“This article will argue that free speech is in retreat. Granted, technology has given millions a megaphone, and speaking out is easier than it was during the cold war, when most people lived under authoritarian states. But in the past few years restrictions on what people can say or write have grown more onerous.”
So says an article titled “The Muzzle Grows Tighter: Freedom Of Speech Is In Retreat” in the June 4th edition of the Economist.
The analysis undertaken and the examples provided in this four-page article are strong. It cites the expansion throughout Europe and elsewhere of laws such as that passed in France in 2014 criminalizing “the defense of terrorism” and argues “such laws are handy tools for those in power to harass their enemies. And far from promoting harmony between different groups, they encourage them to file charges against each other.”
I was especially delighted, then, during my trip to India, to read the morning newspapers and find them not just intelligent and thoughtful but courageous and written to embrace and encourage a free and civil society. I found the editorial content in particular quite refreshing against the polarization of most of the mainstream US media and press. I was reminded that “freedom of the press” is a great political institution, but that it must be used wisely and responsibly, and must not be surrendered to government or business.
I was in India for just ten days and didn’t read the paper every day, but even in that short time was so struck by the editorial content and quality of The Times Of India that I clipped a handful of articles and brought them home with me. Here are some good examples:
Stand Together. Response to Turkey coup and Nice terror must be more inclusive politics The thrust of this article is self-evident from the title and the argument is well made. The final paragraph says, “Whether it is a secular militarist coup in Turkey or Islamist terrorism in France, the struggle against extremist must itself beware extremist strategies and mindset. This is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash between civilization and anti-civilization. So there can be no more fitting rebuttal of extremism than to pursue the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity more resolutely than ever.
Lawless Haryana: Ensuring women’s safety must become part of state’s development agenda This is an editorial with a particular Indian flavor. It focuses on a specific and extremely ugly repeated gang-rape, and through this makes a strong statement about women’s rights, the rule of law, and the incumbent government. “BJP came to power in Haranya on the promise of good governance”, it says. “And security is the first element of good governance. However little has been done to spruce up law and order in the state. Instead the state leadership has chosen to focus on issues such as setting up a cow protection task force even as women are devoid of basic protection. This makes BJP accusing other state governments of jungle raj ironic. Charity ought to begin at home. If agriculturally advanced Haranya also wants to attract investments and emerge as an industrial powerhouse, it must fix its law and order machinery and ensure women’s safety.”
This might seem a common sense argument, but I was impressed to see the issue taken up so strongly in the editorial pages. Similarly I was struck by the quality of thought that was brought to issues of terrorism, which is a strong and current issue in this larger neighbor to Bangladesh, a nation that experienced a horrific terrorist attack at a bakery in Dhaka on the night of July 1/2. For example:
For ISIS to be defeated, there has to be political, social change in Arab world In this short interview with Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, talks of his perception of ISIS and their weakness, but although his vies are quite encouraging and optimistic in many regards, he concludes, “but for its ideology to be truly defeated there has to be real political and social change in the Arab world. The failures and brutalities of Arab politics principally fuel the ideals of Islamist ideologies, and these, unfortunately, look to remain a feature of global politics for some time to come. Other Islamist groups are likely to emerge from the ashes of ISIS, perhaps not quite as violent but certainly just as doomed in terms of providing a template for a successful social and political order.”
Not Soft On Terror
I am struck that the kind of editorial content and coverage that I found so compelling does exist within the US, but that it is a minority perspective, and that it is often disparaged as the “liberal media”. Perhaps what I found most striking in India was the recognition that being liberal doesn’t mean being soft on terror or on law and order. Rather it is a recognition, as I quoted earlier, that when we are dealing with “not a clash of civilizations, but a clash between civilization and anti-civilization” it is the job of the media and of a democratic government to “pursue the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity more resolutely than ever”. This point was brought home powerfully in another editorial: Are liberals soft on Terror? No, the liberal stands for zero tolerance for terror, as well as for hate. Some extracts from this wonderful piece follow:
Liberals in [India] have been an endangered species for a while…liberals everywhere are winning only rarely. It’s so much easier to be sectarian and nationalist than accommodative and universal….
Repeated pummeling of the world by Islamic terrorism is seen to have snatched the ground away from the feet of liberals. When innocents are repeatedly being slaughtered it’s become almost unacceptable to talk of avoiding the language of hatred or upholding the rule of law or avoiding religious prejudice. A liberal who doesn’t chant the mantra of aggressive counterterrorism is branded as “appeaser of Muslims”, “apologist of terrorism” and “anti-national”.
…today those who argue for the rule of law are shouted down because the only law in place seems to be the law of force.
Which is why liberals need to speak up and not be silenced by “nationalist” war cries. Liberals need to demand that society and state uphold the essence of the law which is justice and fairness. If state institutions are not seen to provide justice, if law courts and police are seen as colluding with political interests for short term ends…then millitant ideas will only grow. Unless there is an attempt to reach out and engage in the crucial battle of ideas, terrorists will only gain more supporters.
The liberal is not being a terrorist sympathizer when she asks: What were the circumstances of Wani’s death? Why did he have to be killed? Could he not have been captured and arrested and brought to justice?
Faced with Islamic terrorism there should be zero tolerance of terror, but also zero tolerance on hate and manifestations of hate. Rather than summary killings, bring to justice. State and society institutions need to go the extra mile and demonstrate their capacity for rule of law and fairplay.”
An Argument For A Civil Society
Alongside the June 4th Economist article on the press is box with a story about free speech in Bangladesh, Economist “Muted By Machetes“. It talks about the civil danger of suggesting in public in that country that gay people might have rights. And it is in the civil arena that ultimately the battle fought by the press will be won or lost, for this is actually what the battle is about: do we want a civil and civilized society in which all are entitled to offer their opinions and be heard, in which the rule of fairness and justice is paramount in a context of “pursu[ing] the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity more resolutely than ever”?
The same Economist article notes that social media has made it easy for anyone to publish anything to a potentially global audience, but that this has opened up a couple of major problems. First, technology firms (Google and facebook, for example) are facing and grappling with horribly difficult and complex decisions about censorship…exacerbated by governmental pressure which can vary considerably by country. Secondly, and perhaps more problematically, “whereas the threats to free speech used to come almost entirely from governments, now non-state actors are nearly as intimidating.” Examples are cited of Mexican gangs and Islamist terrorists, but they go further. And the very social media that provides the avenue to express diverse opinions also provides the information gathering and organizing tools for governmental and non-governmental groups to suppress and intimidate.
Yes, I want the world to be a safe place to live, but at what cost? A totalitarian state is a safe place for those who don’t buck the system. In “Animal Farm”, George Orwell’s pigs led the revolution for equality, and we ended up with a society in which “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”
When a civil society is under stress, it is our job, as the Times of India says, to “pursue the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity more resolutely than ever”. This is not the same as ruling by force of law, which permits the passage of laws that are antithetical to real ideas of freedom. It is the job of the press to be a fearless voice to keep society on the straight and narrow, and it is the job of society not just to fearlessly protect the right of the press to engage in this debate, but by reading and participating in the press and in the resultant civic – and civilized – discourse to live the ideals of true freedom.