The Hub

October 27, 2011

Free but everywhere chained

By Josef Omoriontionmwan
THERE are spices of goodness, even in things evil. It was last week in “Sunrise Daily” on CHANNELS Television. The discussion programme was already half way through when we tuned in but there was time enough to receive an interesting revelation.

One of the discussants from the Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, came across very well, that our saving grace in this country could be our irregular supply of electricity. He maintained that so much inferior cables had been imported into this country that if we had regular electricity supply, many more houses would have been going up in flames.

That’s exactly what William Shakespeare was referring to when he spoke of “Sweet are the uses of adversity…”. It is also clearer than crystal that whatever we are getting from our government could as well be by default. Put differently, even without a government, Nigeria would not be any worse than it already is. Today, we intend to examine the issues of free speech, free press, full or partial disclosures.

We do not need a soothsayer to tell us that there must be something good about free speech and free press. Otherwise, good people would not have been speaking so much in their favour at every opportunity.

Even when he had become the third President of America, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), was unambivalent as he observed thus: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without a press or a press without a government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. Lucky enough, we have always had both existing side by side albeit as cat and rat.

On his part, one of the most profound philosophers ever known to history, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), believes in the citizen’s inalienable right to free speech.

“If mankind minus one, were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would have been justified in silencing mankind”.

Admittedly, government by the people is based on the individual’s right to speak freely, to organise in groups, to question the decisions of government and to criticize government openly when it is necessary to do so. It is only through free and uncensored expression of opinion that government can be kept responsive to the electorate. It is also only through free expression of opinion that governmental power can be transferred peacefully.

Elections, separation of powers and constitutional guarantees would continue to be meaningless unless each person has the right to speak frankly and to hear and judge for himself, the worth of what others have to say. Free speech does not end with the personal right of an individual to have his say; it also includes the right of the rest of us to hear him.

In one of his works, Essay On Liberty, Stuart Mill spoke extensively in defence of free expression thus: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion still more than those who hold it; if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.

This is where the Federal Government is constantly at war with itself. It has this wrong frame of mind that each time the journalist wants information, it must be for mischief. But instances abound where the press has saved this country from major disasters. We cannot imagine the catastrophe that would have befallen this country if the press did not stumble into the toxic waste saga of those days. We must realise that the journalist too has a strong stake in the survival of his nation.

Despite the fundamental importance of free speech and press in a democracy, government officials believe that speech should be free only for those who agree with them. Once we leave the level of abstraction to the realm of specific questions or conflicts, there is discouragingly low level of support for free speech and press.

It took almost forever for the Freedom of Information Bill to limp through the legislative maze in the process of which all its biting teeth were extracted. On the eve of our 51st Independence Anniversary, it took a foreign guest speaker to inform us that Nigerian politicians are the highest paid the world over; and that it is a strong irony that Nigeria is one of the countries at the bottom of the world’s infrastructural development index. Two main people spoke on that occasion, our President and the guest lecturer. As usual, our President’s speech was only as insightful as informing us that one could get wet in the rain. The speech was freely circulated. The guest lecturer who was brought to the programme at the tax payers’ expense told us the hard truth and up till now, his speech has been stoically withheld from circulation.

In any case, democracy must continue to feed on the facts brought into the minds of its citizens by the press. A good security system must permit maximum possible disclosure. Yes, any journalist who is denied access to information can go to court for enforcement.

At what cost? At whose expense? And should the Federal Government not find the way to its courts, rather than clamping down on the press at the least provocation, as it did recently at the NATION newspapers? It takes two to tangle, that much we know.