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You are here: Home | Human rights | Agenda | Freedom of expression | Speaking freely

Speaking freely

With citizens being charged with sedition for speaking their minds, with books and films being banned or censored, not just by the state but by chauvinist forces, with artists forced to flee the country for offending ‘public sentiment’, with historical enquiry stalled and history being rewritten, we are seeing increasing constraints on freedom of expression says Dilip Simeon. When such practices become common in democratic systems, they inaugurate the slide towards tyranny

‘With force I have subdued the brains of the proud’ -- Epigraph on the grave of Cardinal Inquisitor Roberto Bellarmino (1542-1621), who presided over the condemnation of Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600

The essays contained in this issue of Infochange Agenda are engagements with the question of socially accessible truth. Images and spoken (or written) words are implicitly social, and the matter of constraints and deliberate distortions in them is very old. In fact, a look at the world around us might re-awaken thoughts of the Inquisition.

 The essays are substantial, and speak for themselves. The themes tackled by their authors have been addressed by them seriously and for a long time. They range from the debate about sedition, constraints placed upon historical inquiry; the political certification of literary awards and filmed images, to the censorship of journalists’ reports. They cover experiences arising not just in India, but in neighbouring countries too; and they deal with issues generated not only by state policy, but by mass belief as well. This is as it should be, for the political control of speech and thought is not confined within national or ideological frontiers. For instance, the state manipulation of history is not merely a Russian (or Soviet) phenomenon. It reflects the widespread attempt by governments and political ideologues to control the present via doctored accounts of the past. This is why history so often appears to be a political minefield. Here, as in related matters, the only sound option is to allow historical exploration to proceed without manipulation or intimidation, enabling truth to emerge through sustained debate and dialogue, and free access to archives.

A citation from Hannah Arendt that I often use for the sheer impression it made on me, reads as follows: “Is it the essence of truth to be powerless and of power to be deceitful? And what reality does truth possess, if it is powerless in the public realm?” To my mind, this meditation lies at the heart of the question of freedom of speech and expression. Censorship and propaganda are mirror images of each other. Censorship is a passive form of propaganda and propaganda an active form of censorship (readers wishing to examine this proposition could read George Orwell’s essay on euphemism, for which a link is provided below).

There are other questions, about the responsibility of the state and of citizens. Where may we draw the line between freedom of speech, hate speech and the incitement to murder? How ought the media to treat the reportage of hate-inspired acts, and the reproduction of images likely to inflame people’s feelings? How do we deal with deceit and deliberate misinformation? These questions also relate to the violent conflict that surrounds us. If truth is the first casualty of war, it follows that a condition of perpetual warfare (‘hot’ or ‘cold’, involving internal or external enemies) implies an all-round assault on truth. Modern warfare is characterised by ideological manipulation, on the assumption that public opinion is part of the battleground. The media lends itself to the political realm as a means of mobilising sentiment. Ideologies tend to mix reason with faith; and their adoption by the mass media strengthens the belief that truth is a purely relative thing, “a mobile army of metaphors”. Media aside, a crass manifestation of commercialised venom is available for travellers to the Wagah border, where assembled crowds from India and Pakistan hurl patriotic slogans at each other every evening -- egged on by tour operators making a fast buck (incidentally, this was not the case some 20 years ago, when I visited the border along with some friends. There was a friendly and convivial atmosphere then).

Must we resign ourselves to the belief that truth is just a line of vision, one perspective among many, that everything is an interpretation? Has truth been abolished by politics? I believe not. There are indeed many interpretations of things and events, but in order to interpret anything, we must assume there is an object to interpret in the first place. To hold that all truth is class truth; or that everything worth knowing is already evident, in accordance with some established tradition; or in line with the interests of the Nation, the Community or some such permanently unquestionable entity, is to set the stage for an obliteration of language. The tendency to replace meaningful conversation by polemic and sentimental brow-beating is apparent in the political domain, where cliches and holy cows are regularly fielded in order to manufacture animus rather than clarity. In such a situation, speech becomes equivalent to silence, because no one hears anyone. We cannot hope to engage with the crucial issues of our time if we continue to treat the pursuit of truth with such disdain. We need to remind ourselves that the “violation of truth poisons everything gained by the violation”, that for individuals as well as for public institutions beginning with the state, the assault on truthful communication is self-destructive. Dictators have learnt this to their cost, and when such practices become common in democratic systems, they inaugurate the slide towards tyranny.

Truth and freedom go together. Questions of sensitive reportage of, say, communal violence may be approached via the practice of restraint, without intending to deceive and distort. It is possible to consider these matters as part of an ethic of responsibility, without succumbing to a dictatorial or nihilist contempt for truth.

The authors of the essays contained in this issue have each in their own way made significant efforts to answer these profound questions. I’m grateful to Infochange Agenda for inviting me to edit this issue, and I hope these articles prove as thought-provoking for its readers as they were for me. There is a lot more that could be said on the theme of free public expression, but I’m confident that readers will find a great deal here to pursue their interests further. My heartfelt thanks are due to the contributors, and regards to all readers of Infochange Agenda.

Some useful links on censorship and intellectual freedom

Index on Censorship, current edition: The Net Effect: As digital technology transforms the culture of activism and access to information -- from revolution in Egypt to reporting on the secret services in Russia, Index on Censorship assesses the ways and means of using new media to get the word out, and asks if the United States is Internet freedom’s best friend. http://www.indexoncensorship.org/category/current-edition/

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is a tool for persecution and reflects the grip of religious extremism. http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/03/speak-no-evil-the-grip-of-religious-extremism-on-pakistans-political-culture/

The controversy regarding the NDA government’s alleged attempt to tamper with Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works. http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/cwmg_controversy.html

Extract from George Orwell on Politics and the English Language, 1946: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Read more at:
http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

(Dilip Simeon is a Delhi-based historian and writer. He is also associated with the Aman Public Charitable Trust, which works to understand and reduce violent social conflict. His first novel Revolution Highway was published by Penguin India in September 2010)

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