S.39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental right. This right is also guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. Provisions are also made in the Constitution and the respective international instruments for restriction and derogation of this right. This article aims at examining the extent to which a person can be said to be deprived of this right and instances thereon; as well as the legal and constitutional guarantee of the right vis-a-vis the recent Bello Yabo’s case.
Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights which are universally recognized and protected. Indeed, the Constitution of most countries of the world, including Nigeria, have expressly provided for the protection of this right because of its importance and relevance to the enhancement of personal liberty and democracy. The right to freedom of expression is also protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various regional instrument and conventions on human rights, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Right. Obligations and duties are imposed on the state or its agencies and on individuals to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.
CONSTITUTIONAL/LEGAL GUARANTEE OF THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed and protected in S.39 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria in the following terms:
Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
Without prejudice to the generality of sub section (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions: provided that no person, other than the Government of the Federation or of a State or any other person or body authorised by the President on the fulfilment of conditions laid down by an Act of the National Assembly, shall own. establish or operate a television or wireless broadcasting station for any purpose whatsoever.
The right to freedom of expression is also guaranteed under the various international instruments on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Thus Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides as follows:
“Every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.
Similarly, Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights provides for the right to freedom of expression as follows:
1) Every one shall have the right to hold opinions without interference
2) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression, this right includes freedom to seek, receive and important information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, writing or print in the form of art or through any other medium of his choice. See also Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Right.
NATURE AND SCOPE OF THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION VIS-A- VIS BELLO YABO’S CASE.
Generally, freedom of expression connotes the liberty of every person to openly discuss issues, hold opinions and impart ideas without restrictions, restraints or fear of punishment. It is undoubtedly a right to be enjoyed by every person who is not under any bondage or disability. In every human society, Nigeria not being an exception, the desire and freedom of an individual to hold an opinion and share the same with a listener of his choice is a fundamental one. This is because a person has the right to have a perspective of the world, the circumstances around him and the people he interacts with. Indeed true freedom of a person or persons would be elusive if it is not possible to ventilate one’s view point or share one’s opinions with others in the society. Freedom of speech is an instrument of self-government by the people because they enable the people to be informed and educated about affairs of government, thereby enabling them to form and express intelligent opinions, constructive criticism, on such matters. Free dissemination and discussion of ideas and opinions is indispensable to a democratic government.
The European Court on Human Right in Handyside case confirmed this position when it held that the right to freedom of expression is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. The freedom of expression involves also the right to hold and express dissenting views, and the right to comment on matters on public interest. It is worthy of note, that any law or act that tends to deny people of the right to express their opinion would be regarded as undemocratic and tyrannical and would portray the government of the day in bad light.
This is the situation in Kaduna state, where the Governor of the state ordered the arrest of Mallam Bello Yabo, a muslim cleric based in Sokoto state on the 22nd of May, 2020 for criticising the state Governor over ban on religious gatherings due to Corona virus enforced lockdown, he was petitioned by the state Attorney General and will be sued to court after the sallah break. However, it is the opinion of this writer that the act of the Kaduna state government is undemocratic and tyrannical. It is against the tenants of democracy and abuse of the rule of law as it is a gross violation and infringement on the fundamental right to freedom of expression of Mallam Bello Yabo.
A person can only be said to be deprived of his right to freedom of expression if such expressions and opinions are violations of private life; defamatory; containing content promoting hate speech, obscenity or pornography; threaten public order and national security; reveal classified information; and contain trade secrets or copyright violations. See Momoh v. Senate (1981) 1 NCLR 105. Bello Yabo’s opinion and exercise of this right does not fall in any of the aforementioned categories that warrants the derogation of such rights. Mallam Nasir El-Rufai is a Governor and should be reminded that we run a democratic system of government and as such should always be ready to receive commendations and criticisms for the assessment of his policies and programs as a government. In DPP V. CHIKE OBI 1961 FSC, the Court held that “it is legitimate and Constitutional by means of fair argument to discuss any grievances or to criticize, canvass, and censure the acts of government and their public policy; what is not permitted is to criticize the government in a malignant manner for such to attract by their nature, tend to affect public peace“. The opinions of Bello Yabo is not capable of affecting the public peace, his arrest and proposed arraignment is a gross violation of his right and abuse of the powers of the executive. Furthermore, it is pertinent to note that criticism of government policies is not a crime or an offence known to law, therefore it is the writer’s humble submission that the arrest of Bello Yabo is illegal and unconstitutional as it is a violation of his fundamental right to freedom of expression as entrenched in the Constitution and other international Conventions.
The issue of the Fundamental Right to Freedom of expression of every individual is very sacrosanct and fundamental that it cannot be undermined or swept under the carpet. The rights to freedom of expression should not in any way be deprived in the guise of defamation or executive orders. It is tyrannical and illegal and a contravention to the Human Rights provisions in Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution.
Udofa, Imo. (2011). Right to Freedom of Expression and the Law of Defamation in Nigeria. International Journal of Advanced Legal Studies and Governance. 2.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abubakar Kabiru Anthony is a 2nd year student of the Faculty of Law, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma who has keen interest in International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law and Constitutional Law.
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