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Opinions of Friday, 29 July 2016

Columnist: Daily Statesman

Balancing free speech with reasonable responsibility

Montie trioMontie trio

Wednesday’s sentencing of what has become known as the ‘Montie 3’ to four months imprisonment has sparked interesting debates, both among ordinary Ghanaians and in the legal fraternity.

While some say the journalist and radio panelists deserve the jail terms handed them by the apex court of the land, and will serve as a deterrent to others and ensure sanity in the media, others think the punishment is too harsh and constitutes an assault on free speech.

While we at the Daily Statesman condemn cruel and threatening statements, we also do not want to encourage a situation where the Court will work in ways that will appear to put undue fear into the citizenry, render them docile and timid such that they cannot hold leaders accountable through free expression of their views.

We, however, want to add that as we all push for a reasonable restraint by the Court, we should be careful not to create the impression that the freedom of speech Ghanaians are granted via the 1992 Constitution is a permission to voice thoughts encouraging fear and violence.

In light of this, it seems fair to expect that the freedom of expression should be reasonably restrained so people can enjoy their lives without experiencing fear because of others’ misuse of their own freedom.

It is important to note that the Supreme Court is a product of the 1992 Constitution, meaning that judges must be in complete conformity with the legal establishments. Any dialogue that risks disturbing the peace, law, collective order and national security, or is classified as hate speech, should not be allowed or encouraged in a modern society.

All citizens should be provided with protection from harm, be it physical, emotional or mental. That is not to say that anyone should be walking on eggshells, but rather to expect people to act with responsibility and be conscious of the consequences of their actions.

The fact cannot be gainsaid that unfettered freedom of speech, if not exercised in a responsible way, can spark civil unrest, strife and even wars. Hostility, encouraged violence and obvious distaste can, if given a big enough platform, influence people negatively and thereby enforce a distrustful and hateful society.

The events in Rwanda in the 1990s are an example of this. By demonizing the Tutsi and radio broadcasting their hatred and propaganda to the entire country, Hutu extremists contributed greatly to the Rwandan genocide, where over 500,000 Tutsi were killed.

Even though many Rwandans asked for international help prior to the genocide, alarmed by the message of the radio station, western diplomats dismissed it. The reason? They believed in the freedom of speech.

Ghana might have freedom of expression, but that does not mean that people can abuse their right and spread hate or incite violence or threaten the lives of others. Your freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins. In other words, our freedom of expression should not infringe on other people’s safety, as any freedom fails to be free the moment it endangers the freedom of others.

This, however, does not mean there should be any condition that unjustifiably cripples free speech. As we continue to debate the issue of whether or not the current posture of the Supreme Court seeks to undermine free speech, let us all endeavour to make matters easier for the state by balancing the right to free speech, as guaranteed by the constitution, with reasonable responsibility.