Freedom of expression is a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended)-herein after referred to as the Constitution and under the Article 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights as well as Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Resolution 219A(III) of 10, December, 1948. On this right, some Nigerian citizens are of the view that this right is absolute and that the State or government has no right or power to restrict same in any way as any attempt to restrict same shall amount to denial of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression. While some citizens maintain their right and utilize same without abusing same, some abuse their right to expression. Government on the other hand is of the view that this right to freedom of expression is not absolute but can be restricted and that there are likely negative consequences if citizens are allowed to continue to abuse this right without the government placing some restrictions on this right. This paper considers these two views or schools of thoughts and rather advise a balance between these two views so that the right to freely express is not made absolute and at the same time, is not strictly restricted by the government in such a way that it amounts to denial of such right.
The right to freedom of expression under the Nigerian Law stems from the provisions of the Constitution in section 39)(1) of the Constitution which provides thus ‘Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference’. (Underlining is mine for emphasis). Though, section 45(1) of the constitution provides a derogation from this Constitutional right thus ‘Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society- (a) in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or (b) to protect the rights and freedom of other persons’. These two views must have stemmed from the words used in section 39(1) of the Constitution i.e. ‘without interference’ and the words used in the introductory part of section 45(1) of the Constitution thus ‘Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society-….’. In my humble view, the view that shares the belief in the right being made absolute are right if restricting themselves to the underlined words in section 39(1) of the Constitution (supra), while government too is right by imposing restrictions on the use of that right by relying on section 45(1) of the Constitution (supra).
The government has made efforts to restrict this right by some Bills currently before the National Assembly of Nigeria e.g. the alleged anti-social media bill. Also, the Public Service Rules (which regulates the manner of expression of any public servant to the public) is a restriction. To the government, such restrictions are in the public’s interest and public’s good and it is in the national interest. The view of the government has nevertheless generated public resentment and outcry as they (some of the citizens) fear that the government is likely to use tactics to take away such right and to also restrict political opponents and to restrict the media and activists who criticize government’s bad policies thereby making the government unaccountable to its people through whom the government is made as provided by the Constitution.
In my humble view, this right is not absolute and can be restricted in some deserving circumstances as stated in section 45(1) of the Constitution, so, it should not be absolute to avoid its disadvantages and it should not be strictly restricted so as not to forbid its advantages. The advantages and the disadvantages should rather be weighed together and then a balance should be struck between the two, where the citizen will have their ways and the nation will still not suffer from such restrictions.
Finally, it is my humble view that every citizen should avoid abusing their right to freedom of expression and be guided by the provisions of section 45(1) of the Constitution so that the government will not be compelled to invoke and or utilize its powers under section 45(1) of the Constitution and the government too should not be strict to restrict this right just because it has the power to do so by the Constitution. I view that it is in the national interest too for the government to be transparent, accountable and tolerate its citizens and any issue that would degenerate into chaos, disunity, etc. should also be restricted in the public and the national interest. In the overall, there should be a balance measure between these two opinions or views.