Should the right to free speech be absolute?

Published: January 11, 2015
Email
The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland, 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House aakar.patel@tribune.com.pk

The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland, 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House aakar.patel@tribune.com.pk

My old boss M J Akbar had only one commandment in journalism so far as I remember. This was (and I am paraphrasing him): write whatever you want about any subject, but never make fun of religion. I am not sure whether this was said because he wanted his newspapers to show respect for religion or he wanted to avoid the trouble that usually comes when religion is ridiculed in our parts. Perhaps, it was both.

Writing in Business Standard about the attack on the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, T N Ninan wrote that: “Many societies, especially those who are a part of the Western Enlightenment, admit to few if any limits on the right to free speech — including the right to offend. Free speech was included in the ‘Declaration on the Rights of Man’ during the French Revolution as ‘one of the most precious’ rights of man.”

However, he added, “In the broad tradition of Sarva Dharm Samabhav (equality of all religions), it is pretty much inconceivable that any Indian publication would publish a cartoon [of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him)] in the full knowledge that it would cause offence to millions.” Yes, and even if an adventurous editor were to be so inclined, he would probably desist because of the trouble it would bring. Not just the violence and the threats but also the legal problems.

India has a troubled tryst with free speech and even the great Jawaharlal Nehru was unsure of how to approach this fundamental freedom. Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution guaranteed free speech to Indians on January 26, 1950. Fifteen months later, Nehru backed down from this guarantee and imposed restrictions. Half a dozen laws restrict freedom of speech in India. Many of these are strange. Ninan adds in his piece that “India has a more nuanced approach; the right to free speech is a fundamental but not an absolute right; the Constitution limits it on grounds of ‘public order’ as well as ‘decency and morality’, all of which are elastic terms. Why, even writing that could affect relations with friendly countries is debarred. Apart from the issue of principle, there is the practical difficulty that there is no approved list of friendly and unfriendly countries.”

There are specific laws we have on provoking religious violence, promoting enmity, insulting a religion and wounding religious feelings. But these laws aren’t new. Our laws curbing free speech were drafted in 1837. When he was only 33, Thomas Macaulay began producing the Indian Penal Code. It has continued in more or less the same form for 175 years. It shows what a remarkably unchanging culture we are despite living amid the trappings of modernity. The code, a colonial set of laws, remains in force in free India. This is because an Englishman accurately assessed us, and predicted our behaviour and our reaction to external stimulus. This makes Macaulay a very great man. He could tell with confidence in 1837 how many of us would go bestial in 1984 and 1993 and 2002. The Indian Constitution made great and universal promises, but then succumbed to the reality of India’s communal violence.

For journalists, who are in the frontline of the free speech debate, it is not easy to see the issue in black and white. I did not know that Charlie Hebdo had fired one of its journalists for anti-Semitism. I was surprised to know this had happened, given how enthusiastic the magazine was about attacking Islam.

The Daily Telegraph reported in 2009 that “Maurice Sinet, 80, who works under the pen name Sine, faces charges of ‘inciting racial hatred’ for a column he wrote last July in the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The piece sparked a summer slanging match among the Parisian intelligentsia and ended in his dismissal from the magazine.

““L’affaire Sine” followed the engagement of Mr Sarkozy, 22, to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain. Commenting on an unfounded rumour that the president’s son planned to convert to Judaism, Sine quipped: “He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad.”

“A high-profile political commentator slammed the column as linking prejudice about Jews and social success. Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Philippe Val, asked Sinet to apologise but he refused, exclaiming: “I’d rather cut my testicles off.”

“Mr Val’s decision to fire Sine was backed by a group of eminent intellectuals, including the philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy, but parts of the libertarian Left defended him, citing the right to free speech.”

It might seem as a clear case of hypocrisy, but, like all of us, Charlie Hebdo also had its doubts about free speech.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2015.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (30)

  • ua
    Jan 11, 2015 - 2:11AM

    Slightly disappointed that Aakar Patel didn’t bring the caste dynamic into his analysis.

