How free?

Published April 20, 2022
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

IN February 2017, the University of California, Berkeley, invited conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus. More than 100 masked agitators, supposedly belonging to an ‘anti-fascist’ group, showed up to stage a protest that led to $100,000 worth of damage. UC Berkeley was forced to cancel the event.

This incident was a microcosm of a trend that was rampant in the US for years, and partly fuelled Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Conservative voices were routinely silenced, not just on campuses but in urban society as well. Human nature is such that it does not like to be kept quiet for long, and rebelliousness is a natural response to any such effort. ‘Make America Great Again’ was not just the Trump campaign’s rallying cry, it was the culmination of years of suppression that had created a drastic shift in society’s attitude, that Trump tactfully capitalised on.

In April 2017, I wrote a story for a local newspaper The Daily Californian reporting that a conservative author, David Horowitz, was invited to speak at Berkeley. Campus democrats denounced the invitation and told me Horowitz was a ‘racist’, ‘white nationalist’, ‘xenophobe’, etc. More so than just his views, Horowitz’s invitation created an issue because it infiltrated the liberal bubble. A desire for safe spaces exists on all campuses in the US, predominantly the liberal ones. Conservatives are labelled bigots for merely expressing their views and reports constantly emerge of them being attacked on campuses. This forces them to self-censor in order not to be targeted.

The issue has taken on such prominence that professors have had to introduce measures in their classrooms, creating an ‘anti-safe space’ of sorts, to ensure all voices are heard with an open mind during discussions and no student is allowed to label another a racist or bigot. This phenomenon points to a fundamental philosophical question: ‘how much freedom should humans have?’

Freedom of speech is a polarising topic.

Should all speech be allowed, or should some curbs be introduced to prevent hate speech? If so, who defines hate speech? Can state institutions be targeted freely or should there be limits to such criticism to protect their credibility and sanctity? If so, how are such limits defined?

Despite being a fundamental right, freedom of speech has always been a highly polarising topic in society. Trump’s rise to the presidency teaches us that attempts to limit free speech can have an opposite response. Suppression creates a desire in people to reclaim their self-worth and, as a result, they will associate with any movement or leader that gives them guarantees of such freedoms.

In Pakistan it is no secret that ‘invisible forces’ regularly resort to violence to silence their critics. Journalists have prominently been on the receiving end of this. Nearly 140 journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the last three decades. Hamid Mir survived an assassination attempt in 2014. Matiullah Jan was abducted and beaten. Asad Ali Toor was attacked in his home by ‘unidentified men’. In a video statement released hours after the attack, Toor said: “I started screaming […] I had figured out that there is no point in staying quiet, they will just beat me more.”

Even though Toor meant it literally, these words are also symbolic of society’s response. Every time an attempt is made to eradicate dissent, the public raises their voice and demands accountability. Effects of this are such that today, society is openly criticising the establishment for meddling in political affairs. This phenomenon can be directly attributed to attempts made at stifling speech, whether through violence, or misguided laws such as the amendment to Peca.

Therefore, it was disappointing to see the home of Arsalan Khalid, PTI’s focal person on digital media, raided by ‘unidentified men’ after Imran Khan’s ouster just as it was disappointing to see Mohsin Baig mistreated by the FIA. One would assume that the state realises by now that heavy-handed tactics cannot be used against the public to stifle speech. It has the opposite effect by serving to strengthen the public resolve.

Undeniably there also comes a point where the judiciary, military, legislature, and executive can be obstructed in performing their roles effectively if their authority and credibility is constantly undermined. The current social media campaign against the army is unwarranted just as are allegations of a foreign conspiracy against Khan. Fake news should not be tolerated under the guise of free speech. The state should be allowed to regulate it but only to curb mis (mal, dis)-information and not to stifle public opinion and dissent.

For that, fair laws must be introduced, and public accountability needs to be transparent and streamlined. So, how much freedom do humans deserve? Answer: a lot more than the state and society are willing to give.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @azwarshakeel12

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2022

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