Every modern democracy has provisions enshrined in its constitution that unequivocally protect citizens’ rights relating to freedom of thought and speech. Rights relating to free speech, press and information are today integral and inalienable. Without these, a modern democratic state is inconceivable.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, declared that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The level of freedom to communicate freely within the society has a significant impact on societal development, strength of the democracy and the society per se. History has proved, beyond any doubt, that a society in which everyone can speak freely is better in most respects than one in which freedom to speak is restricted. In the political context, freedom of speech is essentially the inalienable right of the citizens to communicate about all sorts of political issues. This, in practical terms, means that any communication that has relevance for the public, such as commentary on actions of the government or authorities, criticism of public officials or demands for rights, is protected.
The Constitution of Pakistan, adopted unopposed and reflecting the collective wisdom of the nation, guarantees basic freedom of speech to the citizens of Pakistan in Article19. It only allows some restrictions that are ‘imposed by law’. The Constitution recognises and gives sanctity to freedom of thought and expression not only in the preamble, but also through over-arching provisions of Article 8. The restricted areas have been identified in Article 19 but it is worth recalling here that all laws have to have a reason. Laws without reason cannot be justified, and always prove counter-productive in the long run. Free speech allows us to say what we think, including when we dissent or object. Terrorists and dictators, unlike democracies, aim to curb free speech and voices of dissent so that their voice/narrative should, to innocent minds, appear to be the voice of consensus. Silencing voices of dissent is the biggest victory terrorists can achieve – recent history, especially in our part of the world, is a testimony to this.
This is also the reason why dictators try to limit, manipulate, discredit, demonise, or otherwise control free speech, and to prevent dissemination of ideas or opinions that might threaten their narrative. In short, control of the flow of information is a favourite tool of dictatorships and the essence of tyranny. Free speech destroys despotism in all its forms. No wonder, suppression of free speech is the trademark of dictatorships and terrorists. Modern dictators and leaders of totalitarian states have realised that freedom of speech is their worst enemy and will eventually destroy them. They are afraid of words and of thoughts – words that may be spoken abroad, thoughts that may be stirring at home. A spark of free thought can throw into panic a dictator feared by many.
Reputed social scientists believe that the main reason why democracies have outperformed dictatorships in post-World War era is that democracies are better at processing information. Democracy diffuses the power to process information and makes its key decisions among a large number of people. It encourages consultative processes among its institutions. A dictatorship, on the other hand concentrates information and power in one place or institution. This is part of the reason why the former Soviet Union ended up making poorer decisions than the United States, and also why the Soviet economy lagged behind the American economy.
It is now beyond the capacity of any government to keep its citizens in dark and permanently deny them access to information. Sooner or later citizens will become aware of the facts. A delay is all they can hope for. The delay will only destroy the credibility of the government and its institutions. There is no option for modern states but to have efficient, competitive and responsible media so as to be able to channelise free flow of information to their citizens, and provide them with choices.
In developing countries like Pakistan policies are frequently seen in a single dimension. So much so that at times, policy is considered another name for controls and regulations. The age of media control in the traditional sense is over. No democratic country worth naming has a strict media policy in place any longer. Established democracies make it a point not to interfere in the constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of speech and expression. There is hardly a comprehensive law in any country that regulates all sectors of media; however, there are regulations that govern public sector players in the industry.
Simultaneously there are, indeed, expectations of responsible conduct from service providers. Governments and powerful institutions in some countries, even in this day and age, have not learnt to respect the important concepts of access to information and freedom of speech. Pressures are still exerted on the media to report in a way that is biased in favour of the government. Certain content requirements are enforced, mostly through informal means, and in violation of the governing laws. Informal ‘advisories’ are the worst forms of regulation. They are dangerous for the country and for democracy. Transparency of governance is the beauty of a democratic set-up. Informal advisories are against the very spirit of transparency and contradict with the vision of a civilised society. Undue intervention by government and authorities undermine the foundations of a state. These authorities forget the basic rule: in the face of oppression, silence is never golden.
In Pakistan, too, we have experienced deployment of invisible tools that either try to deny information to citizens or manipulate freedom of speech. Tools used for information control in our society range from informal ‘advisories’ to instructions to cable operators to show or not to show select information. There are, at times, direct ‘instructions’ to opinion makers in the media to behave in a specified manner. Owners of media houses are either financially squeezed or bribed to achieve such manipulation.
Pakistan will have to move forward and bring sanity to the information sector. This will happen as soon as national institutions truly recognise the importance of democracy and development for the country.
The writer is a senator and a former federal minister for information