Madi Jobarteh

I want to call on the President Adama Barrow and Foreign Minister Ousainou Darboe to publicly condemn and dissociate themselves from the security officers who arrested and harangued one Omar Touray for his unsavoury comments against them.

Furthermore Pres. Adama Barrow must summon the heads of security agencies to which these irate officers belong to admonish and impress on their officers to refrain from the use of acts and tactics that are typical in police states. The president must tell his security services that the Gambia is a democracy in which citizens must be free to express their views even if we find those comments to be bad-mannered and distasteful.

The foundation of democracy is freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is the right and the ability to express oneself including expressing ideas that can be deeply offensive. As Thomas Jefferson said more than 150 years ago the basis of a democratic government is the opinion of the people. Nelson Mandela went further to state that freedom of expression and free media are the lifeblood of democracy. Hence if we have decided to make democracy our system of governance then we must be ready and willing to enjoy the benefits and endure the bitter pills of democracy at the same time, regardless!

Freedom of expression is however not absolute but can be restricted in order to protect public morality, national security, the Gambia’s sovereignty or to prevent contempt of court. Such restriction must be guided by the law and necessary in a democratic society. But it is not the case that every expression or opinion that is perceived to be offensive, violent or rude is therefore a violation of freedom of expression. In a multiparty democratic republic the use of offensive speech is not strange as we have seen in all democracies around the world.

Indeed the expressions of Omar Touray were offensive, rude and violent. They are abhorrent and uncouth and unnecessary. It is a speech that we must shun and discourage. His speech certainly disregards our sociocultural norms and values completely. He could have expressed his ideas by using better words and still make his point succinctly. But that is still a choice that Omar has for which the State must not punish him. We must also understand that his foul-mouthed speech was directed at public officials who must be ready and willing to take the heat so long as they are in public office.

Therefore we must recognize that Omar’s speech came within the context of our democratic dispensation that must be respected and protected. His speech is no different from similar speeches one would hear in various official and unofficial Whatsapp forums of our various political parties, communities and associations. We have seen similar language used in the recent election campaigns where leaders and supporters of various parties and candidates unleashed invectives against each other. Across the social media we see and hear constantly how individuals would insult political leaders, parties and even tribes. Yet in none of those forums have the police arrested anyone for their speech. Therefore why would Omar Touray be arrested just because he insulted other political leaders?

While we need to promote decency and civility in our politics and society as a whole, but we must bear in mind that our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and in a multiparty political context, the use of unsavoury words against politicians and elected officials is part of the game.

The other fundamental issue we must highlight is that our law enforcement agencies must understand that they are not thugs or militia of any political leader or party neither are they moral officers. Hence in the execution of their job, they must not act as defenders of a political leader or a moral guide or cultural teacher in our society. Our security officers must understand that they are mere law enforcers which in other words mean human rights protection. They must understand that they are not in conflict with a suspect rather it is the suspect that is conflict with the law. For that matter they must rise above sentiments and judgements to the point of harassing suspects. The Constitution provides that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law.

Therefore the video of Omar Touray and security officers is a very concerning and serious matter that must alarm all citizens. The action of these officers is intimidating, violent and unprofessional. It is a direct threat to our emerging democracy and for that matter the President and his Foreign Minister, no matter how much offended they may feel and rightly for that matter, must see the wider picture and stand against these officers and their malpractice. They must condemn such malpractice and demand that our security officers at all times uphold the principles of democracy and our Constitution.

The speech by Omar Touray is nothing strange and unprecedented in a democratic political discourse. One can hear such statements in all forums across our society even though such speeches are inimical to nurturing a true democratic culture. But the truth must be told that it is out of our political parties that such culture of uncouth language and tribalist and sexist narratives were born. Hence this is a wakeup call to our political leaders and indeed all societal leaders, parents and teachers to begin to promote and nurture a culture of decency and civility in our politics.

Democracy is a marketplace of ideas where divergent and dissenting opinions flow and clash. Let the ideas hit each other but we must not drop so low as to hit each other’s person, family and dignity. In other words we can agree and disagree but we must not allow being disagreeable as Omar Touray did. However even in such disagreeability, our law enforcement agencies must not interfere with our right to freedom of expression unless if such expression is hate speech directed at ethnic or religious groups, communities or private citizens or exposes the country to instability. Omar’s speech however has not caused any of those.

For The Gambia Our Homeland