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Monday, June 06, 2011

Freedom of speech in Pakistan and India

One of Pakistan's more remarkable journalists, Syed Saleem Shahzad, was tortured and murdered, probably by Pakistan's ISI.

In one view of the world, freedom of speech is something that you are gifted by your founding fathers. As an example, if you have the good fortune of having a well drafted Constitution, it would say Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;. This would block the ability of politicians to enact legislation that is inimical to freedom of speech. Then, as long as rule of law prevails, we get freedom of speech. This seems like a palace coup, it seems rather easy, as long as you have the right intellectual capabilities in the hands of those who draft the Constitution of a country.

We in India or Pakistan are not blessed thusly. The Indian Constitution is not clear-headed about freedom of speech, and anti-defamation law of colonial vintage continues to be on the books. This is an important tool for harassment and intimidation. And then, there is the question of rule of law. What is going on in Pakistan is way beyond questions of how the Constitution should be drafted.

It is, instead, more useful to think that democracy and freedom are made of a million battles, small and large. Freedom of speech is won, piece by piece, through a million mutinies. It is important to constantly think, and speak, and write. Each little act of writing about troublesome issues pushes the envelope of freedom of speech, and creates a culture of honest discussion and discourse.

I feel the media in India has become quite complacent about the tawdry condition of free speech in India. All too often journalists can be warned off a seamy story by a tiny exercise of power or influence. All too often, the crooks are able to buy the loyalty of a journalist quite easily. There isn't enough intellectualism going around, among the men and women in the media. Eshwar Sundaresan, writing in Dawn, says that India badly needs more journalists of the character of Pakistan's Najam Sethi. This is one of many areas where India's success in the last 20 years is leading to an erosion of the very foundations of that success.


  1. Completely agree. Dawn seems to have a better share of upright oped writers/journalists than any of our major news papers. You have NF Paracha, Sana Saleem, Cyril Almeida, Kamran Shafi, Irfan Husain - writing alternative arguments to govt/establishment narrative. I am sure any of them could make millions by writing a single article a year favorable to establishment. I dont see such a collection of writers in any of our news organizations. There are MJ Akbers, Arundhari Roys, Tehelkas. But at times, their writings look to have jingoism, negative sarcasm, may be whiff of intellectual arrogance. I agree having such writers is better than not having any at all. What we need is more writers who can grease civil discourse, not those who generate more friction, increase disenchantment, add fuel to fire. The ease with which Journos can be bought (or to put it bluntly - the openness with which journos are trying to sell themselves) is disheartening. It is a very worrying phenomena. I have observed this from village level journalists to big city journalists. This is an infrastructure, albeit a negative one. Prevalence of this infrastructure is assisting establishment at every level (villages, towns, districts, states) in masking the truth, blunting objective look at serious issues. Policy thought leaders need to come up with long term ideas to tackle this. This cannot be tackled by a single solution or in a short term. But I hope some kind of sustained efforts take on sooner than later.

  2. Suhel Seth on what he thinks about the plans to censor the Internet in India-the world's largest democracy


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