The storming of KFM Radio in Mansa by police officers to stop a live programme featuring Chishimba Kambwili is unacceptable in a democratic society.
The police officers told Kambwili that he would never be allowed to hold radio programmes in the province. They also told him never to mention the name Chilangwa.
Freedom of thought and speech are fundamental rights of all persons. These rights include the freedom to express opinions; to hear, express and debate various views, no matter how unpopular; and to voice criticism, especially of those running government. Free speech is uniquely important to a multiparty political dispensation and plural society as it brings about a free competition and interchange of ideas integral to democratic elections and public service.
The stopping of a live radio programme by police is deeply threatening to freedom of speech and expression.
To be clear, our goal is not to criticise the police. Their thankless and crucial job of keeping the peace is the necessary condition for free speech. Avoiding violence should be a high priority, sometimes the highest. Contextual judgment is crucial.
However, the stopping of a live radio programme featuring Kambwili raises fundamental questions about the police’s impartiality or neutrality. Are we living in a democracy or a police state?
The police are supposed to protect those exercising their freedom of expression and not take orders from politicians in power to stop critical or politically damaging live radio programmes.
If the police fail to protect those exercising their freedom of speech and expression, then they’re allowing a version of what is known as a “heckler’s veto”: someone violating norms of civility is blocking the exercise of free speech by someone who is following the rules.
To the extent that the police stopped Kambwili’s radio programme in Mansa, that’s exactly what was happening.
The police interfered with Kambwili’s free speech rights.
The point is that while avoiding conflict is a necessary goal, it is also a competing and important goal for the police to protect peaceful speech from partisan political interference. In the name of obeying orders from politicians in power, the police must not cede public space to them – regardless of whether they involve those who are their appointing authorities or not.
That’s why it is worrisome to hear that police stormed KFM Radio to stop a live programme featuring Kambwili.
This is the worst form of censorship.
Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information, on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or “inconvenient” as determined by government authorities.
What we are witnessing is political censorship which occurs when government holds back information from its citizens. This is often done to exert control over the populace and prevent free expression that might foment rebellion or the loss of popularity.
And since when did the police become the gatekeepers of what should or shouldn’t be broadcast on radio?
What was at stake wasn’t just a case of possible annoyance of those in power, but protecting the freedom of speech and expression and this has to be a key police objective.
The effect of stopping Kambwili’s radio programme is to silence him while allowing the wishes of those in power and their supporters to prevail. That’s a violation of our free-speech ideals as contained in the Constitution, which value everyone’s words equally, regardless of how many people don’t like what is being said.
When it comes to making moral, political or legal judgments about the content of speech, there should be no false equivalence between tolerance and intolerance. Intolerance must be condemned, and tolerance applauded.
When it comes to the police enforcing free-speech rights, however, all speech must be treated identically. The police must be neutral with respect to the speakers’ viewpoints, and blind to their content.
The same is true for violent protests that threaten free speech. Police neutrality must be maintained so as to protect all peaceful speech equally.
The police must and should keep the peace. But they must simultaneously protect peaceful free speech.