Understand, first, what you are losing.
As each day passes the state takes a larger bite out of basic civil and political rights that our Constitution guarantees to the people. In this, much like your textbook illiberal regimes, the right to free speech is targeted first. This isn’t done in one fell swoop but in incremental limitations that most people won’t even notice until it is too late.
That is one way to kill a democracy. One small redline at a time.
Freedom of speech is linked with liberal democracy. They can’t exist without each other. Democracy without free speech is authoritarianism masquerading as the voice of the people. The link between democracy and free speech was established almost 2,500 years ago in Athens. There, every citizen who so desired would congregate at a designated area in the city. Any free man could speak and state what he believed was the best policy for the city-state. The idea was that the best decisions and policies could only be realised by debating many different points of view. The best idea would then be put to vote. This was the birth of what the Greeks called ‘democracy’.
But free speech isn’t important just because of its link to democracy. Our ability to express ourselves is inextricably linked with our identity. Human beings are distinguishable from other species by their ability to communicate through the mastery of language. It is language and communication that formed the basis for our evolutionary progress. An attack on free speech is an attack on human identity.
Those are two broad things we are losing: the fundamentals of democracy, and the fundamentals of identity.
Pakistan is letting free speech die, and remarkably, has massive support for it. The most recent curbs on the right highlight how low on our list of priorities it has fallen. Satire is questioned. Even though it holds value as a form of expression which when directed towards our leaders can help remind them not to take themselves too seriously. It helps to pull them back to earth from the clouds. We have had senior members of the opposition denied interviews, in complete violation of the Constitution. In Parliament, the Prime Minister is shielding himself from criticism. Judicial verdicts have also become immune to criticism in recent times. It seems all three institutions of state bolster little confidence in the continued survival of free speech.
This means Imran Khan and his supporters must be confronted with a question: what path do they wish to follow? In the past, the dictators also abhorred humorous speech at their expense, criticism of their position, and the voices of protest. Is this the leader Khan wants to become?
Many people don’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about. Why, after all, should people be able to use satire to criticise the government or the country? Why should politicians charged with crimes be allowed time on television?
These questions are at their core asking: why should people who have views different from my own be allowed to speak?
Simply put, the main reason is because we agreed, in our Constitution, to be a democracy and to have freedom of speech. Freedom of speech means the freedom for both sides of a debate. Not just the one the state happens to like. As Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1961, protection “must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”
There are other reasons, independent of Constitutionalism that show that the freedom to speak is important. First, it is necessary because it allows human beings to fully realise their individuality. Second, it helps us identify ‘truth’. Or at least allows us to not be so easily bamboozled by claims made by those in power. This is tied to democracy. Free speech lets us highlight the shortcomings of the government so that people may make an informed choice the next time an election happens.
One of the most important things that free speech helps us achieve is that it allows us to learn to live with diversity. In an increasingly-polarised Pakistan, we could all do with a bit more tolerance. Our disdain for free speech shows our inherent intolerance towards those who are different.
That being said, if Pakistan is slipping into the abyss of illiberalism how do we pull it in the direction of valuing free speech? Well, a more liberal education system would help. Our education system does not foster a culture of questioning certain concepts in schools. Questions about our country’s role in the world, our national identity, and its relationship with religion are not encouraged. Some of our history books make it sound like we are God’s gift to the world. At our universities the same mechanical learning process is repeated. Critical thinking is compromised in favour of rote-learned concepts. How can the value of diverse opinions, the essence of free speech, be inculcated in a country that teaches its youth in this way?
A country will never value free speech just because it exists in the constitution. Free speech must be developed as a culture. It must start from childhood when children ask their parents and teachers uncomfortable questions. Only when the next generation sees people debating and talking about multiple different views, without punishment, will this culture develop.
If we keep going down the path that we are on, this culture will never exist. If our leadership is seen as openly hostile to critical voices, then a culture of free speech will never materialise in Pakistan. And this means Pakistan will never become a liberal democracy. That is what we are losing. So, while the powerful, who benefit from curtailing free speech may never change their views, we, as a nation, must realise what we are losing. The freedom to speak is our individuality. Without it, we are not free.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2019.