Friday, October 18, 2013

Should Nevers go to jail for insults?
By Editor
Wed 25 Sep. 2013, 14:00 CAT

We do not agree or support the intention by the police to arrest Nevers Mumba on allegations of insulting President Michael Sata. However, this is not in any way to say that we support the habit of politicians insulting each other. Insults have never solved any problem between or among human beings, let alone those in the political leadership of a country.

Even in our private lives, insults are of no value; they don't bring peace and harmony. They simply inflame whatever differences might have been there between or among people. So what is the value of insults?

But as much as we don't like or support insults, we also don't agree with the criminalisation of insults, especially against the president.

Insulting the president in this country is a criminal offence for which one can be sent to jail. This is a law we inherited from the British, where it was a criminal offence to insult the Queen or the King. We are not a monarchy. And this law is unjustifiable in a modern democracy and we must do away with it.

If the president, like any other citizen, has been slandered or defamed in any way, we have enough civil laws to deal with this. Insult laws are not in any way needed in this country given the democratic nature of our politics and of our society.

Any legislation that singles out a specific individual or position in order to give that one individual or one position special treatment compared to everyone else flouts the very basic principles of the rule of law which entails equality before the law or equal protection of the law.

Besides, an insult law as our experience has shown, has always been open to abuse by those in power to shield themselves from legitimate criticism.

We were arrested and accused of insulting president Frederick Chiluba by calling him a thief. We knew very well, and we had the evidence, that Chiluba had stolen public funds and we needed to bring this to the attention of the Zambian people. How else could we have referred to a president who had stolen public funds other than by calling him a thief?

Anyone who steals, whether he is a president or not, is a thief. So we should have gone to prison for calling a thief a thief and later to be proved right when Chiluba ceased to be president and he was open to investigations and prosecutions?

Legitimate political criticism of political leaders is the lifeblood of any democracy. A law that in effect places one elected politician above the rest of us would therefore fundamentally undermine our democracy and would create a quasi-monarchy. This cannot be squared with the principles underlying our constitutional democracy.

It is said that respect is earned and that all our leaders should earn the respect they want. It is easy to argue that respect is earned and that no political leader can demand blind respect regardless of his statements and actions. But in a world where political diversity or multiparty politics is new and not well entrenched in the hearts of people, double standards on this score exist. If they affect you or those you support, insults are unacceptable and should be punished under criminal laws. We don't seem to have respect for the dignity of every individual without regard to how we relate to them politically.

Those we detest can be insulted in any way without us getting offended or affected. When those we support or are affiliated to politically are insulted, our blood boils. In this situation, or under these conditions, the mantra that respect must be earned becomes far more problematic.

After all, few things are as satisfying as mocking a politician one most detests, a thin-skinned tyrant. But whatever we may think of the statements and actions of our political leaders, they have been democratically elected by the Zambian people. Probably, the only person who cannot claim that is Nevers himself. Michael has been elected by the majority of the Zambian voters and that is why he is President of the Republic today. He is not a tyrant or a dictator who has imposed himself on the Zambian people. But this in itself does not stop Zambians from mocking him and showing their displeasure with him in all sorts of ways.

Michael, like any other human being, deserves respect. And this is not because of what position he occupies or what he has done. It is simply because he is a human being deserving our respect and compassion. And it is therefore unjustifiable, unfair to subject him to unnecessary insults.

But very few would argue that all politicians deserve respect and that it would be unacceptable to insult some of them. There are some who have done horrible things, who have abused their offices to steal public funds and qualify to be called thieves, lazos and all sorts of names that might be found to be insulting.

There are human beings who have committed horrible crimes and surely do not deserve our respect. There are some killers, criminals who do not deserve anyone's respect.

In saying all this, we are not in any way implying that people should get away with slander or defamation of any sort of other people, including that of the president. Those who defame others need to meet the temerity of their actions under our civil laws. Benjamin Franklin, a printer and statesman, once remarked: "It is ill manners to silence a fool and cruelty to let him go on." Insult laws are very difficult, if not impossible, to apply in a democracybecause they have the effect of silencing legitimate criticism. And to silence criticism is to silence freedom.

Again, this is not an encouragement or a clarion call for insults. What we are simply saying is that we can deal with insults without criminalising them. Our people have to be made aware of the reality that while enjoying their freedom of expression, it is wise to remember that the toes they are stepping on today may be connected to the rump that they must kiss tomorrow.

Insult laws can curtail truth. And when truth is no longer free, freedom is no longer real. All freedom springs from necessity.
And it is dangerous to send someone to prison for words they have uttered against another person because words are chameleons, which reflect the colour of their environment. And when the environment changes, the meaning of words can also change. But what happens to the individual who has been jailed over his words that have now acquired a different meaning due to the changed environment?

There are great challenges to some of these things. And we shouldn't cheat ourselves that having the freedom of expression is a natural phenomenon.

It is not. It is the result of intense care and vigilance. For these reasons, let's do away with this insult law in general and insofar as it applies to the president. Let Nevers get away with it but it won't take him far if he doesn't control his mouth. Careless talk will soon land him in more problems - they may not be criminal problems, but they will be problems nevertheless to put him in his place politically and otherwise. Facts are subversive.

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