In line with the incessant arrests and detaining of people who voiced their opinion on certain matters and happenstances in the country, it has become pertinent to write this article. The major highlights of this article focuses on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Freedom of Speech.
What is Freedom of Speech?
Freedom of speech in its most basic form is simply a foundational principle which gives an individual or a group freedom to voice their opinions and ideas without any fear of censorship, retaliation, or legal sanction.
In Nigeria, Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution as Amended provides the constitutional backing guaranteeing everyone freedom of speech. For emphasis sake, I will reproduce the section below:
Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999:
“39(1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without inteference.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (I) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information,
Provided that no person, other than the Government of the Federation or of a State or any other person or body authorised by the President on the fulfilment of conditions laid down by an Act of the National Assembly, shall own, establish or operate a television or wireless broadcasting station for any purpose whatsoever.
(3) Nothing in this section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society-
(a) for the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematograph films; or
(b) imposing restrictions upon persons holding office under the Government of the Federation or of a State, members of the armed forces of the Federation or members of the Nigeria Police Force or other Government security services or agencies established by law.
I don’t think that most Nigerians have actually read the constitution of the country they call their nation. Even the ones who are always first to go on social media screaming censorship or government doesn’t want freedom of speech.
From first hand experience, I know for a fact that most persons in the country cannot name one right afforded by our constitution, but they can quote quite a number of religious pages with no recourse to any aid whatsoever.
Reading the constitution of your land is something you owe yourself as a duty to do because that way, you won’t be relying on others to gauge your opinion on it.
If you cannot read everything, at least read the rights it gave you as an individual. You can sit down and finish it within a few minutes. Trust me, you will be the better for it.
Back to the topic of discussion, it is unsurprising though that most people have not read the rights provided for in S.39 of the constitution. For those who have, it is also quite easy to see how it can be misinterpreted.
1) Let’s look at the first subsection in S.39 of the constitution which applies to everyone generally Viz:
“39(1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without inteference.”
Here the constitution categorically tells us that everyone has a right to hold their opinions, to hear the opinions of others and to impart information without any hindrance whatsoever from anyone.
In a democratic parlance, this right is absolute and cannot be interfered with, not even by the government or any of its arms or agencies.
So, in explaining S.39(1) we see that everyone has a constitutionally backed right to air their opinions.
But, here it’s where responsibility for this almighty right becomes a little more bigger than you would have anticipated.
Section 39(1) despite allowing you to speak freely, does not allow you to say anything you like at work, at school, at your friend’s house or on any social media.
In many of those circumstances, especially at work or social media, you already made an agreement with regards to what you will say in their terms of agreement; most people will easily scroll by without reading any of its contents because it’s usually long.
Even though you didn’t read it, you have signed a contract in which you agreed to follow the company’s rules. Those terms and conditions you always see on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other site are not just there for fancy.
If any of the rules demand that you couldn’t say certain things, you can’t because you already agreed to it, and it is only appropriate that there are consequences for breaking them.
In this instances, Freedom of Speech implies that no one will arrest you for calling someone undesirable names on a social media page, but it does not mean that your company will not be quick to fire you for such display of mannerisms.
You have the freedom to post anything you like on social media, but remember that such posts are exactly what will be used against you by persons it concerns. Most people have lost their jobs through careless posts on social media.
When you go about shouting about your religion or political what-have-you in the streets and campaigning for your beliefs which are your rights, your freedom of expression to do those things doesn’t stop the person you are disturbing from suing you for nuisance. It’s also his right.
If you go about saying condescending things to other people because you have the right to speak your mind, then you should also know that the bar owner has hundred percent right to throw you out of his bar for speaking in a bad way to his customers. It also means that your neighbors can alienate you if they don’t align with your views. Yes, that’s what freedom of speech actually entails.
As well as voicing out or expressing your opinion, you should also know that once you voice out your opinion, there are consequences, and the constitution doesn’t protect you from that.
You are free to disparage your company or firm in a public forum, but they are also free to fire you if they want for such conduct. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think you are doing the right thing. Remember, you already agreed to obey the company’s rules when you signed a contract of employment with them.
In a nutshell, even though you have freedom of speech, it is only protected from encroachment by the government. The provision of S.39(1) prevents the government of the day from limiting your free speech in any way.
2) Now to the other arm of this Section 39 of the constitution. I will reproduce it again for emphasis.
“S.39(3)(b)- Nothing in this section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society-
(b) imposing restrictions upon persons holding office under the Government of the Federation or of a State, members of the armed forces of the Federation or members of the Nigeria Police Force or other Government security services or agencies established by law.”
I think what most people don’t understand about this subsection is that it is not separate from S.39(1) above which states that:
“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without inteference.”
It emanates directly from it, and i will explain. Whether or not a person is a government official, he is a Nigerian first. Being a government worker of any category from the security outfits to Ministries, Departments and Agencies; the person is a Nigerian.
I want you to bear this in mind. As a Nigerian, you are also entitled to the same right accorded by Section 39 of the constitution above just like everyone else. What this simply means is that being in any facet or part of the government does not preclude or stop you from exercising your right to voice your opinion; it is a constitutionally guaranteed right.
However, like the ordinary citizens who are bound by the direct responsibilities of voicing their opinion, you also have a responsibility too, albeit a more bigger tasking one.
Whereas S.39(1) categorically says that you have the right to voice your opinion, S.39(3)(b) also tells you that in voicing that opinion which is your right, you should bear in mind that you signed some documents. In this documents that you signed, you said you will obey every rule given to you. When the opinion you voiced out contravenes any of those rules in which you already agreed to abide by, you do not have any recourse aside from facing the direct consequences of airing your opinion.
Therefore, the freedom of speech is a double-edged sword which you must thread with cautiously. This is why whistle blower policies exist.