    Recommend

  • Babar
    Jan 11, 2015 - 2:17AM

    As usual a great piece of writing by Aakar Ji, great analysis. Marvelous insights on the religious prejudices of “Charlie Hebdo” and the of western world.

    Recommend

  • Sid
    Jan 11, 2015 - 3:04AM

    Who has the authority to quantify the amount of freedom ? Just because you are more sensitive than rest of the mass should we mind every single time at the cost of our own comfort and stay careful and feared for what you may or may not like ?
    More than challenging the freedom of speech and trying to decide on how much freedom is good freedom how about preaching how much tolerance is good tolerance ? If you learn tolerance then no matter how someone grossly violates the freedom of speech it would never hurt you or matter to you. Tolerance is not sign of weakness but far superior strength. Its easier to loose your cool and feel like nuking the whole world in that spurge of violent mental state. But it takes to be good human and serious follower of Almighty to overcome that urge and keep calm and continue to do your own good work.
    Nobody seems to be teaching tolerance instead everybody wants to challenge other’s freedom. If thats the case then stop claiming that your way of living and religion is “tolerant or peaceful”.

    Recommend

  • wb
    Jan 11, 2015 - 7:14AM

    Freedom of expression should be absolute.

    We need to work towards it.

    If someone wants to say that Hinduism is full of myth and superstitions, he should be allowed to so.

    If I want to say Islam is full of myths, misogyny and violence, I should be allowed to say.

    Religion should not be an exception.

    In fact religion should be the main target. All evil on earth is because of religion. If only humanity did not believe in the lie of the existence of god for which not a gram of evidence exists, then this world would have been a peaceful place.

    So, absolute freedom must exist. We all should have absolute freedom to crush all religions which are man-made and evil in one way or another.

    Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Jan 11, 2015 - 7:53AM

    India also applies selectively the right to freedom of expression. Kamla Hasan’s Vushwaroopam is banned because some mullah somewhere thought it was bad, but PK is not banned. Come on Aakar, you mention selectively 84, 93, 02 but do not talk of the instigation behind it. There are these characters like Ghose of formerly CNn IBN who always ridicules Hinduism, and gets away Scott free everytime, but no journalists dare write against Muslims because it would offend them. India is selectively applying this freedom. The freedom is more for the Muslims in India. It is hypocrisy. Zakir Naik openly condemns Hinduism, but he is a Muslim so he should be treated with kids gloves. Owaisi talks bull, but it should be tolerated.

    Recommend

  • Astraldust
    Jan 11, 2015 - 7:56AM

    Funny. Article on Free speech by a news reporting agency who won’t publish my comment. What was wrong in my comment tell me? I did not use any derogatory words. Hypocrite much Tribune?

    Recommend

  • Subhash
    Jan 11, 2015 - 8:20AM

    Again a “Neither Here Nor There” article.

    Recommend

  • harkol
    Jan 11, 2015 - 8:55AM

    Mr. Patel:

    The question is not if Freedom of Expression is absolute – it is not anywhere in the world.

    But, in liberal societies like France, UK, US – hurting another’s sentiment alone is not the reason of curtailing that freedom. They have a different threshold for curtailment – i.e. slander or libel. And laws govern what constitutes slander – not mobs.

    Bigger question: Who gives right to folks from other societies to go to these countries and criticize their policy? Would it be OK for a Christian or a Hindu extremist group to dictate what should be the policy within Pakistan or Iran?

    Folks who don’t like the legal system of France/UK/US/Denmark etc. have an easy choice – LEAVE to a place of their choice.

    Why take law in to their hand? And why idiots are questioning their concept of liberty itself, instead of questioning those who abuse it?

