In defence of the right to offend

Raymond Mujuni

What you need to know:

  • The political elite must start to realise the right to offend – and their taking offense – are part of the process of the freedom of expression which they enjoy in protected spaces and with power

Very few forms of freedom have been defended in Uganda the way freedom of expression has. The Ugandan courts are a walking hallmark of judgments in protection of the freedom of expression and, by extension, the right to offend.

So when Kampala legislator Muhammad Nsereko was granted leave by Parliament, this week, to bring an amendment Bill to the Computer Misuse Act targeted at wiping social media of people deemed offensive there was an immediate and robust push back, never mind the noble intention he raised of protecting minors and protecting people against blackmail.

More often, when people speak of the freedom of expression – or free speech, they mean the right to say the things that they want to say and say them in the way they wish to say them. That often includes the right to use language that gets under the skin of the thin-skinned and the right to be protected against them when they react in ways that aren’t covered by free speech.


There are two very context specific aspects of free speech to Uganda; the first being that Uganda is a largely young country with its most literate population in history. The second is that the average age of the political elite is almost two times that of the population they preside over. In African societies, where speaking to elders has to be polite, peppered and ‘respectful’, it is strange when the political elite have to weather grammatical missiles of loaded anger and ridicule from the young, on the one platform they are incapable of dominating – Social media.

It isn’t so much that those who do this are offensive and derogatory, it is the fact that the exercise of their speech rights targets the one place the political elite cannot build a fortress; human vulnerability.

The political class are shielded, at great human and monetary cost from facing this wrath with bureaucracy. For example, to vote, one has to register, wait for the scheduled Election Day in five years to make their voice heard; to contribute to a Parliament motion, one has to wait for their legislator to call a baraza in the constituency, which hardly ever happens. In traffic and supermarket stalls, they are protected by mean-looking soldiers who ward the public off roads.

This protection shields the political class from bearing the immediate wrath of their actions and inactions in solving the political problems of the day. It also, builds up anger on the part of the governed without a release valve. So, when it eventually pours out on social media, it comes hot, with steam and an aroma to match.

The political elite must start to realise the right to offend – and their taking offense – are part of the process of the freedom of expression which they enjoy in protected spaces and with power. You can’t have your cake, eat it and expect the hungry to sing songs of praise!


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