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Freedom of Speech in Post Truth Era! — Dr Mehnaz Najmi

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. — John Milton

Dr MEHNAZ NAJMI | Caravan Daily

POST-TRUTH era (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post truth can be termed as a shift from reason to emotion, where emphasis is given to the exaggerated feelings rather than logic.

Symbols are created to enforce an artificial support system where emotionally charged issues are discussed and debated, leaving aside important issues. It offers only one option that is to support the system, opposing it or staying neutral is not considered nationalistic. Freedom of Speech and expression threatens this whole idea of post factual politics, which encourages citizens to ask the pertinent questions about the policies and state matters. It is one of the most important rights enshrined by our constitution which allows us to express our opinion unhindered and unfettered by the fear of retribution. It is one of the most basic elements for a healthy democratic nation.

In India, this right is granted under Article 19(1) (a). However, this right of freedom to speech and expression is not completely unchecked. Article 19 (2) allows for reasonable restrictions to be imposed on all fundamental rights, including that of freedom to speech and expression.

Freedom of Speech and expression threatens this whole idea of post factual politics, which encourages citizens to ask the pertinent questions about the policies and state matters. It is one of the most important rights enshrined by our constitution which allows us to express our opinion unhindered and unfettered by the fear of retribution.

India, is a country which suffered humiliation and exploitation of British raj for 100 years, where people were not treated as equals and were not allowed to speak up or to stand up for their rights. After independence, they were granted the right to speech about their issues, sentiment, problems or possible threats and dangers. It was not just a right but a long due which our first democratic government bestowed on us at the time of Independence. It was a time when we decided to come together as a nation leaving aside our regional, lingual or religious identities.

A federo-unitary government was formed to ensure and celebrate diversity of this country. No discrimination should be made on any basis, and in case it is made by the people or by the government, the provision of constitutional remedies was there. The secular structure of the state was also brought in so that politicians playing divisive politics or having a manipulative agenda of forcing their ideology on others can be kept at bay. The cardinal principle was co-existence of all in harmony without any force or fear from outside.

Right to Speech and Expression today!

After 70 years of independence, what we are witnessing is that the roots of democracy are getting deeper and common man is aware about his rights and duties. A new phenomenon of post-truth however has posed question on existing democratic structures of free speech as it supports hyper nationalism and emotional issues.

Historical narratives prove that all the governments from time to time have tried to suppress this right covertly or overtly. Emergency (1975-77) is still remembered as a blot on Indian politics due to its oppressive attitude towards media and civil society. Journalists were forced to write in support of governmental policies and those who dared question such dictates were put behind the bars. Cases were initiated against them at the behest of government. An effort was made to shut the dissenting voices.

As the time passed, and Congress lost power due to its draconian policies, the political elite to some extent learned to respect the rights of a common man. Though, they were and still are far away from respecting the rights the way they should be! In 2014, the BJP formed a majoritarian government on the promise of “Sabka Sath- Sabka Vikas”. The idea was a revolution and Narendra Modi emerged as the most powerful leader, larger than life figure and a saviour of humanity! He was portrayed as a messiah who has come to save the Indians from the clutches of a political party called Indian National Congress claimed to be having colonial mindset.

Liberty to express opinions and ideas without obstruction and without fear of punishment plays important role in the development of society and state. It is one of the most important fundamental liberties guaranteed against possible threat of state suppression. It also stops democracy from turning into tyranny of majority, where the voices of dissent are suppressed.

He promised Achche Din (good days) in hundred days and demanded a chance from public. Indians too wanted a change, which in fact is the beauty of democracy and should take place time to time, gave their command in the hands of a new party. The media on its part played an important role in the formation of new government. They played hyper nationalist news items, which included defaming and ridiculing then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his party members, created factoids and gave extreme coverage to day to day issues to defame the existing government. After all it was their right to speech and expression.

It all worked in favor of the new government and they gained trust of people by the right to speech and expression used by the media and their followers. As the time passed and people began demanding Achche Din from the ruling elites, slowly and gradually their voices were shut. Initially people who questioned were ridiculed as enemies of nation for doubting the government having good intentions, later on voices of dissent were crushed forcibly.

Murder of dissenting journalists has become a common scenario here. This majoritarian government has now started walking the path of Congress during emergency era. The leaders do not like the dissenters and force them to stay quiet. Media has always played a vital role in upholding rights of citizens too has got infected with this change.

Earlier, the neutral and unbiased attitude of media ensured that citizens get news of different struggles or news during emergency period. But the idea of news these day is something that ‘sells’. The news which does not sell or does not create mass hysteria is no news at all. To sell the news, facts are distorted, manipulated and factoids are created to suit the interests of their owners. A lie is spoken so many times, that it starts sounding like a truth, debate sessions are held on it and then public is asked to give their opinion by typing yes or no. Later on, dedicated viewers are asked to pen down their opinions which are either read by the anchor or displayed on the channels, degrading the noble profession of journalism into ‘yellow journalism’.

Displaying love for the nation has become more important than loving your nation. Emotional issues like respecting national flag, singing Vande Matram or standing on national anthem in cinema halls have become the matter of debate on news channels, where panelists are discussing their merit/demerit. As Ravish Kumar sarcastically points out that heavy discussions on Hindu-Muslim topics will eventually result into corruption free country, equality will prevail, there shall be no traffic jams on roads, education will become important, school fees shall be slashed and India will become great again!

Media has stopped asking questions on corruption charges on ministers, poverty, education or medical facilities. Whether the policies are good or bad, an open dissent and debate is must and should be celebrated. Politicians and their families should not be free from public scrutiny as they are public servants and it is their duty to respect the media which is asking for the proof of their honesty. Gagging of news broadcasters, filing cases and defamation suits on them for asking questions is an attempt to kill free voice.

Journalists like Siddhartha Vardarajan or Ravish Kumar are being trolled and harassed for asking relevant questions on social and political issues. Cases are filed on them for providing us news, for asking us to stand up for our rights and for safeguarding our right to speech and expression! No matter, whether they are right or wrong but their voices should be heard and instead of trolling them, clarification or proof of non-indulgence in corruption should be provided by the political leaders. What is really sad these days are attempts made by law makers, to stop the whistle blowers or journalists from filing the cases or FIR against the corrupt officials without their consent?

Those who ask questions is due to freedom of speech which is first condition of liberty and implies ones right to express ideas and opinions freely by writing, printing, animation or pictures or any other mode. The first principle of a free society is an unhindered flow of words and expression.

Liberty to express opinions and ideas without obstruction and without fear of punishment plays important role in the development of society and state. It is one of the most important fundamental liberties guaranteed against possible threat of state suppression. It also stops democracy from turning into tyranny of majority, where the voices of dissent are suppressed.

As history is evident, the idea of dissent and right to speech and expression has created a lot of trouble for the reining elites. People like Mahatama Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Che Guevara questioned the authority and almost forced the governments to change the existing laws which were against the common good. These great men earned the rights for us by participating in struggles against the authoritative governments of their times. It is our shared heritage which is passed on to us as our fundamental right and enshrined by the constitution.

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