No penalty should be attached to freedom of speech

No penalty should be attached to freedom of speech

If “freedom of speech” or the right to express one’s opinions in every and any issue of national importance is “dead” in this country, the autopsy report would read: causes of death-incessant insistence on apologies from those who hold dissenting views and attachment of penalty to the expression of thoughts.

Freedom of speech is a right that everyone enjoys or should be able to enjoy. It is for duty bearers as much as it is for right holders. It has “right to reply” as a fundamental cornerstone. We cannot expect that this is a right enjoyed by only a certain portion of the society.

A person’s citizenship is the duty to contribute his or her instructed judgment to the public good. One cannot perform or satisfy such a sacred duty if a “penalty” is attached to the expression of such an opinion or thought.

Thus, while one may vehemently disagree with the comments of the Minister of Health on the dismal state of the health care system and the role of “some Junior Doctors” in the pilfering of drugs and related materials, to insist on an apology or resignation and associated threats if she does not oblige go against every grain and principle of freedom of speech.

To demand an apology or her resignation is to imply that there is no corruption in our health care system or that she has no right to have an opinion on such matters of public interest or should not utter them. That is to gag, to stifle.

If one disagrees with the Minister’s comments, one has the right to use every available avenues and media to express one’s discontent, anger, disappointment and even consternation. One can demand proof of such an allegation.

To demand otherwise is to silence her opinions or thoughts which can rob the public of the significance of such an opinion. But much more, we would be the denied the outcome of what can happen if opinions are allowed to clash.

What if the opinion is found to be true? In the marketplace of opinions, none should be scared of speaking his or her mind, none should be condemned for an utterance.

I should be able to say NGOs in The Gambia are corrupt or that the Gambia Police Force is the apotheosis of perfection or that politicians are incorruptible without advancing any evidence. To condemn me for expressing such thought is to say the opposite is true.

I must be left unfettered to express individuality, or in concert with others, any opinion I hold regarding any issue of public import. The power of censorship, by individuals or the government, must be absent in such circumstances.

However, freedom of speech does not mean the right to insinuate that “Dr. X is a thief” or “Ms. Y, if justice were done, would have been charged with embezzlement”. Freedom of speech does not also include the right to free scandalmongering.

Thus, if one feels that an opinion damages or injures his or her dignity, reputation or good standing, one can go to court. That is an avenue wide open for all of us. Let the court be the final arbiter. This is an avenue any aggrieved Doctor can take.

I very much appreciate the great work of our medical and health workers, especially under those trying conditions. I appreciate. Someone can disagree and should have the right to state the contrary.

And you can disagree with my opinions. That is your right. Above all rights, I place freedom of speech unrestrained so far as the public good is concerned. By the way, happy International Women’s Day to all women and (we)men.

Njundu Drammeh is a civil society leader and human rights campaigner. He heads the Gambia’s Child Protection Alliance.

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