This Op-ed was published in Dhaka Tribune on 9th February 2015
Author: Aurin Huq
While freedom of expression has to be maintained at any cost, that expression has to be responsible
Excess of anything is bad – this common saying seems appropriate for the recent debates on freedom of expression. From Charlie Hebdo to the Hindi film PK, the question that’s resurfacing is this: Where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and the exploitation of it?
The recently released Indian Hindi film PK has faced many controversies, starting with its initial promotional posters, which was termed as obscene and vulgar and was claimed to promote nudity by acclaimed actor Amir Khan. Commercially, the film has received a remarkably positive response from the audience for its uniqueness. The story of the film is based on a plot that questions established religious practices, though it doesn’t directly question the existence of God.
Yet, some accused the film of hurting religious sentiments and lodged a formal complaint against the producers of the film. They also complained that the portrayal of Hindu gods in the film, especially that of Lord Shiva, was demeaning. They requested for a ban on the screening of PK.
The Indian Supreme Court, however, rejected the request to ban PK. Chief Justice RM Lodha has reportedly argued that the movie is entertainment, where religious facets should not be brought. He asked viewers to refrain from watching the film if they don’t like it.
He also added that, nowadays, everything is available over the Internet and the youth are free to watch and listen to the content of their choice. Thus, banning a film for vulgar content and nudity is unlikely to make any difference. The court also considered the fact that such a ban could affect the constitutional rights of the citizens.
However, legal ruling on freedom of expression can be a double-edged sword. While freedom of expression has to be maintained at any cost, that expression has to be responsible. The ruling shouldn’t encourage people to hurt others with limitless freedom of expression. Even the Indian Constitution has provisions for reasonable restrictions on freedom under Clause 2 of Article 19. Similarly, laws against defamation are also there to ensure that unchecked freedom of expression doesn’t harm people.
Then again, controversial applications of laws can also make it difficult to defend freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo has long been criticised for its double standard on hurting religious sentiments. It sacked cartoonists for allegedly hurting the religious beliefs of some religious groups, but promoted cartoons that hurt other groups.
After the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, Muslims all over the world joined together to protest the attack and praised the Muslim police officer who lost his life fighting the terrorists.
Then, the magazine printed another satire that again offended the Muslims who protested. But the irony doesn’t just end there. When a 16-year-old French boy made a simple satire of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, he was arrested! It only proved that legal rulings to protect freedom of speech can be ineffective – both in defending the freedom and in protecting people’s feelings.
That is why a responsible right to freedom of expression needs to be promoted to uphold responsible democracy. Democracy does not mean that one can do whatever he or she wants to hurt others. The same goes for freedom of expression. But ensuring this will need both legal clarity and social responsibility.
Legal clarity is particularly important for us from the perspective of Article 57 of Bangladesh’s ICT Act 2006, which has long been criticised as an exploitation tool at the hands of law enforcers. Such an unclear bar on freedom of opinion only hurts freedom of expression.
For example, if a law states that hurting someone’s religious belief is a legal offence, then it should provide explanations and specific contexts where such action would be considered an offence. Since legislative binding for restricting free speech are often exploited by law enforcers, such restrictive laws should be cleared of any ambiguity in defining the crime.
On social responsibility, we need to promote the basic lesson of community living, that teaches us to show respect to all faiths. This social norm should also discourage people from ridiculing or hurting others for their religious practices.
The issue is: Where should we draw the line, crossing which would be considered insensitive and offensive regardless of who is committing such an action?
Incidents from Charlie Hebdo to PK provide food for thought to define responsible freedom, and to draw a line by which we should seclude extremism and freedom of expression. Otherwise, free speech that is intended to oppose extremists may turn into extremism itself.