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Freedom of speech undone

  • Published at 06:12 pm December 4th, 2018
Media journalism
Journalism is under attack BIGSTOCK

Are we trading liberty for temporary safety?

These days, geopolitically interlinked nations often protect each other to either hide the wide inequality of society or absence of rule of law.

They see and understand things in their own way, while making it difficult for others to do the same. Any attempt by third parties to question that view is often branded as anti-state.

The power of free speech has historically stood against the reign of power, presenting the truth to the people. Interestingly, the mass media orchestrates information to the tune of the manufacturer. 

Thus, in this manner, the innocent masses and the courageous few are controlled, and their emotions and understanding are directed to maintain silence rather than exercise freedom of speech.

Long after the French Revolution, a cliché captured the imagination of the philosophical intelligentsia which stated that “Italy had a Renaissance, Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire.”

The liberal thoughts of Voltaire triggered the French Revolution after all, and hence his stories of courage to seek the truth survives just as brightly as today. Would anyone like Voltaire venture such courage and risk their life like that of Jamal Adnan Khashoggi or Viktoria Marinova?

While Viktoria Marinova embraced death to cover the suspected misuse of EU funds, Khashoggi had to die presumably for raising their voice against the policies of the Saudi crown prince. Would the story of Khashoggi or Marinova survive that long like Voltaire? Perhaps not.

While power is currently believed as supreme virtue, morality is believed, on the other hand, to be the invention of the weak to limit and deter the strong. The unequal power between the state and people, compromised contact between various institutions, and the dilemma between liberty and safety help preserve the power of notoriety. There is no chance of the names of Khashoggi or Viktoria Marinova to survive like that of Voltaire has for centuries.

The tragic death of Khashoggi for his freedom of speech has not startled Trump, but has instead emboldened him to exercise his own freedom of speech in order to make headlines. It appears the very spirit of free speech is in danger.

The question is, what does it take to sink the stories of people like Khashoggi or Marinova or discourage someone to aspire to be the next Voltaire? The 21st century might have witnessed unprecedented technological progress, but it has observed a regression in morality and a sense of equality.

Many systems of governance exist, but most of them fail to provide any sense of equality among the people -- ultimately preferring to make friends with the rich and ignore those who are not. And those who try to question such traditions usually end up like Khashoggi and Marinova.

There are fewer people in the world nowadays who would sacrifice comfort or risk life to exercise freedoms of thought and speech to right the wrongs. But the truth is that those who would give up liberty in order to afford temporary safety are perhaps unworthy of both.

The 21st century will likely be remembered for advancement in technology and stories of economic growth. The next century is sure to contain golden stories of the world’s top men or women in power in an unequal society. In such a future, the stories of Khashoggi and Marinova will die no sooner than before another is manufactured. 

AF Jaglul Ahmed is a freelance contributor.