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Freedom of Speech


Ehsan Elahi Ehsan

Freedom of speech is considered a social value in the modern liberal democracies. It is an integral concept of freedom in general. Freedom of speech does not accept any kind of censorship. The right to freedom of speech has been promulgated under various international laws and by various human rights organizations. This is, however, not implemented in various countries in its totality. The right of freedom of expression is usually termed as freedom of speech. The freedom is speech, in its true implication is not restricted to verbal expression but to any way of expression by which an idea or ideas of a person is freely conveyed to others. It expanded to any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas regardless of the medium used.

This right to freedom of expression is not, however, absolute. The governments may be coming out with their prohibitions when they think that certain types of expression are damaging types of expression. Generally there are three parts tests for these expressions:

(a) They must be provided by law
(b) Pursue an aim recognized as legitimate and
(c) Be necessary for the accomplishment of aim.

When we come to the accomplishment of aim, we are already in the mire. How these aims can be judged as legitimate? These legitimate aims are usually considered to be (a) the protection of the rights and reputations of others which means protection of defamation of other, (b) protection of national security and public order, and (c) protection of health and moral.

It is noteworthy that freedom of expression is subservient to the accepted morals; morals of one’s own nation and morals of others. In other words, it can be said that every right is connected with some responsibility. So is the case with the freedom of speech. If the freedom of speech is made use of without taking into account the responsibility connected with it, that freedom of speech is changed into unbridled freedom of speech and may breed into it numerous problems for which the whole humanity or majority of it is to suffer. In spite of these restrictions, the importance of speech cannot be ignored. In the third world countries, where there is little or no freedom of speech, the conditions become more deteriorating rather than improving. The reasons for this suppression of the freedom of speech can be many. Amongst the most prominent is the unrepresentative governments, or the governments lacking real democratic spirit. By the freedom of speech such governments fear that their weaknesses would come to limelight and their false propaganda of being popular with the public, would be exposed. Under such governments, the societies of those nations begin to stagger. Education and good conduct is crushed, and coarseness in thought, speech and manners begins to prevail. This is the point, which is exploited by the west especially in the case of the Muslim countries, and after intervals, we see that the Muslim countries are mocked and ridiculed under one pretext or the other. The problem begins to turn into a serious one when, instead of conditions prevailing in these countries, the faith of the Muslims, their religion, their holy book and their Holy Prophet are made the target of this ridicule. The real problem is not pin- pointed, rather it is evaded and the two civilizations; the western and the Muslim are brought to a point of collision. If West needs to point out, at any rate, it must point out to the real problem instead of deviating it to some other directions which brings no positive result for the West, the third world generally and the Muslim world particularly.

It is not only the govt. that makes people hesitant to free speech or freedom of expression but also the society itself. When an individual expresses an unpopular idea or opinion, the pressure of the society comes into action in those countries that are not enjoying liberal democracies. Such a person fears the hatred and even the violent reaction of the community. Even the civil liberty of such a person is threatened.

The trouble that is being created in the present times, in the context of western freedom of speech concept, is its over lapping. Any kind of irresponsible statement or expression in any way is given the label of ‘the right of freedom of speech’. Nobody seems inclined to think what are or would be the consequences of such an irresponsible statement or expression. It is not taken into account that the values implicit in the various justifications for free speech may not apply equally strongly to all kinds of speech in all circumstances.

No doubt, the freedom of speech is essential to nourish a democratic society but certain restrictions on freedom of speech may be compatible with democracy or even necessary to protect it. For example, restriction on the freedom of speech which supports the Nazi ideas.

A strong argument in support of the freedom of speech is given that it helps the discovery of truth. But, the discovery of truth cannot be made visible unless the thought gets itself accepted in the competition of the market of ideas. When the two levels are different, one based on ideas and the other based on emotions, there is little possibility that truth would be discovered. This is especially true when the faith of a community is attacked, the reason is sacrificed on the altar of ill will and bad intention. In such a case, ill will and bad intention come into lime -light and reason is given a secondary position. There cannot be any possibility of a good or positive out come. In such conditions it is noted that free speech or reason has been used only as an instrument. The real motive is the expression of ill will and bad intention. As a result, the ideas are drowned in the turmoil and society damaged rather than benefited. Any sort of free speech which is not intended to discover a truth or develop understanding, comes into the category of unbridled freedom of speech and is not to be treated as an exercise of the right of freedom of speech. Society is a large scaled academic seminar and anything which is expressed odiously, mischievously and proactively would invite a violent and serious reaction. Such a freedom of speech must be condemned because it does not contribute anything in the progress of human society. The right of freedom of speech has been given and praised because it contributes positively to discover truth and develop better understanding among the human beings. If it does not fulfill this high aim, it is the misuse of the right of freedom of speech. This implies that there is always the need for standard conduct and interaction including some degree of mutual respect. Such an attitude will limit the kinds of speech that are justifiably protected.

