I am prompted to write about freedom of speech because of the recent attacks on journalists in the capital city of Pakistan. Freedom of speech is one of the major pillars of a democracy and without freedom of speech one cannot speak truth to the powerful. If we base our system of government on compliance and sycophancy to the powerful groups within a country, then such a country will have rampant corruption and the powerful groups within the country will be able to manipulate the system without common people even knowing about the affairs of these influential groups.
A state has a legislative, an executive branch and a judiciary which run the state of affairs working together. Then there is media which has the role of a gate keeper, responsible to make sure there is objective reporting on the issues and the workings of the government.
If we take the United States, and its government, we see that TV channels like CNN, MSNBC and other media outlets try to objectively report on issues or workings of the government. Although Donald Trump became a president in a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, the media was contiguously pointing out the racist nature of Donald Trump and his policies. The media was very critical of the Muslim ban in the United States and Trump’s benevolent, patronizing, behavior towards the White Supremacists.
Let’s look at the the incident in Charlottesville, where there was a clash between white supremacists and progressives’ students and activists. Donald Trump stated that there were good people on both sides although on one side had extremists and the other had peaceful protesters. The media was very critical of the Donald Trump’s statement and they were able to criticize the president without any consequences. The people of the United States were able to know the ground reality with the help of the media and the freedom of speech that is protected by the first amendment of the United States’ constitution.
The government did not try to kill or muzzle the voices which were critical of the government and the people were given the choice to criticize their own government. The government did not say to the people that they were traitors and they were against the development of the country. The government did not try to intimidate the Journalists by bribing or threatening them. There was a difference of opinion and the government disagreed with the media on public platforms.
Strong democracies allow their people to dissent and criticize the government whenever they feel the policies do not benefit the state. Vibrant societies accept difference of opinion as constructive tools to come up with better social policies for the country. Dictatorships are bad because one person dictates the policy of the whole country and if he happens to be someone like Shah of Iran who with his repressive regime tried to impose his own ideals on the people of Iran. His policy of Westernization back fired and the Mullahs were able to take over the country because of Shah’s dictatorship. Now the country is facing 35 % unemployment rate and the Mullahs only care about their grip on power and not the common people who are suffering because of the policies of the clergy. If there was a democracy in Iran, instead of the Shah’s dictatorship, then Iran could have been able to promote policies which were people friendly and according to the aspirations of the people. Shah of Iran did allow freedom of speech and muzzled those voices which were critical of the regime. Ultimately, he was surrounded by sycophant who were telling the Shah what he wanted to hear, not the ground reality which was bleak and antagonistic to the Shah. States can come up with better policies if they allow freedom of speech and the best minds give their insights on issues which are important to the state.
Coming back to United States, where there was criticism of the Donald Trump regime, it was the freedom of speech that protected the people from state oppression, and instead empowered them, in accordance with the law of the land. The populist policies of Donald Trump were exposed by the media and social media because people had freedom of speech and they were without any intimidation of the state organs able to express their opinions. When a state allows freedom of speech there is rigorous debate on issues and unlike authoritarian regimes.
In conclusion, we come closer to the truth and develop realistic and pragmatic policies when there is freedom of speech. A state and its government should not be insecure about the criticism they receive from media and the masses. They should acknowledge the participatory role of the media and its people in policy making and this should allow them to introspect on the policies they are implementing.
Dissent and critical voices are important in a vibrant tolerant society and there should be room for debate on policy issues. We should be following the quotation of famous Philosopher Voltaire, who famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The contributor is a student of National Defense University, Islamabad, majoring in International Relations.