Navigating the contours of expression

The British colonisation of India was not only founded on the basic principles of emerging capitalism but arguably the assumption of their inherent cultural and moral superiority played a significant role in shaping a misguided belief that they were divinely appointed to “purify” the land of perceived savagery. In their pursuit of this objective, the British raped through a cultural
heritage that spanned several millennia, leaving behind a legacy of pain and trauma that still reverberates today.
It is possible that the English conception of freedom and education was underpinned by a sense of superiority derived from the practice of English Common Law, which ensured certain liberties later labeled as fundamental rights. Among these was the freedom of speech protected by English statutory law.
It is crucial to acknowledge that words have proven to be more potent than weapons, as any adept ruler will attest. Throughout history, leaders have grappled with the challenge of reconciling the need for free expression with the imperative of social control. When governing a vast empire that spans the globe, and ruling over subjects who harbor animosity towards you and actively conspire against your authority, is it not pragmatic to outlaw freedom of speech? Could the stability of the state not be prioritized over individual liberty in such a scenario?
For numerous states, restricting free speech has been deemed a satisfactory rationale. However, the British employed a different approach during their colonisation of India. Alongside their armies, the British introduced the English education system with the aim of inculcating the local elite with pro-British values. Consequently, the Indian colonial experience was characterised by the native elite serving their British overlords, for they seemingly had no other viable options available to them.
Upon gaining independence from the British crown in 1947, Pakistan was faced with the challenge of operating under the Government of India Act 1935, a law drafted by the English. As a result, Pakistan, almost by design, was destined to become a state that would have to grapple with the English concepts of freedom and speech and balance them with the Islamic and nationalistic values of the new country.
Most would say that insofar we have not been very successful in our endeavors. Freedom of speech is something that we seriously struggle with. Many within our nation even see the simple idea of freedom of speech as a ploy by western powers to destabilise our nation. The truth however is that these ‘scheming’ western powers themselves are struggling the modern age to contain harmful overspills by new liberal movements who view the freedom of speech and expression as a cornerstone of some liberty they lost.
Drawing a clear line between radical or controversial political opinions and hate speech has always been a moot point. The question of where to draw the line remains a challenge for lawmakers and society at large. Take the American Nazi Party, for instance. Some argue that they were merely a far-right political wing, while others consider them an extremist white supremacist group. It’s difficult to reconcile such conflicting views, leaving us to wonder about the party’s true nature and whether an outright ban on the organisation was a step against civil democracy in the United States. Closer to home, the Pakistani government banned the TTP, but what led to this decision? Was it their political views and approach, or their willingness to resort to violence?
Although the issue of drawing a line between hate speech and political opinions may be unsolvable, we can focus on less extreme examples that have easier solutions and greater implications for free speech. A recent example is PEMRA’s restrictions on the live telecast of Imran Khan’s public speeches, which violate his constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Despite Khan’s history of making slanderous and threatening statements toward political opponents, critics, and journalists, censoring his speeches is a fundamental breach of his rights. Upholding the right to free speech means protecting everyone’s ability to express their opinions without fear of censorship or retaliation.
Respecting the constitutional rights of all citizens, especially high-profile political figures, is a critical responsibility for any state. It becomes particularly important when it comes to ex-prime ministers like Imran Khan. While it may be necessary for Khan to change his approach to public discourse and avoid making slanderous statements, censorship is not an appropriate solution.
Instead, any alleged violations of speech should be addressed through proper legal channels, where a judge can evaluate the evidence and impose an appropriate sentence. Safeguarding the fundamental right to free speech is vital for promoting democracy and the free exchange of ideas. Allowing censorship to go unchecked, even in cases where an individual has a history of making inflammatory statements, sets a dangerous precedent for the future.
The recent bans imposed by PEMRA are not only arguably unfair and overreactions but also look increasingly like weak attempts at playing politics to the outside world as noted by recent concerns raised by a US Congressman.
These bans are often imposed without due consideration and every time they have been challenged in court, they have been consistently overturned. This demonstrates the worrying trend of a repressive state that is fearful of dissenting voices. Such tactics have never worked in the past and only serve to harm democracy, which relies on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and free speech. By stifling dissent and restricting the free flow of ideas, a state risks creating an environment of fear and repression that erodes the basic tenets of democracy. Instead, it is essential to foster an environment where individuals are free to express their opinions and engage in civil discourse without fear of retaliation or censorship.
While it is understandable that certain inflammatory statements may need to be addressed through legal channels, a blanket ban on an individual’s public speeches is not the appropriate solution. The state must prioritise the protection of the fundamental right to free speech and expression, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable for those in power.
Ultimately, the health of a democracy is determined by its ability to tolerate and engage with diverse opinions and perspectives. It is up to the state to uphold these principles and ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard, regardless of their political affiliations or opinions.

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