Is It Possible To Exercise Absolute Freedom Of Speech?

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Is It Possible To Exercise Absolute Freedom Of Speech?

Ishtiaq Ahmed in this article looks at the historical evolution of the concept of free speech and why it can never be absolute. “One can enjoy it either as Robinson Crusoe all alone on an island or in the luxury of the grave after death”, he argues.

In the light of my presentation of Liberalism as a philosophical standpoint and as a political ideology I now attend to the most coveted freedom liberalism upholds: the freedom of speech.

John Stuart Mill wrote a powerful treatise on the freedom of speech in his book, On Liberty. He was in favour of all ideas, even extremely foolish ones, to be given a free hand. He argued that since human beings are rational beings they would be able to sift bad ideas from good ones. He however introduced one restriction: the harm principle. It meant that ideas which harmed others could legitimately be restricted by law.


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People have wondered if the harm principle is just about physical harm or it includes mental torment and other forms of harm as well. On the whole, freedom of speech is now a valued part of the liberal order in the western world, though slander and libel are criminal offences in most.

Also, most countries prohibit hate speech against stereotyped groups of people. Regarding religion, criticism of it is widely permitted and tolerated though to reach high levels of tolerance many generations had to be socialised in rational and scientific education which made it intellectually possible to take a detached view of religion as a worldview covering this life and the next one which religions promise.

To put the discussion in perspective let me quote the existing literature on the freedom of speech:

Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. The term “freedom of expression” is sometimes used synonymously but includes any act of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is reiterated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

Article 19 in the ICCPR later was amended to introduce some qualifications and limitations. Among them were provisions stating that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions”. Among the restrictions are slander and libel which apply to living human beings whose reputation may be tarnished through wilful malicious language and propaganda. Another restriction recognised is “the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals”.

Member-states are encouraged to sign and ratify the ICCPR, which then makes it binding on the states to respect the freedom of speech. However, the ICCPR allows for derogations from some of the articles if the ICCPR is accepted as a whole.

Pakistan has ratified the ICCPR but derogated from Article 16 which permits men and women freely to choose their spouses. Many other Muslim countries have done the same on grounds that Islam does not permit Muslim men to marry non-Muslims other than Christians and Jews and Muslim women to marry anyone except a Muslim.

Returning to the main UDHR and ICCPR instruments we must realise that the UN Charter declares member states sovereign entities in whose affairs external intervention is unlawful.

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As a result all states interpret the freedom of speech in the light of their overall ideological orientation. For example, the United States has the most extensive provisions for the freedom of speech but while the soviet union existed anyone seeking the visa to visit the US had to sign a document declaring if one was a member of a Communist Party or not. That way, the freedom of movement was curtailed with obvious implications for the freedom of speech and expression. Another way to prevent freedom of speech widely practiced in the West is to deny space to critical writings. For example, President Jimmy Carter wrote a book critical of US policies towards the Palestinians and particularly highlighted the excesses of the Israeli policies of occupation. No major publisher was willing to publish his book. It was finally published by some minor publishing firm.

Moreover, as the leader of the Western capitalism, while the United States practiced generous freedom of speech regarding its citizens, it was involved and still is in supporting notorious dictatorships whose violation of the human rights and the freedom of speech are proverbial. Double-standards is part of the way politics functions in societies.

In some western countries denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence. This has been done to discourage attitudes of mind which try to deny crimes against humanity.

On the other hand, ignoring the abuse of the freedom of speech has resulted in extremist and terrorist organisations using the social media to propagate their ideology of hate. Now, in the wake of terrorist attacks the Western systems have introduced severe surveillance including phone tapping and other ways of ensuring that hate speech is not given a free hand.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union and other Communist countries have never been known to respect the freedom of speech. The control was so total that one learned about the frustrations and grievances of the people only when they rose up to bring down the Communist system.

In the Middle East, including Iran and Turkey, the freedom of speech is an unheard of right and critical thinking receives severe punishment.

In Southeast Asia too and China freedom of speech is conspicuous by its absence.

In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka the freedom of speech had been quite considerable but with the rise of religious extremism and revivalism that freedom has been under, increasing threat and free thinkers have been brutally assassinated by vigilante groups.

Consequently, the freedom of speech one enjoys is never absolute. One can enjoy it either as Robinson Crusoe all alone on an island or in the luxury of the grave after death.

In all other circumstances, exercising the freedom of speech is a matter of skill and a bit of risk-taking. Going overboard by using abusive and insulting language and giving a free hand to tainted versions of history and other such loose cannon behaviour means one jeopardises one’s right to express oneself intelligently.

Saying this does not mean one should not take critical stands but one should carefully look around and see what is possible and what is not. Of course one can always make a wrong assessment and face the consequences but it is advisable to consider the pros and cons of expressing oneself on controversial matters and then exercise the freedom of speech.

Understandably states are very sensitive to any criticism of their national narrative, their heroes and sacred beliefs and so on.

Under the circumstances one should address issues in hand with great care and responsibility.

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Ishtiaq Ahmed

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on billumian@gmail.com

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