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Do Kenyans on Twitter know extent of freedom of speech?

By Treeza Muhando | December 27th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Activist Boniface Mwangi (L) and nominated Senator Millicent Omanga (R). [Courtesy]

Barely a week after ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna and Kilifi MP Aisha Jumwa’s unfortunate exchange, Kenyans on social media were treated to yet another derogatory exchange by some household names.

This time, it was activist Boniface Mwangi and nominated senator, Millicent Omanga and the entire debacle was fueled by their differing positions on results of the Msambweni by-election.

In a tweet addressing the Deputy President and the circuit of advisors around him, Boniface, for whatever reason, suggested what an unnecessary role a big derriere with no brains has insofar as political influence.

An obvious jab at the voluptuous senator, who in recent times, has become a vocal supporter of the DP. Omanga responded swiftly and took on Boniface’s physical appearance, the gravity, or lack thereof, his work and his wife. Soon after, the debate promptly spiraled into a series of name calling, deliberate humiliation and outright disrespect. The senator was not afraid to insert Boniface’s wife and the paternity of his children. Their tweets were apparently informed by venom and intent to be as mean as possible.

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However, no sooner had this conversation started than many Kenyans on Twitter termed it sad and unnecessary. After what we would like to call self-reflection, Boniface apologised publicly and deleted his tweets. An apology she readily accepted in no more words than: “Apology graciously accepted”.

While it is difficult to ignore the bad taste this whole event left in my mouth and presumably anyone else with an ounce of decorum, it is important to note that this, is the spirit of free speech.

That people are free to say that which they think, disagree with popular opinion and share an unpopular stance without the fear of public lynching. By public lynching I mean, we are welcome to react to differing opinions sans the need to pressure people’s employers to let them go, encourage their circle of friends to cut them off or bemoan their business associates for lining their pockets.

This is quite an easy concept to misconstrue especially on social media where cliques reign supreme and opinions only matter when they come from a select few groups of friends or colleagues. Which begs the question, do younger generations fully comprehend the extent of freedom of speech?

People losing their jobs for sharing the wrong opinions, is not a black and white issue. If it were, it then means that we are a youthful generation incapable of holding conversations laced with nuance and context.

That we cannot debate beyond the confines of what we term right or wrong. It is an unsustainable position to take if freedom of speech is to thrive. Additionally, it becomes a precarious motto to go by for people who do not easily allow a slip of the tongue, miswording or even a slight unthinking moment online.

The hypocrisy when we choose to only bring to book those who are outside our circles and sacrifice people we do not like or generally agree with, threatens the freedoms that go far beyond this generation and are only ours to enjoy, protect and strengthen for future generations.

We do not have the privilege of stifling freedom of speech because we are ruled by our emotions and social affiliations. It is not an uncommon thing to see on social media, one statement from a popular user being treated as fair game and as utter unacceptable utterance from another.

For example, the deserved hounding that followed Boniface to apologise, which he eventually did, was matched only by slight murmurs for Omanga, who to date, has yet to put out any statement taking any accountability for her contribution to the conversation. Our accountability is as selective as it is ineffective.

We have witnessed sections of Twitter post some of the most outrageous submissions and walk away almost unscathed, under the protection of very loud silence from their clique of friends with massive following and significant influence on the popular platform.

Conversely, some poorly worded tweets have led people to unemployment by these same users who are loudest when an opportunity to take down a foe presents itself.

How can we then, as a generation claim to be proponents of freedom of speech if we only selectively allow it?

It is high time we interrogate this upcoming culture that entirely ignores the notion of nuance and purposefully rejects the concept of the benefit of doubt, unless we like the people directly affected.

We cannot have it both ways condemning ill speech disingenuously and disproportionately defending the same.

There is a need to tread with care lest we create an unsustainable utopia that will work against us in the long run. Sooner or later in this life, we will take our own turn being in the position we once had someone else in.

-The writer is a brand compliance and communications officer.   @Treezamuhando

Boniface Mwangi Millicent Omanga
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