The right “to express one's opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty” is enshrined in most constitutions across the world.
Increasingly, these freedoms are changing as a few people undermine them for selfish gain.
The debate on freedom dates as far back as in the 17th century when English philosopher, John Stuart Mill came up with the idea of utilitarianism (the foundation of morals) – in which the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number – an idea he described as “the highest development of personal existence that constitutes the realization of our freedom.” This was a period of great change.
Mill’s ideas then helped people determine right from wrong by focusing on the outcomes. In essence, Mill focused on “consequences of actions and not on rights nor ethical sentiments.”
For example, if a boat with 30 people threatens to capsize and the captain decides to throw five people overboard to save 25 others, his action will be considered right given the fact that the greatest number of people survived.
Mill was trying to establish the situations where an individual can be deemed to be free.
He eventually had to borrow from other philosophers, notably John Locke (“perfect freedom” to act and use their property “as they think fit”; that this right to freedom is equal for all “without subordination or subjection”) and Thomas Hobbes (freedom is the “absence of opposition” or “external impediments” to progress).
Effectively, these philosophers defined freedom as a situation where one acts according to their own desire and in “which no moral or other qualifications are placed on the desire”.
The underlying assumptions were that every person had the capacity to understand both their rights and act responsibly. They also assumed that good ideas would always triumph over bad ones.
Not anymore. In their world, there was no Internet, no social media or partisan media, all of them new developments that have undermined the freedom of the people through propagation of narrow and selfish ideals.
There are also emerging and acceptable titles like influencers, mentors, experts, consultants, specialists etc. that didn’t exist in the early debates of freedom. Yet they play a key role in either supporting or undermining individual freedoms.
These changes have given rise to a new revolution. Once again, the world is in great change and like in the past, those who were in a revolution didn’t know until the historians wrote about it.
History tends to repeat itself and, in my view, we are in an era of transition. Populist movements such as America First, Brexit and South Africa for South Africans will undermine any shred of liberties giving rise to a new world order based on deceit.
Individual liberties are under siege from all corners so much that we can no longer assure independent choices.
Politicians bribe and cajole the electorate to influence political outcomes, evil people use internet platforms to mislead innocent people into making wrong choices, advertisers, consultants and experts use misleading wording to ensure that there isn’t independent decisions and leaders lie to their electorate to effectively restrain their liberties.
It is said that you fight fire with fire. The very platforms that propagate false information could be used with better regulation to restore individual liberties.
The platforms must be compelled to be accountable for any incorrect information on their platforms. This will mean they must register and authenticate the identity of every person on the platform.
While journalists fight for their right “to seek and disseminate information through an independent press,” they also must be at the forefront to ensure that the entire profession adheres to their own Code of Ethics, “the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability, as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public,” to limit the expansion of partisan media.
In my view, there is much to learn from the 20th century “new world order.” Although it was largely characterised by internationalism (coming together of nation states to advance global governance) and advancement of political ideologies, education played a great role in solving many of the problems including domination.
The emerging world order may be a reverse order but with technology playing a key role in defining its future.
Our relevance in this emerging order will depend on how much we expand digital knowledge through accessibility and affordability of broadband.
The world is in a period of great change that could see the individual freedoms eroded at the expense of narrow interests.
There is need to create new meanings to old definitions of our fundamental rights. Terms such as freedom, democracy, media, journalism, platforms and many more must be redefined to safeguard our individual liberties.
Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
However, modern day oppressors are invisible, which implies that demanding freedom is futile; greater knowledge on their modus operandi could unleash freedom.
The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.