Freedom of speech and expression has a long history that predates modern international human rights instruments. It is thought that the ancient Athenian democratic principle of free speech may have emerged in the late 6th or early 5th century BC. Freedom of speech was vindicated by Erasmus and Milton.
Some of the prominent scholars and political philosophers around the world have highlighted its importance and necessity for societies and countries. The most relevant in this regard is, Justice Thurgood Marshall, the 20th-century American civil rights lawyer and jurist who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. According to him, “to suppress expression is to reject the basic human desire for recognition and affront the individual’s worth and dignity.”
Noam Chomsky an American public intellectual known for his work in linguistics, political activism, and social criticism has said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Lastly in this regard is John Locke, an English philosopher whose works lie at the foundation of modern philosophical empiricism and political liberalism. According to him, “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”. In his words, speech would ultimately be free from government regulation and public restriction.
The history of free speech demonstrates vividly that the ecosystem needed for this value to thrive and flourish in practice is far more complex than merely being a question of protecting the citizen against the state. Free speech is curbed in the era of ancient Athens, aspirational autocrats — from Kings to emperors of both Muslim and non-Muslim world—from capitalism to socialism and now modern democracies around the world — view freedom of speech as the first and most important obstacle to be cleared on the path to entrenching their power.
This phenomenon of free speech entropy is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago, and when looking closer, the justifications for limiting free speech in the 21st century have more in common with those used many centuries past than perhaps we would like to admit.
Censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things that are irreconcilably opposed, but at the same time, “Tyranny” of the majority subjected any writer, or speaker who defied majority opinion to “obloquy and persecution.”
The right to freedom of expression and the Right to Information is at the core of United Nations values. It is an integral part of the fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out in broad terms the human rights that each of us has. It was later protected legally by a raft of international and regional treaties.
Freedom of speech is closely connected to freedom of thought, an essential tool for democratic self-governance. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.
Another reason why freedom of speech is important relates to what has been termed the “safety valve” theory advanced by Justice Brandeis an American lawyer who served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939. This perspective advances the idea that it is good to allow individuals to express themselves fully and blow off steam. If individuals are deprived of the ability to express themselves, they may undertake violent means as a way to draw attention to their causes or protests.
Dimensions of freedom of expression:
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, besides a fundamental human faculty to subsist in the world. Freedom of expression comes with four dimensions.
The first dimension is that freedom of expression gives liberty, though under certain reasonable restraints, to express oneself by speaking or writing. The availability of freedom of expression nudges one to create an idea or hold an opinion to express without any coercion.
The second dimension comes from, free will, the flow of free exchange of ideas and information which is vital to reach plausible potential solutions. Digitalization and Globalization have eroded local norms, nationalistic boundaries, and ideological precincts. For instance, the rise of a non-white Rishi Sunak, a British politician of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party raised to the position of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK), and Humza Haroon Yousaf a Scottish politician who has become as first minister of Scotland. similar future of accommodation waits for all democracies around the world including Pakistan.
The third dimension is the right to seek out information to express it. Without collecting information, one cannot express it. This is true, especially for journalists. In a developing country like Pakistan, journalists remain cautious of their safety in case they seek information that the state authorities tend to withhold.
The fourth dimension is that freedom of expression protects other human rights, a reason to call it the foundational right. With its help, society can check given abhorrent trends and make them compatible with time and space. Further, with its help, society can ask for the preservation of given rights and question-imposed limits. In short, freedom of expression demands that those who can represent the voice of the oppressed, ignorant, and deprived must speak and write, in favor of sufferers and victims.
Where does Pakistan stand?
Ever since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has oscillated between civil society’s quest for greater press freedom and the political and military elite’s constant reassertion of extensive control over freedom of expression by the individual and the media.
People in the country like other countries in the free world, want to live in a society where they enjoy freedom of thought and action, and can freely exercise the right to choose their government. Liberal democracies thrive on freedoms of expression and the press, complemented by the right to vote and access to justice
Freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right in Pakistan albeit with certain reasonable restrictions but there is always an interesting debate that can be about limitations on free speech. Should there even be limitations or should free speech be unrestricted? especially in digital spaces and social media platforms.
