Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Don’t stifle free speech in the name of peace

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 10 February 2013

In the corridors of power, a consensus seems to be emerging that the only way to guarantee that the 2008 conflagration is not repeated this year is to issue a series of bans on behaviour that is considered “dangerous”. Among other things, discussing “historical injustices” and land ownership seem to have been flagged as topping the “not-to-do” list, and government officials have come out strongly suggesting a ban on these issues.

As has already been pointed out by one of the contending political parties, land is an election issue this year, and this has been the case in every free election we have had since the reintroduction of multiparty politics. The so-called “historical injustices” are also used at every election to galvanise a section of ostensibly marginalised communities to vote for a presumed “saviour” who “will right all the historical wrongs”.

At every election, Kenyans are promised solutions to these problems, and after every election, little is done to deal with them. According to some reports, in the last General Election land and “historical injustices” were in some regions dressed up in the clothing of a tribe, and the solution then was a simple one of eliminating the offending tribe.

Obviously, then, these are highly emotive issues that have to be handled with the requisite sensitivity that is often lacking on the political platform. But this does not provide the license to ban discussion on these issues in order to forestall possible post-election mayhem.

In my opinion, banning discussion on these issues amounts to sweeping them under the carpet, which is more dangerous than allowing free discussion and ventilation by those affected. Further, purporting to ban these topics infringes on the freedom of speech of Kenyans as enshrined in the Constitution.

The net effect of these bans is to postpone the discussion to a future where the truth will always be the first casualty as is always the case in politics. Bottling up difficult topics is a well-recognised path to conflict, and the only way to mitigate this is to allow the issues to be exhaustively addressed in a manner that clarifies matters truthfully and in a civilised manner.

Instead of banning discussion on these topics, the responsible authorities should indeed be organising debates between the political parties in order to hear from them how they will go about dealing with them if elected.
For instance, getting a party’s commitment to ensure that the National Land Commission is fully facilitated to carry out its constitutional mandate would be a fine beginning.

Instead of harping on the much-maligned Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) and its mandate concerning “historical injustices”, politicians should be encouraged to pledge to deal once and for all with those grievances.

Allowing discussion on these issues will expose the common ground all political parties hold as far as they are concerned, and will serve to reduce the acrimony related to them. Holding politicians to account for allegations they make in political rallies should reduce wild allegations, and perhaps prompt the victims of such allegations to give the true version of events.

Above all, the police and the NCIC should concentrate on their core mandates related to keeping the peace, instead of arrogating themselves new powers to control campaign content.

May the best candidates win. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli Secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and Senior Lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine lukoye@gmail.com; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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