Free speech is an embedded element of any democratic society, it acts as the safe keeper of personal liberty, preserving the privilege of the exchange of diverse opinions, and serving as the watchdog that ensures political pluralism and the input of a common man in the political decision-making.

Public discourse is the linchpin for self-determination and the deliberative development of public opinion. Free Speech and resulting public discourse have birthed narratives and populist leaders.

The gift of free speech enables leaders of the public to express their political ideas, gather followers, harness and harvest people’s power and most importantly it allows the formation of a collective good that benefits large segments of the population. It ensures inclusion and allows the creation of a society that is equitable, hence hailed as the bedrock of a democratic society.

Hate speech, on the other hand, is a threatening form of communication that is not only contrary to the enshrined principles of democracy and civil society but also acts as an incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence.
Free speech is a liberty that every citizen of Sierra Leone enjoys under section 15 (b) in the 1991 constitution of Sierra Leone, the same privilege that in wake of recent events is threatening the fabric of Sierra Leone’s national cohesion.

Today, the discussions and top trends on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and the likes narrates a tale of individuals and communities that seem to have abandoned the fundamental principles of national cohesion or failed to grasp its essence.

Free speech has turned to hate-mongering as its partakers continue to polarize and divide the society, taking for granted the most sensitive and invaluable assets of Sierra Leone, which are; unity, peace and security.

The influencers and their supporters, together with their social media armies defame, disrespect, dehumanize, discriminate and exclude differences of political opinion, fanning majoritarian intolerance. The use of prejudiced messages aimed at garnering public support has become a sought-after practice.

In striving for popular domination, the “leaders of the public” have skipped the values of tolerance and mutual respect, spewing hate propaganda. These groups in service of self-served interests, and exclusive say over the country’s direction have shaped and claimed the people-power for themselves while suppressing other side’s legitimate demands, and, more than often, hate speech begets hate crimes – a blunder that Sierra Leoneans continue to repeat and repeat.

The country and its citizens have many times paid the price of hate speech in terms of blood. A young man in the Eastern part of Freetown was recently beaten almost to death for listening to an audio shared on social media authored by Adebayor, a notorious propagator of ‘hate speech’. Several instances of attacks on ordinary citizens, politicians and institutions have occurred over the years due to hate speech. Political supporters and ethnic majorities have frequently experienced violent clashes stemming from intolerance and bigotry, as we could tell from recent incidents between the Fullas and Konos in Koinadugu district.

As the fever of hate speech grips the country, planted hatred, tales and deliberately spun false statements, threaten the integrity of public institutions and key pillars of government. The perpetrators, the leaders and supporters of hate speech must instead serve as examples of tolerance, respect, inclusion and peace, using the gift of free expression and speech for what it is meant to be in a democratic society. An avenue that offers free, safe, open, channels to share accurate information, express views and opinions and leads to the formation of diverse, but respectful societies in which everyone is given the opportunity to participate, articulate their ideas, make their demands heard and ultimately contribute to the creation of a truly cohesive and democratic society.