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Panelists during the Human Rights forum organized by the Bloggers Association of Kenya. From left: Alice Maranga from FIDA, Kibra MP. Hon. Ken Okoth, Peter Nguura from Amref, Waikwa Wanyoike - Executive Director Katiba Institute, Steve Ogolla from ICJ-Kenya and Jamie Pennell First Secretary of the Canadian High Commission.
Panelists during the Human Rights forum organized by the Bloggers Association of Kenya. From left: Alice Maranga from FIDA, Kibra MP. Hon. Ken Okoth, Peter Nguura from Amref, Waikwa Wanyoike - Executive Director Katiba Institute, Steve Ogolla from ICJ-Kenya and Jamie Pennell First Secretary of the Canadian High Commission.

Freedom of expression invaluable in development

Article 33 of the Constitution of Kenya states that every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity, academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. However, it has limitations and the same article further states that the right does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech, slander or defamation.

As the world marks the Human Rights International Day today, the need for access to freedom of expression cannot be overemphasized because of the integral part it plays in any development of a society or a country.

It is no wonder that countries that have recognized the importance of freedom of expression are more developed than countries that seek to limit the right. Citizens of such countries enjoy a better democratic space as they are given a chance to express and share their ideas, opinions or misgivings on the state of affairs in their respective countries.

Despite its central role in development, many governments across the world try to curtail it and Kenya is no exception. Although the situation has greatly changed thanks to the 2010 Constitution, previous regimes constantly sought to limit the right with the KANU regime having being notorious for suppressing dissent voices.

Assassinations, arrests, detention without trials and torture of human right activists, journalists, politicians and even members of the clergy who dared question and demand change of the status quo during the Moi regime were common.

Although the scenario changed when Mwai Kibaki ascended to power and the subsequent ushering of the 2010 constitution, the infamous raid of the Standard Group allegedly by state security officers shocked many particularly due to the fact that president Kibaki was elected on a platform of change.

Though infringements on the right to freedom of expression waned substantially during Kibaki regime with Kenyans enjoying a more free democratic space, the attack was and still remains to be a stark reminder of the lengths that government(s) can go to curtail the freedom of expression and the press.

Despite a constitution that guarantees basic rights and freedoms the current Jubilee government seems keen on curtailing the freedom of the expression and the media. The emergence of social media, which has opened new frontiers for freedom of expression, seems to be a nightmare for the Jubilee regime, ironically elected on a digital platform.

The controversial security bill and arbitrary arrests of journalists, bloggers and other social media users are perceived as some of the deliberate efforts by the government to curtail the freedoms that have taken long for the country to achieve.

Perhaps what is quite disheartening is the fact that President Uhuru Kenyatta seems to be leading the onslaught on the media. The president has been on record severally castigating the media for what he termed as misreporting without him citing specific examples.

Recent outbursts by the Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery on the media and arrest of Nation Media journalist John Ngirachu under the orders of the minister are also worrying.

While Kenyans understand the challenges that the country is grappling with especially in the fight against terror and organized crime, the government should not use insecurity as an excuse to suppress the freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is invaluable in building healthy and democratic societies and the government should be on the fore front in safeguarding it. However since freedom is not absolute, Kenyans should exercise the right responsibly and shun utterances that amount to hate speech or incitement to violence.

It is a shame that some politicians in Kenya continue to violate the right and utter remarks that have threatened to break the social fabric that holds Kenyans together. Legal action should be taken against the likes of Moses Kuria and George Aladwa among other senior politicians accused of hate speech.

It is also a shame that ordinary Kenyans propagate hate speech especially on social media, a vice that the government has not been able to tame partly due to lack of proper legislation. Kenyans who violate the right to freedom of expressions by writing, sharing or sending hate messages or inciting violence should also not be spared.

As we celebrate the Human rights Day, all Kenyans from all walks of life should recognize the importance and the limitations of the right to freedom of expression to ensure a stable and democratic society.

About Mary Lole

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