February 23, 2007

Express opinion, leave the country: it's the law

Yesterday Fadzai Gwaradzimba was given 48 hours to leave the Republic of The Gambia in West Africa. She is the resident coordinator of U.N. operations there, and the U.N. stands by her, so one might wonder what her offense was. It was in fact a speech act. She expressed an opinion. She was quoted in a Sky News story in the UK as saying that someone who claims he can cure AIDS might be encouraging risky sexual behavior among those who believe him, and thus promoting the spread of the disease. The backstory is that the former wrestler and soldier who has ruled Gambia since a coup in 1994, President Yahya Jammeh, has been going around hospitals with a copy of the Koran and some herb pastes and potions and staging AIDS cures. Sky's Emma Hurd did a story about it, and interviewed Gwaradzimba. And in The Gambia, you criticize President Jammeh in the media, you leave the country. (Language Log readers in The Gambia might do well not to chat too widely about their web reading habits.) There are many things I appreciate very deeply about this country, but right up near the top are these two facts: (i) although it is certainly possible for a wrestler to attain a high executive position in government, anyone who expressed the view that herbs can kill the HIV retrovirus would face a swift exit from public life (unless some overwhelming scientific evidence had turned up in the meantime, of course, which seems vanishingly unlikely right now); and (ii) although people in power hate to be criticized, it is almost impossible for even the president to get you expelled from the country for expressing opinions, whether stupid ones (like the view that herbs can kill HIV) or sensible ones like Fadzai Gwaradzimba's.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 23, 2007 12:52 PM