Freedom of speech is not an absolute value. It is subject to rational inquiry. No doubt, there can be a difference of opinion on rational inquiry itself, but the truth, after discussion, dialogue and reaction, soon comes out and it is known to every one what was the real intention behind for which the instrument of freedom of speech has been used. All the unpopular ideas expressed are not un-welcomed. People embrace and respect those ideas that are positive in their norm, which produce good and healthy effect on human society instead of creating hatred and disgust. So the offensive and insulting speech must not be given shelter under the umbrella of freedom of speech.

If the freedom of speech is an essential aspect of person-hood and autonomy then a (political) protest is also a form of self-definition, self-fulfillment, or self realization, even if the protesters believe the protest to be futile. If on the one hand we plead so much for freedom of speech of an individual, howsoever his speech or expression may be damaging to others, then what is the rationale of protesting against the protesters. If, their expressions are considered dangerous against us, or we blame their threatening language, it means we are the judges to decide about their freedom of expression. Now this is a paradoxical situation created by us. We defend the originator of the speech or expression (even the mischievous one) on the basis of his right of freedom of speech or action, and on the other hand we are not ready to give the same right to the protesters. In the first case we act as pleaders and in the second case, we act as judges.

The critics of the right of self expression argue that there is no inherent reason to find speech to be fundamental right compared with countless other activities that might be regarded as a part of autonomy or that could advance self fulfillment.

If we ponder deeply, we find that the freedom of speech is integral to tolerance. Many problems are occuring in human society due to lack of or absence of tolerance. That is the reason why some people feel that tolerance should be made the basic value in society. This is the only value which can help us control those feelings which are evoked by a host of social encounters. Freedom of speech remains of no value if it does not help to shape the intellectual character of the society. This claim is to say that tolerance is a desirable, if not essential, value, and that protecting unpopular speech is itself an act of tolerance. Such a tolerance serves as a model that that encourages more tolerance through society.

The protesters who have been victimized by the expression of ill will and bad intention are blamed to use threatening words like “kill, kill” and they are considered a danger to the peace but when it comes to a highly responsible political leader giving an official statement that “nobody is immune from their targeted killing” we ignore it altogether. This is a paradoxical attitude which we frequently adopt.

To say that the West enjoys full freedom of speech is not altogether true. In the UK, Parliament passed the “Serious Organized Crime and Police Act” in 2005 banning protest without permit within 1km of Parliament. The first convict under the act was in December 2005, when Maya Evans was convicted for reading the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilian killed in Iraq, was under the ‘Conotaph” in October, without police permission. In Italy the media Tycoon Silvio Berluscom used censorship by stopping the Satirical Raiot Series, from Sabina Guzzanti on RAI television by arguing that they were vulgar and full of disrespect to the government. Sabina Guzzanti went to court to proceed with the show and won the case. However the Govt and the RAI refused to follow the court order and the show never went on air again.

The term ‘Freedom of Speech’ or Freedom of Expression’ is being frequently referred to in the context of the cartoons insulting the Holy prophet of the Muslims. It is a strange situation that the originator/s of this mischief are being defended and the protesters are being blamed for disturbing peace. Fingers are pointed towards them that they are using threatening words, burning the flags and so on. Such an action on the part of the protesters is no doubt condemnable but the more serious threat to peace is the defense being provided to the mischief players and they are being justified on the pretext of the freedom of speech or the freedom of expression. Such a situation is comparable to that one when some youngsters are blamed to pelt stones on that helicopter which came to bombard them. Actually the issue is certainly not that of freedom of expression. The cartoon crisis erupted due to double standards, recurring pattern of Islam phobia and violation of European laws pertaining to racism and religious discrimination. The Western values, regarding religious pluralism and rejecting racism and negative profiling on the basis of religion and ethnic origin are respected every where. These values, however, were willfully violated in cartoons in the Danish newspaper and other European newspapers. If the West expects Muslims to respect Western values, like the Freedom of Speech and freedom of expression, Muslims too, at the very least, expected reciprocity and respect for Islamic values. And the core of Islamic value is the sanctity of the persona of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on which there is complete unanimity of opinion among all Muslims across the board.

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