Counsel Khumbo Soko Writes:
That the Constitutional right to freedom of expression covers even the right to publish offensive material is so trite and mundane, it is almost in danger of losing its urgency. This being the case, the State should be extremely slow in unleashing its mighty power in pursuing people suspected of having published offensive material against those in charge of state affairs. In my view, and for the avoidance of doubt, this includes the personages of the President, his Deputy and other members of the cabinet. It’s altogether quite easy to justify arrests of such people by citing some laws and in some instances hazy moral principles that those in authority deserve our respect.
But this kind of heavy handed approach, if left unchecked, will have a lasting chilling effect on the space that the Constitution has reserved for citizens to robustly engage with their governing proxies. This of necessity means that the right for people to criticise elected public officials, sometimes in caustic, illegitimate and unfair terms should rarely be interfered with through arrests and prosecution. The reason why this approach is objectionable should be obvious to any person who fancies himself as a defender of our liberal democratic constitutional order. It arrogates, ultimately, the power to determine what constitutes legitimate criticism of the State to the State itself. And this is clearly untenable.
The bar for interfering with citizens’ right to free speech should be high. For instance, law enforcement agencies should be permitted to move in where one, under the guise of free speech, calls for a destruction of certain groups in society (hate speech if you would rather.)
When we say that harsh criticism of public officials comes with the territory we simply mean this: that people have a duty and a right to interrogate how their governors are exercising the constitutional stewardship of managing affairs of the state. The safer and constitutionally sound option, therefore, is not to muzzle free expression, but rather for those who can’t stand acerbic criticism and the harsh light of public scrutiny not to seek public office.
We shouldn’t be cheering when the State arrests someone for criticising elected officials. It should make all of us sad for the retrogressive constriction of the public space.
My views do not lend any moral support to those who find pleasure in uttering obscene words against others. For what it’s worth, i would choose my words differently myself. Resort to obscenities and verbal abuse says more about the perpetrator of such than its subject. But my moral indignation at such kind of crass acts can be no basis for approbating state action of dubious constitutional validity.
I am told, although I have no way of confirming it, that the Tonse administration has the ignominy of having scooped the award of an administration with most arrests targeting free speech this far. Why anyone would want this record for themselves is rather puzzling.
As was once stated, even when we do not agree with what people are saying, let’s defend their right to say it.
A very worried citizen.