THE Baba Jukwa social media phenomenon — which has taken Zimbabwe by storm as the anonymous writer nears 100 000 likes on Facebook — needs to be evaluated in the context of free speech and free flow of information in a democratising society such as Zimbabwe, as it gives a critical dimension into resistance struggles that do not necessarily involve “big men” but “small men” agency which has sent shock waves across the entire authoritarian system while ruffling feathers of the powers that be.
Opinion by Pedzisai Ruhanya
It is significant to address the matter in the context of freedom of expression, free speech and freedom of the media against this backdrop without delving into content analysis of the issues raised by the anonymous writer of Baba Jukwa posts, which are unsettling the political elites in Zimbabwe through juicy reports and “exposures” that have sent the country’s security apparatus rummaging high and low for the author.
In that vein, it is critical to give background by retracing the original media theory since Baba Jukwa is effectively functioning as a “muckraker”, something which was part and parcel of journalism right from the beginning.
The original theory of the press was concerned with the role of journalism in the political processes as advanced by liberal philosophers such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Edmund Burke reputedly coined the term “Fourth Estate” in 18th Century England to refer to the political power possessed by the press in comparison to the other three arms of power in Britain: Lords, church and commons.
It is postulated that the power of the press arose from its ability to give or withhold publicity as well as its informative capacity since its most crucial freedom was to report and comment on acts of governments and other issues. Press freedom therefore becomes a cornerstone of representative democracy and progress.
In countries where the right to freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, this suggests strongly freedom is highly valued, and in one way set apart from other liberties which might be equally thought crucial to societal development.
The First Amendment to the United States constitution, which deals with protection of freedom of expression and of the press, could be a case in point. The US First Amendment was passed in order to restrain congress from passing laws that restrict freedom of speech and the press.
Media scholars have noted, for instance, the US First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and the press was drafted at a time when the new federal congress was the only threat to their exercise.
It is argued the restraint against the US congress could be supported by that almost all the early free speech cases in the 1920s and 1930s concerned the persecution of individual writers, pamphleteers and protesters, many of them members of radical or socialist groups.
It is noted the First Amendment was asserted only against the government. That was so whether the case concerned official censorship, application of criminal laws relating to advocacy of insurrection or restrictions imposed by police officers and local authorities on meetings and processions.
It has been pointed out there is widespread support for free speech, that is the principle that even speech which causes some measure of harm to the public, is entitled to a special degree of immunity from state or government restraint not afforded to other conduct which might cause a similar amount of damage.
Under this principle, for example, speech which offends the majority of people could not legitimately be prohibited, while there would be no comparable inhibition in restraining public conduct such as public love-making or leaving litter in Harare Gardens with similar offensive characteristics.
The protection of the freedom of expression in most modern constitutions is probably more closely connected with a view about the desirability of an informed electorate than it is with 19th Century liberal views concerning the discovery of truth as a critical aspect of the need for freedom of expression, a theory that is associated with Mill.
Historically and according to scholars such as Mill, the most durable argument for a free speech principle has been based on the importance of open discussion aimed at the discovery of truth. It is argued, if restrictions on freedom of expression are tolerated, society may prevent the establishing and publication of true facts and accurate judgments.
Another theory of free speech sees it as an integral aspect of every individual’s right to self-development and fulfilment. This perspective contends that restrictions on what a man’s allowed to say and write or (on some formulations of the theory) to hear or read, inhibit the growth of his personality.
People will not be able to develop intellectually and spiritually, unless they are free to formulate their beliefs and political attitudes through public platforms such as Baba Jukwa on Facebook nowadays. The argument asserts that there is an individual right to freedom of expression, even though its exercise may be inimical to the welfare and development of society.
However, Mill’s “harm principle” provides a way of discriminating between views that should be tolerated and those which should not. According to this perspective, any view which does not harm others should be allowed while only those views which harm others may be suppressed.
Mill is explicit in saying that the mere offence to others does not amount to harm; someone applying Mill’s harm principle in this area would not seek to suppress Baba Jukwa. The fact that the social media character calling himself Baba Jukwa causes great discomfort to mainly those in the political class would not alone amount to a sufficient reason to hunt him down and ban him.
According to Mill’s harm principle, a more tangible harm is required than mere offence in order to justify suppressing an individual’s right to freedom of expression in a democratic society. In contrast, it has been argued a speech which incites racial violence, for instance, would be the sort of expression of opinion which those who believe in Mill’s theory might want to ban. The direct causal link with harm could warrant suppression of such a speech.
Even opinions lose their immunity from suppression when the circumstances in which they are expressed constitute the expression of instigation to some mischievous act.
An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.
Acts of whatever kind, which without justifiable cause do harm to others may be, and in more important cases, absolutely require to be controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind.
While Mill’s principle on freedom of expression calls for its protection, it is also clear that it also justifies its significance and relevance in a democratic society by regarding the prevention of harm to others as a good reason for control of the individual in the exercise of his or her fundamental right.
The development of a democratic culture requires and values inquiry and those democratic systems are committed not only to interrogating governmental policies, but also into the integrity of those whom they entrust with the management of public affairs.
The significance of the right to freedom of expression in a democratic society is emphasised when it is argued that it is well that the public be informed of state and government matters concerning politicians and public officials.
Both high-mindedness and a desire to sell contribute to the way in which the media bring political information before the public, and democratic government may well be the incidental beneficiary of muckraking carried on for purposes which those engaged in the exercise would rather hide.
Following the signing of the new constitution, my view of a democratic society is individuals should be free from restraint on expressing or publishing their views as pointed out by Mill in On Liberty regardless of whether those views are true or otherwise.
The consequences of suppressing freedom of speech are bad, while utility will be maximised by preserving and protecting the right to free speech even if in some particular cases it may, at first glance, seem to serve no useful purpose.
Ruhanya is the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director and a media studies PhD student.