Friday, December 21, 2007

Shouting fire? - Botswana Guardian

Do we have a right to unrestricted free speech? Well, most of us would instinctively say that yes, of course we do, we live in a democracy and we can say what we like. Or can we?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famed American Supreme Court judge once said in a ruling that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”. In other words there are certain things you can’t say. You can’t shout fire in a theatre if there isn’t actually a fire. We’re simply not allowed to say things that will cause panic or that may cause death, injury or civil disturbance.

So what are we going to do about Pastor Tshifhiwa Irene who visited Francistown recently and who told the crowds that God has decided to end HIV/AIDS in a few days?

According to the Midweek Sun Pastor Irene, who had presumably forgotten to take her medication that day, reported that HIV was caused by a committee of demonic principals, chaired by Lucifer himself, who took blood from a crocodile, a snake, a tortoise and a hyena, mixed it with demonic saliva and blood which then somehow produced AIDS to destroy humanity. There’s no point in trying to understand this deranged claptrap because it’s, well, deranged claptrap.

However I suppose we’re all entitled to our ludicrous opinions. Botswana is a free country where the state isn’t allowed to forbid ideas, no matter how weird they might be.

What I DO object to is when people like Pastor Irene shout fire when there isn’t one. She apparently went on to report that on 20th November God started to roll out his big plan for ending HIV and AIDS and predicted that very soon “All children born of HIV positive mothers will be free of HIV”.

Let’s get our facts straight. There genuinely HAS been a reduction in the proportion of children of HIV positive mothers who were born with HIV and that’s tremendous news. But it wasn’t religion that did that, it was our Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission program. It was PMTCT that took the proportion of HIV positive children born to HIV positive mothers down from 40% to less than 4%. It was PMTCT backed up by rationalism, logic and medical science that did it.

Luckily also present at the so-called prayer crusade in Francistown was the local MP and Government Minister, Phandu Skelemani, who is reported to have said afterwards “She must be out of her mind” and proceeded to ask local politicians “How can any self-respecting leader attend such a misleading service?”

Coincidentally another recent story from Francistown reported that the police were investigating piles of anti-retroviral drugs and hospital cards that were found near makeshift community churches. It seems that encouraged by religious fanatics patients are throwing away their hugely expensive drugs in the hope of promised miracle cures. Cures that of course miraculously don’t ever happen.

I believe very strongly that if only one HIV positive person is persuaded to leave the PMTCT program or to discard their ARVs as a result of what Pastor Irene and her colleagues say then she and her fellow preachers will have blood on their hands. She has gone further than we should accept. Her speech may end up not being free but in fact very expensive indeed.