Free Speech : theirs and ours

Free Speech: Theirs and Ours

By Hussain Nadim

May 02, 2015

What’s the cost of free speech in the ‘free world’? Scott McIntyre, a sports journalist for Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia, recently had a taste of it. Not only was he fired from SBS, but was also put to shame by every TV channel, by every anchorperson, and the general public in Australia. His crime? Questioning, through a tweet, the wide commemoration of Anzac Day.

Anzac Day, for those not aware, is observed in Australia, New Zealand and other islands in the Pacific originally in memory of Australian and Kiwi soldiers who laid down their lives fighting against the Ottoman Empire in Gallipoli during the First World War.

Freedom of speech may be prevalent in the ‘free world’, perhaps, when it comes to criticising religion, but should you dare to say a word against the military and soldiers — bastions of national pride — and the skies fall apart, as can be seen in the case of McIntyre.

Nowhere is the case of ‘free speech’ more interesting than in the ‘Land of Freedom’, the United States itself. While studying at a university in the US, it was common to have US Marines, and soldiers enrolled for courses — most of whom were returning from Iraq or Afghanistan after spending a couple of grueling years there. The regard that professors and students would have for the men in uniform, and the US military at large for ‘protecting’ the US, was completely unparalleled.

What I, however, found puzzling was that barely any student or professor supported the Iraq war, or for that matter, the war on terror. Despite that, at no point would anyone dare criticize the military, or the actions of soldiers in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Somehow, it felt as if the American public was held back by an innate sense of national pride and a belief, probably constructed through American cinema, that the US military could do nothing wrong. As one of my American friends used to say, “They might not be doing the right thing at the moment — but they are inherently good people who can’t do wrong, and in the end of it all, the US will prevail.”

This was no conservative southern university: this was one of the most liberal American universities known for its academic openness, and yet the ‘critical’ element in the case of discussing the US military and intelligence agencies was missing. Compare that with Pakistan and one may notice a different reality. Pakistan, undoubtedly, lacks freedom of religion, and many other related freedoms, but as for ‘free speech’ and critical-mindedness, the evidence may suggest otherwise. Pakistan’s experience with free speech is full of dichotomies.

On the one hand, the way in which our politicians are criticised, the judiciary degraded, and military ridiculed on live TV, classrooms, roundtables, conferences, newspapers, drawing rooms, whether on the Balochistan issue or otherwise, nowhere in the world have we seen such radical freedom of speech. The question is not whether the actions of politicians, or military generals warrant such ridicule — the important thing to look at is the state’s response to such criticism.

In the recent past, the state has, to a large extent, willingly or unwillingly, tolerated criticism to a point where the threshold of ‘free speech’ has gone beyond any ethical standards. Several academics still get space to write openly against the state and whoever they deem appropriate, which makes one wonder over the other side of the same state: one that can’t tolerate a small gathering of people to discuss sensitive issues.

There is a tendency, at times, to inflate the role of the establishment in Pakistan as all-powerful and controlling. The fact is that the bodies that make up the establishment are after all part of the bureaucracy. To what extent can they monitor, let alone control, or dictate us is seriously questionable. More importantly, unlike the public in the US, people in Pakistan are far more critical and resilient — and no matter how much it is supressed, freedom of speech is likely to thrive in Pakistan.

Hussain Nadim is pursuing a PhD in Government & Public Policy from the University of Sydney and serving as a Project Director of Peace and Development Unit at the Planning Commission.


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