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Without Free Speech, Pakistani Society Faces Only Stagnation

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Freedom of thought and expression is not only the hallmark of democratic polity and a fundamental human right but also an essential requirement for human progress – improving society and bringing economic prosperity and innovation. Limiting people’s thoughts or drawing lines for people means limiting their potentials of creativity which ultimately lead to stagnation and backwardness of the society as whole.

Article 19 of the constitution of Pakistan also states that “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression. Unfortunately, we have witnessed very worrying trends in Pakistani society where democratic space is constantly shrinking. Many activists, poets, scholars, human rights defenders, writers and vloggers have been alleged with sedation for merely expressing their views on political and religious issues.

The struggle for free speech is not new. Since the dawn of humanity, people at the helm of power – and sometimes a majority of people alongside them – despised those who speak their minds or challenged established political and religious dogmas. Never in human history have free speech and new thinking been warmly welcomed by those enjoying the powers and privileges of the status quo.

In 399 BC, the great philosopher Socrates faced a jury of 500 of his fellow Greeks. He stood accused of refusing to recognize the gods of that time and corrupting young minds of the time. Under Athenian law he was sentenced to drink a cup of poison hemlock and execute himself. He died but the philosopher left a legacy of standing firm for free speech and expressing what he deems true at the expense of his life.

Western society has also gone through this trial and error process. Criticizing king and clergy was punishable crime with death and speaking against the established religious dogmas, scientific commentary and innovation of mere a medical pill could either land you in jail for years with harsh physical punishment, forced displacement or social boycott. As long as Western society was bound by conservative thought and did not allow free thinking, it remained backward and deprived of human development and progress. When free thinking and expression found space in Western society, it developed politically, socially, intellectually, scientifically and economically.

In Pakistani society, we have been witnessing extreme hatred and dislike for those who think different from the majority or do not believe what the majority profess. Merely a cursory reading of the comments under posts on social media supporting transgender rights or criticizing government agencies’ clampdown on peaceful protesters in tribal areas will give you thorough understanding of where we stand. Our educational system also does not encourage free thinking, innovation and creativity. This has led to the growth of a generation that does not tolerate each other’s opinions, and does not believe in the culture of civilized debate and constructive criticism. Topics such as Pakistan’s history, the military’s role in politics and business, women’s rights, religion, the rights of marginalized ethnic groups or generally any grievances with human rights violations – these issues are all considered “sensitive.” Discussing them openly could land you in great trouble.

A few days ago a book (Ye company nahi chaly gi) written by the famous journalist Sohail Warraich got banned in Pakistan on the pretext that its cover title and photo irked some people in the corridors of power. Police registered cases of sedition and treason against journalists who expressed their opinion freely. Vloggers, writers and journalists face enforced censorship, written or verbal threats, killings, harassment, arrests, abductions, illegal confinements and physical assaults by state and non-state actors and political and religious parties. Some writers and journalists were illegally picked up and disappeared for days and weeks for airing views that go against the state’s views and powerful institutions’ narratives.

The significance of free speech is very beautifully and eloquently summarized by the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill who is considered to be the greatest proponent of freedom of expression and democracy. He argued that freedom of speech enables people to arrive at a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world, and that we can never be certain that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. He further argues that people are more likely to give up false beliefs and opinions if they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas.

On such grounds, the Pakistani state should not fear criticism, but rather encourage free discourse and an attitude of tolerance at a national level so that not a single true voice remains silenced. Only then can we expect intellectual and social growth in Pakistani society. Otherwise darkness, backwardness, stagnation and living with false beliefs, dogmatic doctrines and conspiracy theories will be our way of life.

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