The Slippery Slope Of Freedom Of Speech
Intellectual freedom has always been viewed as a threat to hegemonic and tyrannical government, for whom dissent in any form is unacceptable, as it shakes the very foundation upon which the tyrannical status quo rests. Ideas and ideologies encompassing freedom and equality for the masses are always dangerous, as the existence of the elite is sustained through systematic subjugation and discrimination of the vulnerable and downtrodden.
Since 2014, intellectuals have been systematically silenced. Dr. Waheed Rehman, Ms. Sabeen Mehmood, Ms. Debora Lobo, Dr. Muhammad Shakil Auj, Rashid Rehman Khan and many others have become a casualty of the war against intellectuals. Many academic stalwarts like Dr. Mubarak Ali, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Hassan Zafar, Dr. Riaz Ali, Mehar Afroz Murad, Ayesha Siddiqa and bloggers like Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Salman Haider and several others have been harassed, tortured and vilified over television for their criticism of state policies and the mullah-military alliance.
While some in Pakistan snub intellectual discourse, they covertly encourage hate speech against dissenters. Some institutions preach that dissent and free thought is a disease of the mind and thus abhorred. This proves catastrophic for the moral fabric of society, with intellectuals and academics, and all other dissenters, often targeted under the pretext of national security or blasphemy. Such allegations can cost lives, or at least reputations.
It is unfortunate that despite being a signatory to various conventions calling for responsible free speech, Pakistan has some elements within, that regularly curtail the right of intellectuals and academics to free discourse and speech. It is even more unfortunate that many times the government turns a blind eye to the hate mongering through hate speech by its religious proxies.
There is a very fine line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate whereas hate speech incites violence. Free speech exercised in a manner so as to not hurt the sentiments of a vulnerable faction is the real litmus test of freedom of expression being exercised with responsibility.
Intellectual freedom should not be curtailed in the name of national interest or counter-terrorism; the state needs to draw a clear and coherent line between the two. The National Action Plan (NAP), which was unveiled amid much fanfare, has failed in drawing a clear distinction on what construes free speech versus what amounts to hate mongering.
For instance, the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Jamat ul Ahrar, a renowned terrorist organization, responsible for the Lahore attack in February 2017, killing several persons, were not blocked until after the attack, despite the state’s crack down on hate speech, as enunciated in its National Action Plan. Meanwhile, progressive liberal webpages are blocked and their authors disappear. Similarly, hate speech against the Ahmadis from the pulpit and national television also continues unabated. The government of Pakistan is conspicuously silent on an organized and malicious campaign started by two television channels for inciting hate and violence against Ahmadis.
The establishment has strategically placed its mouthpiece at several channels who parrot the narrative suited to their vested interest. By inciting people to act against blasphemers, the state can wipe its hands clean of murder as “collateral damage” caused due to the cavalier attitude of the unfortunate leftist activists.
Ideally, the state should only step in to limit freedom of speech in cases where hatred towards an entire group is being promoted. With neither the will nor the means to do this, the government has rather been emphasizing on curbing and censoring speech in its entirety. For instance, when a derogatory video on the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was uploaded on YouTube, the whole website was blocked by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) citing that they do not have the technology to block a particular video.
International conventions, treaties and local legislation do provide a legal framework to strike a balance between two mutually exclusive ideas. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Section 153 A(a) and (b) of Pakistan Penal Code covers the aspect of establishing human rights norms that protect freedom of conscience and ultimately freedom of religion quite aptly. The problem lies in the zero tolerance approach of the state to criticism of its policies, particularly those pertaining to military involvement in state affairs. Criticism of the military is often viewed through the lens of hate speech.
To encourage freedom of expression while rightly muzzling hate speech, the state must ensure that it does not count one group’s free speech interests more heavily than that of others. To allow the people to disavow hate speech, Pakistan’s education system needs to be reformed in order to inculcate habits of critical thinking and healthy skepticism among the pupils.
A pluralistic curriculum will enable the populace to empathize with vulnerable communities and groups, as well as adopt and propagate pluralist values. The state must encourage and inspire the citizens to speak out against injustices and voice dissent whenever necessary.
Meanwhile, journalists need to come together to draw up a fresh code of conduct that can form the basis for future action by the Press Council and PEMRA.
Hate speech produces hate crime, which is often a precursor to terrorism. By allowing extremist elements to propagate their hate and silencing the moderates, the state is infringing upon the people’s right to freedom of speech. It is in the interest of the state and the society at large to renounce hate speech while embracing intellectual discourse. For the existence and sustainability of any society, it is essential for the intellectuals to be honored rather than disowned, and for freedom of expression to be jealously guarded. Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order for every person to present his or her views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which she might be associated.