Nothing compares to free speech

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In his regular column for the Daily Nation, our co-editor Nic Cheeseman writes about the importance of freedom speech: as a liberty to be defended in its own right and a means to better governance.

Civil liberties are on the retreat, not just in Africa but around the world. While few leaders have argued against the need to hold elections, it is becoming increasingly common for the powers that be to claim that other democratic freedoms are too costly to uphold. The argument in favour of infringing free speech is often alluring. In both the US and Kenya the rise of radical Islamic terrorism has made it easier to argue that infringements on privacy, such as monitoring emails and phone calls, are necessary – if only for a short while. In Africa, individual freedoms have also been sacrificed on the altar of economic development and political stability. But this is problematic, because the great value of free speech is not just that it is a basic human right, but that it can prevent government’s from making catastrophic mistakes.

The two main rallying cries of African nationalism were “unity” and “freedom”. The demand of freedom resonated everywhere. In East Africa, the nationalist struggle was known as the battle for Uhuru. In South Africa, the ANC’s famous statement of policies and guide of future anti-apartheid campaigns was called the Freedom Charter. Freedom was a particularly effective rallying call because it could mean all things to all people – freedom from colonial oppression, freedom from poverty and unemployment, freedom to fulfil one’s aspirations.

But the demand for freedom was not a straightforward appeal for individual liberty because it went hand-in-hand with a strong commitment to group unity. In the eyes of philosopher-kings such as Leopold Senghor of Senegal, unity had both instrumental and intrinsic value. Instrumental, because internal divisions would weaken the effectiveness of African nationalism. Intrinsic, because it reflected a common African heritage and culture that needed to be preserved against the challenges that would come from within and without.

The ideals of freedom and unity continue to exert a great hold over the political imagination, yet they have existed in perpetual tension. Post-colonial regimes typically viewed disunity as the forerunner of civil conflict and responded by promoting unity at any costs, even when this meant imposing significant constraints on the rights of ordinary people to speak and act freely.

During the 1960s, leaders drew on the nationalist rhetoric to justify the extension of political control, paving the way for the marginalisation of rival parties and the steady erosion of political space. In part, the call to unity was so effective because few nationalist parties had articulated or communicated a clear vision of a democratic future that might have acted as a bulwark against the descent into authoritarianism. The appeal to unity was also a powerful one because, following the civil wars in the DRC and Nigeria, it resonated with the fears of domestic populations and international observers.

From the 1960s on, the fear of instability and the assumed importance of social harmony to economic and political development served to promote unity at the expense of freedom. Of course, in reality many leaders demanded unity not because they had a vision of how to foster national development, but because civil liberties allowed their failings to be exposed, and so threatened their hold on power. When General Franco sought to entrench his control of Spain in the wake of the civil war, the first book he banned was not The Communist Manifesto or anything else by Karl Marx, but On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. He correctly understood that the most threatening text for his right-wing government was not a radical socialist call to arms, but Mill’s much more cautious argument in favour of free speech.

Kenyans understand the way in which authoritarian leaders may undermine democratic freedoms better than most. Towards the end of the President of Jomo Kenyatta, and especially under his successor, Daniel arap Moi, civil liberties were eroded to the point that it became dangerous to speak one’s mind. This had a dramatic effect on all aspects of society. Much of the media became a dull mouthpiece for the government, while some of the country’s best authors and playwrights found that their work was too controversial to be released in their homeland. University professors had to change what they taught their students, and students had to change what they wrote in their exams. The space available for civil society to operate shrank until it was almost non-existing, and so criticism of the status quo had to be expressed behind closed doors, if it was expressed at all.

The consequences of this attack on civil liberties were not just felt by those who were in opposition to Moi. As Mill argued throughout his life, one of the reasons that freedom of speech is so valuable is that a vibrant world of ideas and debate is the best way to ward off lazy thinking, fallacious reasoning, and costly mistakes. If leaders are to make good decisions and to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that they are always right, they need to hear different points of view, and to have their own logic challenged.

In Moi’s Kenya, the absence of free speech meant that the government lacked information about the preferences of citizens and failed to take advice from a range of economic and political experts. Partly as a result, it embarked on a series of policies that were as unpopular as they were unsuccessful, from queue voting to a flawed strategy for growing the country’s economy that led to a period of stagnation.

One of the great achievements of the first Mwai Kibaki government was that it made it possible to speak freely once again. Many of the restrictions of the Moi era were removed, and it became far safer to criticise government policy. This led to an explosion of civil society organisations, opinion polls, and political debates. The frank exchange of views, combined with Kibaki’s training as an economist, led to significant improvements in economic policy.

Indeed, some of the country’s most interesting and forward thinking economic plans drew on the ideas of people from very different backgrounds. For example, the Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation (ERS) plan of 2003, which preceded Vision 2030, was authored by leaders from the various parties that made up the Narc coalition.

Of course, Kibaki and his allies were not above intervening in the media in response to direct criticism. Moreover, the ability to speak out in public came under threat during the post-election violence of 2007/8, when a combination of government control and media self-censorship raised serious questions about how much things had really changed. Against this backdrop, the Bill of Rights included in the 2010 constitution was particularly important because it suggested that the political elite had come to understand that while they might not always like the consequences of free speech, they could not do without it.

However, this apparent victory is starting to look like a hollow one. The Media Bill and the willingness of senior government leaders to use their positions to have critical stories removed from the front pages of the newspapers have undermined the spirit of the Constitution and have dented the confidence of the media and civil society. The government has been careful not to use the new legislation to regulate the media, but rather to increase the pressure on media organisations to censor themselves. This is a smart move: State House understands that it will look much better if critical voices are silenced by their own employers rather than by an act of government. Thus, the reassertion of central control has happened not with a bang, but with a whimper. The creeping infringement on free speech is no less significant and dangerous because it is being done in the shadows.

Already, some of Kenya’s best journalists are feeling the heat. This might not seem like much of a big deal. After all, Kenya has many good editors and cartoonists. But censorship works in insidious ways. Once some of the most respected people have been removed, everyone else starts wondering what they can say before they get the same treatment. Consequently, while writing my column this week I finding myself thinking more than usual about how much I can say before there is a risk that the column will get rejected – and so I censor myself, just like the Kenyan media is now doing.

Through this process, censorship shifts from being something that is simply done to others by the government, to something that we do to ourselves. In time, many journalists and commentators will get used to holding back – it will start to become second nature, and in the process it will start to seem less remarkable, less of an imposition. And so poorly conceived government policies will come in for less criticism, which will make it appear as if they are better designed than they really are. When this happens, the victims will not just be those who are punished for speaking out: everyone stands to lose if the quality of debate, and hence the quality of government, declines.

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