Koki Muli: Let’s be prepared to die defending the right to freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democratic rights and freedoms. It is extremely sad and outrageous that I have to defend this right. We won our right to freedom of expression and enshrined it in our hard won Constitution. 

However, eternal vigilance is necessary; nothing exemplifies this fact as the Miguna Miguna situation. He wrote his memoirs and exercised his freedom of expression, which he and many others fought and suffered for. Yet, some Kenyans will not allow him the right to hold a different opinion from theirs or to criticise.

Since I have not finished reading the memoires, I shall not venture to comment on their substance for now. I will comment on what we can learn from peoples’ reactions, after its release. It is normal for those who feel aggrieved by the contents of the book to seek legal redress. It is, however, illegal and untenable for anyone to issue death threats against Miguna by burning his effigy or a coffin with his photograph – it is against the constitution and the law. The police should take action against such people. 

We fought for our new Constitution so that we can live in safety and security and not in fear. No Kenyan is above the law or below it. Human rights activists understand, the price many have had to pay to win all of us the freedom of expression and hold opinions even if they differ from ours.

The level of intolerance and indignation in Kenya is shocking. I am still awaiting action from the Police and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission. There are clearly “hate speech” and death threats being expressed against Miguna Miguna; why has no one done anything to protect the “messenger,” even if they don’t like the message?

We may not agree with what Miguna says but we must be prepared to die defending his right to say it. This is what freedom of expression and opinion are all about and those who claim to be human rights defenders should know and practice this. We should also know that, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere as Martin Luther King Junior said. 

Also, when one of us suffers insecurity, all of us potentially suffer; if a group of people can threaten the security of Miguna and get away with it; then we should be afraid that our Constitution and the institutions it establishes cannot protect us.

We learn also that we are far from being a mature democracy. The right to freedom of expression upholds the rights of all to express their views and opinions freely. It is essentially a right, which should be promoted to the maximum extent possible given its critical role in democracy and public participation in political life. 

True democrats must allow this right to thrive; this is the measure of greatness.

Sometimes, it is painful to be the recipient of severe criticism but leaders must open themselves to this kind of scrutiny, that is why in “Invictus”, the character playing Mandela questions his own capacity to meet the expectations of the people – that is called “servant leadership” – when you genuinely serve others and put others before yourself, even when they don’t think you are a god.

The amount of hate and resentment directed towards Miguna is also unhealthy for those who direct it – as one Hollywood writer put it: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”.

Curtailing some extreme forms of expression, in order to guarantee protection of other human rights is always a necessary and fine balancing act. Extreme forms of expression include “hate speech”, incitement to violence, intimidation, and threats. As we are witnessing them, I still can’t believe how far we have regressed!

The writer is an elections and constitutional law expert and lecturer, South Eastern University College

Courtesy of the Standard on Saturday

This entry was posted in , . Bookmark the permalink.