The public utility of freedom of speech
By: Roshaneh Zafar
The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “the right to freedom of expression upholds the rights of all to express their views and opinions freely. It is essentially a right which should be promoted to the maximum extent possible.” However, it is important to note that this right is not absolute and every society places some limits on freedom of speech. The question to ask ourselves as the storm regarding the highly offensive video continues to rage on is; what does freedom of speech mean as a value for modern democratic societies and what can we, as Pakistanis, learn from this. What does this mean for us in terms of our relationship with other nations of the world?
There are two spectrums of this debate — on one side is the complete and absolute freedom of speech or what some may term as anarchy versus complete censorship or tyranny. The answer lies between these two absolutes and the debate on what should be acceptable and what is not, cannot be held either in terms of extremes or in terms of black and white. Those supporting “complete freedom of speech” as inherently good, believe that if any sanctions are imposed on this right, it will ultimately lead to tyranny and to a complete gagging of opinion. On the other hand, those that place limits on this right believe that it is not about curtailing the right of freedom of speech, but about placing parameters to modulate its application and its utility for society as a whole. The idea behind such sanctions or limits would be to ensure that the right to freedom of speech is not misused or is harmful to others.
We tend to associate freedom of speech with modernity, but in truth, it dates back to the times of ancient Greece, where the notion of democracy was built on the basis of free speech. This aspect continued in ancient Rome. It was during the time of John Stuart Mill that the notion of freedom of expression was truly canonised in modern times. However, even Mill placed limits on this right by introducing the harm principle, which states that freedom of speech can be limited in cases where it can cause harm to the rights of others. The classical example given in his treatise, On Liberty, is that of the corn seller, who is allegedly accused of hoarding corn in a newspaper, which is acceptable. However, if the same statement is used to incite a mob outside his house to violent action, that would not be an acceptable form of freedom of expression.
All this is very good but what can we learn from the above debate? Let us take the example of the Danish cartoons or the current video that has led to mass violence across the Muslim world. Not only has this caused harm in terms of inciting violence towards the life and property of citizens in many countries, but it has also been seen to be offensive to the religious beliefs and feelings of a large section of the world’s population. The second principle that is usually cited to limit freedom of speech is the principle of offence. This allows for widening the limits on freedom of speech through reasons that go beyond those of the harm principle alone, since offending someone is less serious than harming someone. There is no doubt that based on the above argument, both the Danish cartoons and the unacceptably provocative and destructive video, fall within the principles of harm and offence and should not be seen as freedom of speech since they have caused harm to and have offended members of the global polity. This is something that Western countries need to re-think for they have created a sense of duality and lack of egalitarianism in terms of the universal application of human rights, which can be changed through positive engagement by Muslim countries, including Pakistan.
There is another more serious aspect to this issue, which deals with the ability of nations to exercise freedom of expression responsibly. Herein lies the real lesson that we, as Pakistanis, need to learn. A lot has already been written about the lack of maturity that we have shown in our response to the 14-minute amateur video — this reaction goes against the acceptable norms of using protest as a form of freedom of expression. Not only did we express our opinion in a manner that harmed the property and the life of others, but we also did it in a way that went against our own religious beliefs and principles. This was further exacerbated by the role that other stakeholders failed to play — the government in simply abdicating its role to maintain public order and the media in provoking and creating a mass hysteria around the issue. I have been told endless anecdotes by people who were on the ground, of how people were loitering about peacefully and the moment the media appeared with their cameras, the crowd resorted to hooliganism for that would get them a sound bite on some channel or the other.
Within the context of Pakistan, we need to better navigate the issue of freedom of expression. Unfortunately, we have become schizophrenic in our interpretation of rights and human freedoms as demonstrated in the recent past. At one level, there is no doubt that as a society, we are becoming highly intolerant of diversity of opinion and of voices of dissent, while on the other hand, we tend to spiral into anarchy as we did on September 21. We need to find a happy medium between these two extremes, where citizens are free to express their opinion, where there is a free flow of ideas and information, however, where there are well-established limits on this right, such as to prevent harm by inciting others to commit a crime, to prevent the offence or harm to the religious beliefs and sentiments of individuals and groups, to protect general public order and national security.