Freedom of speech or freedom of expression is the phrase popular in the Western part of our planet in the recent weeks. People are dancing, singing and crying; on streets, market places and at newsrooms, for a single thing – they call freedom of speech. They say it is their ‘democratic value’, some even claim it is their ‘lifeline’. It is good for all and it is absolute, they say.
On the contrary, there are some others who are dying because of the same phrase. We see wars, bloodsheds, burnings, lootings and all that is classified as crime or uncivilized linked with this very phrase freedom of speech. If it is good for all then how can it cause violence and disorder among us? Or is it essentially an evil that some sick people are dragging us to hell? What exactly this freedom of speech is!
Ironically some in the East too started suffering from a kind of untreatable intellectual disorder. They say freedom of speech is absolute. You can speak anything against anybody at anytime, anywhere and in anyway; wow - can you?
Does it mean one can abuse others, can insult, can lie, be it an individual, a society or an entity; be it a government, a god-man or God- and what not, one is ‘absolutely’ free to speak! Does it mean one can propagate against his own country, his faith and even disrespect his parents who have nourished him with care and abuse his Lord who has created him from a drop of water! May be yes for some because their freedom of speech is ‘absolute’ – means unlimited, unchecked, thus, ‘divine’, isn’t it?
Our freedom of speech is restricted and all we can speak or do is within certain limits. We are just humans, not God who can do anything and everything nor animals which do not enjoy the faculty of wisdom. We do not find either, a place to do and say anything or everything being ‘absolutely free’ other than in a jungle.
What we understand from freedom of speech is a political right to communicate one's opinions and ideas using one's physical means to anyone who is willing to receive them. Every government in the world restricts freedom of speech to a certain degree.
Common limitations on speech relate to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, hate speech, incitement, abuse, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, right to privacy, right to be forgotten, public security, public order, and public nuisance and so on.
The term "offense principle" was specially added to expand the range of free speech limitations to prohibit forms of expression where they are considered offensive to society, special interest groups or individuals. For example, freedom of speech is limited in many jurisdictions to widely differing degrees by religious legal systems, religious offense or incitement to ethnic or racial hatred laws.
However, freedom itself is not absolute anywhere, let alone freedom of speech, not even in the USA where laws against anti-Semitism are enforced. Not in France where a burqa-clad Muslim woman is considered to be a ‘real’ threat to its ‘secular democratic’ pyramid. It is not in Switzerland either where an RCC structure – a minaret of a masjid is considered to be cruise-missile against its ‘democratic values’. And more so it is not in the ‘symbol of freedom of speech’ (sick) Charlie Hebdo magazine too which fired its own cartoonist- Sine in 2009 just because he had mocked former President Sarkozy’s son converting to Judaism for money through his caricature.
We also know that the right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states, "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression...”
Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "for respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals".
This is our freedom of speech and is not absolute. It carries certain responsibilities and is not evil or vice. We are not, and we don’t want to support Charlie Hebdo to incite 1.7 billion Muslims and insult Prophet Muhammad (saws).
*M. Burhanuddin Qasmi is Editor of Eastern Crescent and Director of Markazul Ma’arif Education and Research Centre, Mumbai.