    Recommend

  • Snagesh
    Jan 11, 2015 - 9:25AM

    What ever the prejudice of “Charlie Hebdo” response they got is unacceptable. Just feeds into the stereotype associated with the community. One more aspect to free speech is the acceptable response to it, I think we have consensus here. It can never be cold blooded murder but can be cold shoulder

    Recommend

  • Syed A Zafar
    Jan 11, 2015 - 10:14AM

    A balanced, realistic and honest article. Thanks, Mr. Aakar Patel. I believe if most writers from India and Pakistan start writing nothing but truth, most of problems and disputes can be easily solved and we can achieve peace, harmony, and prosperity for the whole region. speaknothingbutruth@gamil.com

    Recommend

  • AK
    Jan 11, 2015 - 10:25AM

    Why is it very hard for Muslims to integrate into societies where they are not majority, while they browbeat minorities into submission when they are ruling. Why do they cry Victims when they are into minority. Why do they bring religion into everything. You talk of the riots as if it is the Hindus who do it everytime. Why is it that Saudi does not even allow other religions, but expects others to allow Islam. Hypocrisy, eh.

    Recommend

  • observer
    Jan 11, 2015 - 10:39AM

    or he wanted to avoid the trouble that usually comes when religion is ridiculed in our parts.

    Really??

    A. OMG was made.
    And NOTHING happened in OUR PARTS.

    B. PK is a runaway success.
    And again NOTHING happened in OUR PARTS.

    C. Someone put Ganesha on a pair of Footwear.
    There was NO MAYHEM in OUR PARTS.

    Now, in contrast,
    Jylland Posten got Bombed
    Chrlie Hebdo got sprayed with bullets.
    Theo Von Gaugh was slain.

    Definitely NOT in OUR PARTS.

    Recommend

  • Pnpuri
    Jan 11, 2015 - 3:34PM

    does right of free speech restricted to spoken word and writing/ printed word or something more. Is not someone applying tilak ( red vermilion mark on head) or wearing Hijab,Cross or turban part of free speech though incidentally they represent religious or regional identity . One wonders if right of applying tilak, wearing hijab and turban can be restricted why not to restrict speech which may an innuendo or outright insult.

    Recommend

  • Parvez
    Jan 11, 2015 - 4:11PM

    Nice.

    Recommend

  • s.khan
    Jan 11, 2015 - 11:24PM

    @Ahmed: You have selective information and using it to justify your prejuidiced views.
    Recently, Wendy Doniger, a professor of Hindusim at University of Illinoise, USA,
    wrote a book that portrayed the religion in negative light. There were protests and the
    publisher withdrew the book from the market fearing problem. Case of M.F. Hussein,
    the artist, is well known. He had to flee India to save his life because Hindus wanted
    him arrested for painting Saraswati. Book on Shivaji was banned because he
    was portrayed unfavourably and so was the book on Gandhi by New York Times
    journalist who described his relation with a man in South Africa unfavourably.
    Restrictions on speech in India are nuanced and are enforced whenever any
    group claims to be offended. It is by no means for Muslim only.

    Recommend

  • Tyggar
    Jan 11, 2015 - 11:31PM

    In another article by the same author, he criticizes Indian laws when a book on Hinduism was withdrawn due to legal problems.
    He writes

    Another book has been bullied into suppression in India, this time, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An alternative history.

    HYPOCRITE

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/672187/freedom-of-expression-in-india/

    Recommend

  • Yo2Da2
    Jan 11, 2015 - 11:50PM

    @wb: Your comment begs the question: Did religion come first or human motivation and emotion that produced it? Even without religion, there would be lack of peace and tolerance for many other reasons.

    Recommend

  • Truth be told
    Jan 12, 2015 - 12:15AM

    Freedom of speech should be an absolute right. Any thing less is not freedom at all. Just as one can’t be slightly pregnant. People who have problem with the idea of freedom of speech should not live in countries where such an idea is held with supreme reverence.
    French people and their culture is extremely secularist. Islamists should stay out of France.

    Recommend

  • Iqbal
    Jan 12, 2015 - 12:20AM

    @Astraldust:

    “Funny. Article on Free speech by a news reporting agency who won’t publish my comment.”
    I also noticed that since the Taliban took over ET their standards have gone downhill like ton of bricks as reported by Guardian of UK:
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/28/liberal-newspaper-express-tribune-silenced-pakistani-taliban
    I made a valid comment of the Paris magazine making satire cartoons of Christians and Catholics but they have not gone out butchering people.

