Opinion: The responsibility that goes with free speech

by Ikenna Eze

The media in any country is not just an enabler of debate, but a shaper of it. A lot is often said about the former, but the responsibility to shape perceptions, to guide debate, to set the agenda, is not talked about enough. This responsibility cannot be dodged. It cannot be hidden from. 

‘I disapprove of what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ – Voltaire

The above quote, attributed to French author and satirist Voltaire, is a standard quote used to defend freedom of expression in general, and speech in particular. In a lot of ways, the cost of speech is probably less than ever before. More and more people have been given a voice with the advent of cheap mobile phones, and a massive increase in the number of platforms for free expression.

The result is that we are treated to a daily stream of the thoughts of others, thoughts that they might only have told a few people before. However, once you click ‘publish’ on your blog post,or hit ‘send’ on that tweet or Facebook status, it becomes part of public record, searchable by nearly anyone and everyone, which can be used to your advantage or disadvantage.

More and more stories abound of people whose careers have been harmed by the Internet. As far back as 2010, Octavia Nasr, a CNN veteran of 20 years, had to leave the network because of a tweet in which she expressed respect for a Hezbollah cleric. CNN said it brought her objectivity into question.

Last October, Twitter shut down the account of a Neo Nazi group, as well as taking down anti-Semitic tweets in French. Last month, the account of Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group, was shut down after they issued death threats against Kenyan hostages.

Last December, a 15 year old boy was arrested for a racist tweet directed at Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand, during a game against Manchester City. That same month, Bradley Patterson, a North Alabama football player, was kicked off the team for a racist tweet about Barack Obama.

I could go on and on, but space will not permit. The above examples make one thing crystal clear: free speech is not free. It has a cost. It carries responsibilities and consequences.

Sometimes, these consequences take the form of actual lives.

Radio stations like Radio Rwanda and RTLM were a key factor in the escalation between the Hutus and Tutsis between 1992 and 1994, leading to genocide which cost the lives of almost a million people over three months. Of course, the case can be made that the Hutu controlled media were just ‘expressing themselves’ when they repeatedly incited violence against Tutsis, calling them ‘cockroaches’, and calling for their extermination.

Last year, when Sam Bacile exercised his freedom of expression in making the ‘Innocence of Muslims’, he showcased his bigotry, and gave other bigots ammunition to start riots across the Arab world. Dozens lost their lives as a result.

The more I study the influence of the media, the more I realise that ‘freedom of expression’ is a cover used by all kinds of people to spew hateful, ignorant, and bigoted words. For this reason, owners of media platforms, in addition to providing an open space for debate, must also take the responsibility of being a filter which sieves out the worst of the worst. It is a noble thought to imagine that everyone’s opinion carries the same weight, but unfortunately (and I say this with sadness) this is not the case in reality. In fact, the offence some tweets, articles, essays and blog posts cause is out of all proportion to anything positive that can be gotten from them, if at all.

Just for example, any student of the history of Nigeria’s media will note the key role newspapers and their owners played in the current polarisation of the country in the time just before, and just after independence, creating divisions that exist till this day. Divisions that we are still trying to fight off. Surely, they too were just expressing themselves.

The reason for this rather long preamble, is the storm that followed YNaija’s publishing of Kene Uzochukwu’s article on rape, and how the victims are to blame by way of their dressing. The angry reactions were swift and sustained. The rebuttals arrived in torrents.

Rape is a sensitive topic. It is a crime that is rampant, and is an issue that those affected are only just beginning to talk about. Rape is always wrong, cannot be excused, and damages the victim, perhaps permanently.

As such, any debate over rape should focus on how to punish offenders, get victims to speak out, and ridding our society of all the things that make violence against women, of any kind, somehow acceptable. These are the debates that are productive.

The media in any country is not just an enabler of debate, but a shaper of it. A lot is often said about the former, but the responsibility to shape perceptions, to guide debate, to set the agenda, is not talked about enough. This responsibility cannot be dodged. It cannot be hidden from. It is a thankless job, admittedly, but in a world of information overload, it is a crucial function of the media to be a filter, in just the same way a person can see only what they want to see on their social media feeds.

While it is true that the ‘thought police’ can be very active at times, nothing can be further from the truth in this case. This is not a debate between schools of thought, with each side giving solid reasons for their positions. Kene’s article was an attack on the sensibilities of every decent person, and such opinions have no place on a platform like YNaija. We might as well have articles supporting terrorism, petty theft and ethnic cleansing. In fact, why don’t we?

I do sympathise with editors all over, as they make daily decisions on what to publish. This is not the first time such an issue will be encountered, and it won’t be the last. The role of editing is important, because the cost of speech is real. If an opinion does not enrich debate, but targets a specific group of people with hateful and ignorant language, enraging them in the process, it is probably not worth the trouble.

It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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