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The price of free speech

  • Published at 12:01 am November 9th, 2016
The price of free speech

Recently on Facebook, Taslima Nasrin, our own icon of freedom, accused several Bangladeshi newspaper editors of being cowardly for refusing the publication of an article written to commemorate the tragic murder of the Jordanian satirist and writer Nahid Hattar.

I can honestly feel Ms Nasrin’s frustration, but however, I personally do not think it is appropriate to hold the editors or the journalists responsible for the appalling state of free speech Bangladeshi writers and free-thinkers are suffering from.

In fact, it is not the editor’s job to defend our freedom and liberty. In this era of modern democracy and journalism, their job is to manage a publishing business in accordance with the principles of free press and make a profit out of it.

The time we live in is difficult. Too many precious lives have already been lost to claim a spot in the market place of ideas. A chopped head of an editor or a Charlie Hebdo type massacre is not something we really want.

From the Fatwa issued against Ms Nasrin 20 years ago for writing Lojja, to the recent murders of the bloggers, whether she accepts it or not, she must obviously know by heart that the price for free speech apparently today is much higher than what it used to be 30 or 40 years ago, when the newspaper editors were considered as the frontline defender of free speech.

Managing a newspaper can be a risky business, but considering the recent killings, it now has become more severe than any given time of the history.

But there is the obvious question regarding free speech that arises: Who should bear the responsibility of defending it and why should it be defended?

A complete direction is found from a famous opinion of the US Supreme Court judge Justice Louis D Brandies, where he pointed out that it is a fundamental duty of the state to defend free speech.

Justice Brandies directed, liberty is the secret of happiness. Courage is the secret to liberty.

Freedom of thoughts and speech are the means of political truth. Without free speech and free assembly, it’s impossible for this democracy to thrive, perhaps even survive.

With them, discussion protects against “the dissemination of noxious doctrine” so “public discussion is a political duty.” Free speech, then, is “a fundamental principle of the government.”

Free speech has always been under threat in Bangladesh. Even threats were made on the very day it was won, but today after 26 years of democratic rule, Bangladesh has entered a phase, where intolerance has become the accepted orthodoxy of the overbearing political and religious authorities.

They are now systematically discouraging and restricting intellect and the seeking of the truth in the name of tolerance.

Too many precious lives have already been lost to claim a spot in the market place of ideas

We are now being legally forbidden from pursuing a rational debate that challenges or fact-checks the philosophies that are claimed to be divinely true.

Seriously, the current status of free speech in Bangladesh reminds me of the movie Hirok Rajar Deshe directed by the legend Satyajit Ray where seeking knowledge was a crime.

The highest purpose of intellect, as it is accepted universally, is to examine and to challenge the beliefs that are claimed to be true, no matter how many people believe in it, or whoever says it.

A truth is not established if it is not scrutinised.

Tolerance, however, becomes meaningless and vague if it is used as a tool of oppression against the purpose of seeking knowledge.

The true meaning of tolerance can only be realised by respecting the sovereignty of human mind and by acknowledging the right of pursuit of knowledge and presentation of argument, of anything and everything: Religion, science, politics, history, or ethics.

When the entire democratic establishment of the world is debating on whether it is possible to have even greater liberty and freedom, thanks to the government, we are writing articles to claim back the minimum rights we once had.

Now, remember the old saying, “Nero fiddled when Rome burned.”

Can the press just brush off all the responsibilities?

It has now become apparent that the hard right religious groups are not the only danger to free speech in Bangladesh.

The main challenge is now coming from the members of the mainstream political establishment who are sworn to defend it, yet seek to restrict it in practice.

The press might be vulnerable to the first, but what about the second? Isn’t it a journalistic principle to stand up for free speech? Can we really afford to risk surrendering without a fight in this precious battle of liberty?

Let’s finish with the view of the US Supreme Court judge Justice Oliver Windell Homes Jr: “If there is any principle of the constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thoughts -- not free thoughts for those who agree with, us but freedom for the thought we hate.”

Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger and activist.

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