    Recommend

  • Gram Massla
    Jan 12, 2015 - 12:26AM

    Mr. Patel is correct to point out the hypocritical attitude of the Western press. Antisemitism is simply not tolerated. It is a crime in France to question the Holocaust. So much for “freedom of expression”.
    However there is a qualitative difference. In sacking the writer of the perceived anti-Semitic comment no murders were committed. Perhaps aggrieved Muslims can learn a lesson from this: acquire power through money and then suppress free speech.

    Recommend

  • ISROFan
    Jan 12, 2015 - 12:28AM

    Yes.

    Recommend

  • Pak Liberal
    Jan 12, 2015 - 12:47AM

    In private and in public I often hear derogatory remarks about Shias, Hindus, the immoral West and many others. Yet we are easily offended when others criticize Islam. Should me not control our rude speech before we expecting others to respectful in their language.

    Recommend

  • goldconsumer
    Jan 12, 2015 - 1:07AM

    @observer:
    Gujrat is “your” part??
    Kashmir is your part. oh its your attot ang?
    Asaam is also your part?

    Recommend

  • wb
    Jan 12, 2015 - 6:51AM

    @Yo2Da2

    “Your comment begs the question: Did religion come first or human motivation and emotion that produced it? Even without religion, there would be lack of peace and tolerance for many other reasons. ”

    That’s like saying, even without cancer people would die from pneumonia and TB, so let’s not try to eliminate cancer.

    More violence has taken in this world in the name of religion than anything else. And this, without an iota of evidence for the existence of god.Recommend

  • Milind
    Jan 12, 2015 - 11:16AM

    “Should the right to free speech be absolute?”

    No. No… No…
    Its ok to evaluate or reinterpret religious texts to adapt to the modern world. Its perfectly fine to evaluate the life of the religious personalities.

    But ridiculing religions or Gods/Prophets, writing with malice against these, needs to be outrightly banned.

    Recommend

  • hilarious
    Jan 12, 2015 - 1:51PM

    @goldconsumer:

    Er… Yes
    Yes
    and Yes

    Recommend

  • Je suis Charlie
    Jan 12, 2015 - 7:59PM

    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

    Recommend

  • Asok
    Jan 13, 2015 - 3:57AM

    CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING.
    Pakistan is a country were merely singing a religious song on TV, without any intention to insult anybody, but to celebrate a joyous occasion, can result in non-bailable charge of blasphemy, whose punishment is death.

    In such a country, in such a context, arguing for anything less than absolute free speech is intellectual cowardice.

    Recommend

  • Rashida
    Jan 13, 2015 - 9:26PM

    Who has the authority to quantify the amount of freedom ? Just because you are more sensitive than rest of the mass should we mind every single time at the cost of our own comfort and stay careful and feared for what you may or may not like ?
    More than challenging the freedom of speech and trying to decide on how much freedom is good freedom how about preaching how much tolerance is good tolerance ? If you learn tolerance then no matter how someone grossly violates the freedom of speech it would never hurt you or matter to you. Tolerance is not sign of weakness but far superior strength. Its easier to loose your cool and feel like nuking the whole world in that spurge of violent mental state. But it takes to be good human and serious follower of Almighty to overcome that urge and keep calm and continue to do your own good work.
    Nobody seems to be teaching tolerance instead everybody wants to challenge other’s freedom. If thats the case then stop claiming that your way of living and religion is “tolerant or peaceful”.

    Recommend

  • ak
    Jan 18, 2015 - 7:16AM

    @wb:
    Were the world wars due to religion? Do you really believe that terrorism is due to religion or due to power politics of world powers? Everything including religion can be misused by people who have no value system. So don’t say that all that’s wrong is due to religion. Rather there are lot of good religious people and a few fanatics due to which people like you get to stereotype religions! I am totally for free speech but against stereotyping in baseless manner as done here. Also baseless and irrational free speech is meaningless and doesn’t take anyone anywhere. Its just like randomly abusing people and that benefits no one including the one who abuses.

    Recommend

More in Pakistan