their aspirations. It enlightens the mind, liberating it from timidity and fear and stimulates its creative energies.

That is, from the robust amplitude for espousal of contending and discordant interests and beliefs and the associated combative and acerbic debates and discourse inherent in free speech, a people’s collective mind is edified, their horizon enlarged, their freedom nourished and their progress ensured. Richard Goodman likened freedom of speech to a lobster, which he wrote: is a despicable scavenger of the sea, voraciously gorging the foulest refuse of the ocean floor, but ironically, from it comes the most succulent and priced seafood.

Over the years, that lamentable mix of oil windfall and irresponsible, visionless and financially reckless military rulers ran aground this stupendously endowed country and perverted the value system of a resourceful, talented and able populace. It made Nigerians insatiably greedy, incurably dishonest and shamelessly wealth conscious. It encouraged a vicious economic system that fosters the inordinate wealth of the elite few at the economic strangulation of the masses.

Potentially, democracy offers Nigeria so much. It is a wellspring of political stability, social justice and overall societal progress. If free speech is allowed to thrive, with time, democracy can significantly improve the quality of life for the majority of Nigerians and progressively enhance the standards of national morality and ethics and re-orient our distorted value system. It can, also, winnow and sift out from the political system political fraudsters, racketeers and freebooters that can only muscle their way into power through electoral fraud.

Unfortunately, freedom of expression has been under powerful assault from President Goodluck Jonathan. Although he postures as a democrat and said he holds the media in high esteem, he exhibits disquieting dictatorial tendencies. He is contemptuous of the right of Nigerians to peaceful protest and attempts to suppress the press. Earlier, in a move that repudiated every tenet of democracy and evoked depressing memories of military authoritarianism, the he rolled out tanks and deployed soldiers in the streets of a number of Nigerian cities to stop Nigerians from peacefully demonstrating against an unconscionable government policy. Recently, government sponsored thugs attacked “Bring Back our Girls’ protesters. They were protesting the administration’s negligence and ineptitude in the handling of the abduction of 250 Chibok schoolgirls and had conducted themselves in a civil and peaceful manner. The government finally banned the group from future demonstrations about the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls because, according to Abuja Police Commissioner, Joseph Mbu, “as the FCT police boss, I cannot fold my hands and watch this lawlessness.” It is newfangled and disconsolate to know that a peaceful demonstration in a democracy is an act of lawlessness.

In addition, the administration of President Jonathan is clamping down on the news media and trampling the right of the public to information. It arrests journalists for writing articles critical of the government. For example, the Deputy Editor of the Sun newspaper, Iheanacho Nwosu, was, in April 2014, arrested by the State Security Services, SSS, for publishing an article the government agency considered unfavorable. Government agents seized newspapers, brutalised newspaper vendors and distributors and disrupted the distribution mechanism of major newspaper companies. According to a newspaper distributor: “They impounded all our distribution vans. They did not allow us to distribute newspapers… they took over newspaper distribution centres and marched out newspaper marketers, distributors and vendors”.

The official pretext for all these was, according to a military spokesman, “intelligence reports indicated movement of material with grave security implications across the country, using the channel of newsprint-related consignments”. But as the security sensitive material was not found in the distribution vans and distribution centres, what was the justification for the arrest of media workers, detention of distribution vans and the impoundment and destruction of newspapers?

Due to its failure in every aspect of governance, the Jonathan administration is self-conscious and petulant. It is unnerved by public outcry and swipes by the Nigeria press about its corruption and ineptitude, especially in its war against terror. Therefore, it feels it needs to intimidate Nigerians into silence and docility and gag the media.

TOCHUKWU EZUKANMA, a commentator on national issues, wrote from Lagos.

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