Can one justify the reaction of those who began throwing their own shoes at these channels? – Illustration by Abro
What on earth is ‘freedom of speech?’ This question has been raised on various TV channels, in the newspapers and on internet forums in Pakistan after some channels were sent spinning off the air, allegedly by ‘hooligans’ on the payroll of the ruling People’s Party (PPP). These ‘hooligans’ were seemingly angered by the channels’ coverage of the shoe throwing incident in which a man had reportedly thrown a shoe at the President of Pakistan in the UK.
Though the channels in question did begin behaving like spoilt high school pranksters when the shoe story broke, can one justify the reaction of those who began throwing their own shoes at these channels? Absolutely not. Certainly not in a country being run by an elected government. But it’s not that simple, really.
Many detractors of these channels believe that those complaining that their democratic right of free speech is being muzzled belong to an ideology that is directly opposite to whatever democracy stands for. There is certainly more than a grain of truth in this. A majority of TV channels and (most) Urdu newspapers have for long adopted populist right-wing stances as policy; or an ideological mindset that, if translated into political practice, is bound to generate forces that will be the first, and the most fearsome, to impose a blanket ban and censorship on anything dished out in the name of freedom of speech.
For example, take the case of the right-wing TV anchors or hosts found on most channels spouting hatred against certain vulnerable sections and sects, or obsessively mocking the head of the state. Such a scenario becomes a paradox when after an anchor like these is criticised or deposed for spreading hatred; he at once turns and accuses the accusers of attacking his freedom of speech!
We are well aware of exactly what kind of an ideology such a person has to use to fatten his unchecked right-wing spiels (usually against democracy, politicians, liberalism and the idea of ethnic and sectarian plurality). It shouldn’t take a genius to detect the irony of this person who foams at the mouth, denouncing liberalism and democracy but suddenly flings his hands in the air and accuses his detractors of usurping his freedom of speech.
The question arises, should an outspoken, intolerant person have this kind of a freedom in a democracy? Well, in theory, yes, but many would say that not so in a fragile democracy like Pakistan. Democracy here will always have its limits. And it should. Because there will be only so much — often one-sided on taboo subjects — that can be said under the pretext of free speech in this country.
For instance, though TV channels may run religious debates between various Islamic sects and religions, can a channel also invite, say, an atheist or an agnostic to air his or her views on faith? Can a person who criticises the notion of the creation of Pakistan be invited to air his views? Never. And one can understand why.
Here newspaper editors and TV producers (as well as the state and the government) have to be extremely careful about what is allowed to appear in public. It makes sense.
Nevertheless, this also means that those who have been shouting about free speech these days must realise that their protest does not hold much credence when it is based on certain selective notions of free speech that they espouse.
If Pakistani media has learnt to ‘show responsibility’ and self-censorship about matters to do with faith and ideology, then why can’t it exhibit the same responsible attitude about so many other sensitive issues as well?
The current government’s incompetence is blatant, but I see not an iota of nobility or sense in the compulsive drubbing of the government by certain media outlets, especially when we know that the same outlets become somewhat ostrich-like while reporting on the more violent and intolerant forces.
What then is the underlying understanding? That one who retaliates is to be treated with kids’ gloves; that which is bound to disturb the conventional narrative about faith, society and politics is to be ignored; but that which would not retaliate and is vulnerable (due to its own incompetence), is fair game for boos and shoes?
Keeping the context in mind, I ask, exactly how suitable or justified are we to wave the free speech flag? To begin with, we need to first give ourselves a long course in understanding the responsibility that comes as a perquisite for attempting to exercise free speech. We self-censor ourselves a lot. The reasons are obvious. But ironically it is this otherwise unfortunate breach of free speech that may go a long way in helping us understand exactly what that responsibility is about.
Till then, I am afraid, all those hysterical spiels by populist media outfits about free speech just do not hold much credence in my eyes; though I would not condone the banning of any channel.