By Kelvin Chiringa
The passing away of Namibia’s former Vice President, Nickey Iyambo was received by a barrage of negative remarks over the weekend on various social media platforms.
This has reignited debate on where the lines should be drawn in differentiating between free and hate speech.
Some of the comments posted on the Twitter handle of President Hage Geingob seemed to celebrate former Vice-President Iyambo’s passing away while others appeared cold and inhumane, calling for other highly placed government officials to die as well.
Although Namibia’s constitution guarantees the inalienable right to freedom of expression, at what point this becomes abused remains a subject of debate. Who determines hate speech and what yardstick is used to arrive at what is hateful or otherwise and how does one provide proof of injury?
In trying to highlight the deep-seated complications of hate speech, journalistic writer, Karl du Fresne said one person’s hate speech is another person’s legitimate expression of opinion.
However, prominent political analyst, Nico Horn, asserts that in the traditional discussion, especially in the United States, the question has always been whether freedom of speech was absolute or whether there could be derogations.
“Western European countries were strongly influenced by anti-Nazi legislation after World War II in West Germany: it became standard practice in many states to limit the scope of freedom of speech by enacting anti-hate-speech legislation,” Horn explains in his paper, Freedom of expression and hate speech in Namibia.
The cold remarks posted on social media, some of which provided fake news to the effect that the State wanted to keep Iyambo’s death a secret, also comes in the wake of communications minister, Stanley Simaata pleading against the use of “derogatory remarks on elders” in the form of audio, video and text messages.
“Such derogatory and insulting language directed at the Head of State for that matter, Cabinet members and the entire Government is not only contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution but also goes against our cultural values and norms as human beings and as Africans,” he remarked.
Article 21 (1) (a) of the Constitution states: all persons shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.
In the same breath, Article 21 (2) asserts that: the fundamental freedoms referred to in Paragraph (1) shall be exercised subject to the law of Namibia, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the rights and freedoms conferred.
The law seems to “give with the right and take with the left hand” but the prosecution of individuals on the charge of hate speech has not featured so much in the country’s courts.
However, Simaata has pointed out that it was not lost to government that such
inflammatory remarks were “orchestrated to tempt government to intervene in a heavy-handed manner, a temptation that we will continue to resist”.
While the minister did not shy away from warning that government would, via the law, hold perpetrators “of such morally and culturally moribund acts” to account, it puts to question the practicality of combating every day insults.
Countering Simaata’s caution, the Dean of law at the University of Canterbury, Professor Ursula Cheer warned that the state can use these sorts of offences to control people.
“You have to be careful about how you define (hate speech), and you have to be careful about how you prosecute it and how it’s interpreted, if it ever gets to court,” he is quoted as saying.
But is the country’s law enforcement system better equipped to deal with online/internet perpetrators most of whom hide behind “ghost accounts”, an online phenomenon of social media users with “fake names” or pseudonyms?
The jury is also still out on whether it is possible to protect the President from online hate speech, yet in the same vein there remain more questions than answers as to whether the President should be protected from such?
Veteran journalist Gwen Lister submitted that the best way to combat, or at least minimise hate speech on social media, is by not giving such opinions room to grow.
“I notice that several of the presumably offensive tweets in response to @HageGeingob’s Twitter account announcing the death of the former Vice President have been deleted or removed with only a few remaining.
“Most (not all) are tweeted from anonymous accounts and/or bots, so social media users who care about elevating the standards on social media should either avoid following such accounts and/or ensure they don’t participate in the spread of speech that is threatening, inciteful or cruel,” she said.
Lister further cautioned that in trying to combat hate speech, “we should take care that we don’t try to silence ALL dissenting voices and opinions simply because they are regarded as offensive by some”.
Internet Society Namibia’s Gervasius Nashilongo said online hate speech affects everyone.
“We must acknowledge that the online space has afforded both those in power access to their electorate and to the electorate access to those they voted for. The boundaries of this access on an online space are difficult to be drawn.
Should the President be protected from it? I think the question lies with: what are the measures of this protection?
What we advocate for is meaningful interaction online” she submitted.