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Friday 13 February 2015

Is Freedom of Expression Absolute?

Case Study 1: Charlie Hebdo

On 7th January 2015, the whole world was shaken by the shocking news of the massacre of 17 journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, as well as some innocent people, by a group of Islamic terrorists in Paris.  The reason was that in 2011, the magazine had carried some objectionable cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed.  It is reported that the magazine had published similar cartoons of icons of other religions, as well. 

More than three million people including 40 world leaders participated in a march across France to protest against the killings. Journalists and cartoonists debated about “freedom of expression”. There were also counter protest marches in several parts of the world against the magazine, Charlie Hebdo for hurting the sentiments of a religious community.

Case Study 2: A Book in South India
Around the same time in South India, another controversy cropped up.  Perumal Murugan, a Tamil writer had published a book, ‘Mathorubaagan’ in 2010. In the novel, the author wrote about the childless married women of a particular community in a particular town in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. He narrated how they used to have clandestine relationships with other men during the temple festival day and bear children thereafter. (Although the author had named the community and the town in his book, the same is withheld in this article.) 

When the English translation of the book was released in 2014, the particular community raised protests and demanded the withdrawal of the book from the market. Writers and activists ganged up in defence of the author, claiming ‘freedom of expression’. The entire town showed their solidarity against the author, by pulling down their shutters for a day in January 2015. Although the author was defended in the social media as well as in seminars held in the cities, none of the activists had the courage to defend the author in that particular town.  

The Government formed a peace committee to address the crisis. The author later apologised for the contents and admitted that he did not possess any documentary evidence to support his claim. All his books were withdrawn from the market. In spite of these steps to resolve the situation, the topic was debated on various TV channels and other media, in their attempt to defend their freedom of expression.

How Far Does One’s Liberty Extend?

These two incidents have brought the issue of the freedom of expression to the forefront. Can there be an absolute freedom of expression for anyone in the world? There is a saying in English, “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins”.

Does the media, the writers or anyone have the right to absolute freedom of expression because they express their views in public domain? Is there or should there be a restriction?

Double Standards of the Media

Very unfortunately, in India, the media exhibit double standards on such sensitive issues. One of the leading newspapers published ‘I am Charlie’ posters, with a photograph of marchers in Paris protesting against the killing. After printing nearly 50 percent of the newspapers, the editorial board realised that such photos might hurt the sentiments of a section of a community in India.  The photograph was withdrawn from the remaining issues of the newspaper.  An apology was also published to state “Some copies of XXXX (name of the newspaper withheld) dated January 18, 2015, carried an image of people holding copies of the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, featuring the cover page with the image, which might have offended a section of our readers. The image was removed mid-way through the print-run. XXXX (name of the paper) regrets and apologises for the inadvertent and accidental use of the image - Editor”.

Four days prior to this incident, the same newspaper had concluded their editorial stating, “The rights under the Constitution are designed to protect the freedom of expression of writers like Perumal Murugan who may seek to question uncomfortable truths from the past. It is a pity that a range of forces conspired to silence him”. 

A few years ago, there was a protest in the media against Salman Rushdie, who wrote some portions in his book that hurt religious sentiments. The same media defended M. F. Hussain, the artist who portrayed a Hindu goddess in what many people regarded as distasteful and disrespectful. They justified it as freedom of expression in art.

‘Faith’ is always a ‘Faith’

Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. are called ‘faiths’.  Billions of people worship their respective gods or their founders.  Such allegiance and belief is built and followed only on faith and it is often difficult to rationalise them scientifically. Any writing, picture or speech which portrays these faiths in poor light is likely to hurt the religious sentiments of these billions of followers.  In this scenario, nobody can claim any absolute liberty that risks hurting the feelings of a large number of people. Protesting and defending such actions selectively is also unfair and not in good taste.

The same can be said of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. The Islamic people have the right to decry such cartoons and take suitable legal actions against these publications. Unfortunately, the killing of the cartoonists by the terrorists has diverted the focus from the issue.  Charlie Hebdo received the sympathy and support they did not deserve. They cannot claim the publishing of such provocative cartoons as their freedom of expression.

The Indian Constitution and IPC

Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution provides freedom of speech and expression to all citizens of India.  Article 19(2) imposes reasonable restrictions on the same, on grounds of security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court,  defamation, incitement to an offence, and sovereignty and integrity of India.

Sections 153A, 153B, and 295-298 of the Indian Penal Code contain the restrictions on the freedom of expression. It also includes the punishment for violation.

Freedom of Expression and Misuse of this Right

We often forget the fine line between freedom and misuse of a right. While freedom of speech gives a person the right to express his opinion, he should not forget his responsibility to respect religious sentiments. The media too should address these issues objectively and fairly. They should not defend or protest selectively.  The freedom of any one person should not infringe upon the rights of the society in the name of creativity. 

By K. Srinivasan, Editor-in-Chief, PreSense


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