The Constitution of 1973, clearly and explicitly provides the citizens of Pakistan with the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 states that every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or about contempt of court. Article 19-A states that “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law”
Is the Legal framework working?
Under the guise of protecting journalism, Laws are used in the country to censor any criticism of the government and the armed forces. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), created in 2002, is concerned less with regulating the media sector than with regulating the content it publishes. The Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA), adopted in 2016, is used more to restrict online freedom of expression than to crack down on online crime. As for the Protection of Journalists and Media Personnel Act, passed in 2021, said protection is conditional on reporters adopting a certain “conduct”.
As a result of these ambiguously worded laws, journalists who cross the implicit lines dictated by the authorities are exposed to heavy administrative and criminal penalties – up to three years in prison for “sedition”, for example, many prominent Pakistani journalists were picked up by unidentified armed men from a busy street in the metropolitan cities including capital Islamabad.
What are Ground realities?
Pakistan remains a dangerous place for political and social activists and journalists. Over the last few months, several individuals have been victims of enforced disappearances throughout the country particularly in Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including arrest of journalist Matiullah Jan, political activist Mohammad Amin and human rights defenders Idris Khattak and Sarang Joyo and political activist Ali Wazir MNA from erstwhile Waziristan. Ironically No one has been held accountable for these crimes.
The Freedom Network (FN) Pakistan, a national media watchdog has released a report where it is revealed that between 2012 and 2022, at least 53 journalists from various media were murdered in Pakistan. Since 2000, over 150 journalists and other media workers have been killed in Pakistan, particularly the murder of journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya, though Pakistan did become the first country in the world in 2021 to specifically legislate on safety for journalists through a federal law passed by the national parliament but three to four murders each year. Any journalist who crosses the red lines is liable to be the target of in-depth surveillance that could lead to abduction and detention for varying lengths of time in prisons unknown to the public. It is encouraging that Pakistan’s ranking has been improved by seven places in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as the country was placed at 150th position among 180 countries. Pakistan achieved the improved ranking because, after the change of government in 2022. It is a significant achievement compared to last year.
Islamabad High Court’s (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah during a hearing on a petition filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) President Nasir Zaidi, has described that The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 is being used to curb freedom of expression in the country. .
What to do?
Freedom of expression is a prerequisite for a viable, harmonious, and vibrant society, functional democracies, and good governance. Peace, tolerance, and progression will be destined dreams for a nation in its absence. In this regard,
Stefan Molyneux the founder and host of Free Domain Radio, the largest and most popular philosophical show in the world has rightly said, “Those who make conversations impossible, make escalation inevitable.” That is what exactly proved in our context— we are facing political instability, economic meltdown, and constitutional breakdown.
No doubt, the Governments must prohibit hateful, incite full speech or writings but usually they abuse their authority to silence peaceful dissent by passing laws criminalizing freedom of expression. In our case, this is often done in the name of National interests, anti-state, counterterrorism, national security, or religion. More recently, freedom of expression has come under threat by authorities clamping down on political and social activists and individuals helping raise their voices for the oppressed, ignored, and exploited segments of society.
Political parties, academics, Civil society, and the media should work together to make government and state more accountable and to help bolster public support for freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution. They can take the initiative to build a broader coalition to counterbalance forces against the openness of minds and ideas and defend liberal democratic values and develop a mature political culture free from exploitation and corruption in the country.
Both civil society and the media can build a culture of tolerance and bring together communities belonging to different races and faiths. Efforts should also be made to initiate dialogue with the government on critical issues of curbing dissent voices on main media, particularly social media.
The print and electronic media particularly social media can and should act as a watchdog by providing accurate, balanced, and timely information to the people. Furthermore, the state should take positive steps to guarantee an individual’s right to freedom of expression from interference by other individuals and institutions.
The state must provide a digital flat-form for the guidance of the public and educate them to use various social media tools like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and the most recent one namely Threads, for awareness of their political and social rights and its positive use, so that, they could depend on their rights and work for positive change in the society. Restrictions on freedom of expression in the digital age are not workable and counterproductive for the country. John Scalzi has rightly stated that “Everyone is entitled to their opinion about the things they read (or watch, or listen to, or taste, or whatever). They’re also entitled to express them online”.