We as a nation do not fully comprehend the meaning and value of freedom of expression. Yet, this nation has gained access to a platform: Twitter, which unreservedly use this freedom. We desire to exercise our right of expression on the standards and principles practised in the West with little or without any accountability at a domestic level. We knowingly or unknowingly substitute legitimate expression with an abuse of expression allowing space for the government to introduce and enforce regulations.
Almost every one of us uses Twitter these days and is familiar with what goes on within the confines of this digital application. The purpose, or so it seems, was to encourage interaction between the various segments of the global citizenry. This was to be done by bringing down the shields of communications and offer a forum where people learnt to express and manage dissent. This forum has made the leaders more approachable and accountable by connecting them directly with their followers. Twitter also promotes a diversity of opinions by removing cultural, linguistic and ethnical barriers between people. It is a platform where people come closer together for common good, and where innovation, ideas, research and philosophies thrive.
However, in Pakistan Twitter does not tweet that way.
Pakistan’s experience with Twitter
Today, in Pakistan the platform of Twitter is used to spew hatred, disrespect and abuse with impunity. We use Twitter to kill dissent on sight, issue homemade ‘fatwas’ and maul any idea that does not match with our own. Here personal choices or views have acceptance only if they tag some popular narrative. Diversity in opinions is neither acknowledged nor accepted.
I genuinely apprehend that without some corrective measures this medium of communication will be lost forever, at least in Pakistan. That would be a huge loss. Remember, Basant was banned on account of our antics and we still yearn for our skies to play host once more to the colours of joy, the warmth of togetherness and the poetic flirtation between the string and kite.
What is freedom of expression?
I have come to realize that the real problem lies with our understanding or lack of it about the concept of “freedom of expression”. The term freedom with all its complexities has many linguistic, legal, philosophical, spiritual, social and moral dimensions. For this piece, I would like to confine myself with its political contours.
Over time “freedom” as a form of “right” has endured oppressively restrictive connotations as well as excessively exaggerated liberal interpretations. Both approaches have remained largely unsuccessful to encompass its true meaning.
One thing is for sure. Freedom has altered the course of history more often than any other concept. In fact, history has been shaped either by restraining or attaining freedom.
Traditionally, for centuries, freedom remained captive in the hands of the kings who claimed that they derived the right to rule directly from the Divine authority. Any attempt to deny them this right was considered a grave sin. So, freedom was not considered a right granted by the Creator but a privilege granted by the hand of the king. Freedom flowed from the throne of the ruler.
These rulers of their times held the ultimate authority to define, grant, limit or deny freedom. It was specifically ensured that limited freedom must be allowed to be shared with the subjects without exposing the authority of the ruler. Perpetuity of this rule demanded that freedom without limitation be consigned to the ruling elite only. It was shared in reduced form with the courtiers and further refined to be shared by the nobles, businessmen and landed aristocracy. Filters were set to check outflow of freedom. Whatever little residue was left was distributed among the common folks. Those who did not even get the leftovers were destined to live and die as slaves.
This man fed freedom was always contested. The struggles either produced heroes or finished them. Similarly, these pursuits created powerful villains or lead to the annihilation of mighty dynasties. It is in these varying shades of history that the concept of freedom continued to find new meanings and the process still continues.
Ultimately, the Western world settled with its own definition of freedom. In essence, it means, as per my understanding that freedom in substance is a mental and physical state without any restrictions and constraints limited only to the extent that it should not violate any law. Essentially, there are two basic components of freedom in the West (a) what you do with your life is your choice and (b) state will not interfere in the matters of personal liberty and choice unless it offends law of the land.
This definition with minor modifications has found acceptance in most of the countries in Europe and the North Americas and has sculpted the Western civilization. So much so that it has become more influential than any religion or faith. This definition mostly governs the personal liberties of individuals.
This form of freedom has delivered substantial dividends in many respects. Laws have been shaped to accommodate this definition to the maximum possible extent. The case in point is the First Amendment of the USA Constitution. The society has grown more tolerant and accommodating. Diversity in views, opinions and ideas has created a harmonious co-existence. Established norms that came into conflict with this definition were challenged and changed. Limits on a person’s ability to think, express himself, plan and move forward in his personal domain are marginalized.
I've been harassed, stalked and even fired for being liberal. It's a privilege to get to be yourself on Twitter and fully express your thoughts and feelings in the moment (uncensored). Many of us have to hide in order to enjoy freedom of expression.
— Probably Unhelpful (@turningaphrase) April 11, 2020
Pakistani society but Western influence
There is another side of the story too. As a result of this liberal definition of freedom, we see a rise in unnatural sexual preferences in the West. Living together without wedlock and bearing children is a convenient arrangement but has led to the complete breakdown of the institution of marriage.
Pornography, infidelity, multiple physical relationships, incestuous interactions, drug use, prostitution and many such vices have gained wider reception in that society because they relate to the personal choices of an individual which is rooted in the above definition of freedom. Alarmingly, man has the freedom to decide when and how he wants to end his life. This is known as Euthanasia, a widely-recognized concept in many developed countries in the West.
The Western legislators gave protection to unrestricted personal liberty like the right to choose, right of expression, right of association, right of information etc, through its constitutions, charters and governing laws but simultaneously erected a thick wall of rules and regulations around these rights too. Why was this done? It was done so that one man’s liberty did not infringe or transgress upon other man’s freedom. These laws are regularly enforced. It is in this delicate balance that we should see the Western society.
What is “expression”?
Let us now briefly examine the term “expression”. It is interesting to note that this terminology continues to go through an evolutionary phase just like freedom. “Expression” includes all forms of expression of the human mind, thoughts, ideas and views. Speech, art, writing, movie-making, poetry even silence are all covered under the term “expression”.
So in simple terms, freedom of expression implies a right to openly speak your mind and paint your thoughts with shades of your opinions. It also means, to share your feelings through lyrics of your choice, activate your outburst and make public what you want to say.
Many a time exercise of “expression” has seen people end up in prison. Some preferred gallows over abandoning their right to speak. Kings detested a speaking mind. Dictators considered them the gravest distraction. So the cost of “expression” has always been high. Idi Amin said: “there is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech.”
This freedom of expression if not prudently exercised can easily turn into an abuse of expression which can tarnish an image, hurt religious sentiments, indulge in public persecution, destroy someone’s hard-earned repute, create doubt, suspicion, fear and hatred in the mind of the recipient, incite hostility and violence, discourage diversity and create an atmosphere where even the legitimate right to express is also curbed.
There is no set standard to determine what true freedom of expression is and how it would impact a society. It is also questionable whether the standards of freedom as followed in the West can be adopted in countries like Pakistan without any modifications given our religious beliefs, our constitutional mandate and the structure of our population.
To answer this above question we will take Twitter as the test case.
Twitter’s freedom of expression: Pakistani society incompatible
Twitter is a product of the freedom of expression practised in the West. Twitter’s policy on freedom of expression essentially follows the European Commission on Human Rights 1950 and the Bill of Rights adopted by the USA in 1789. The First Amendment of the USA Constitution protects freedom of expression and the social media companies such as Twitter from any adverse actions by the government. It is precisely for this reason that most legal actions and court cases against social media companies in the USA have been unsuccessful.
It is believed that life first existed on Mars and after some powerful explosion this life form was transported by cosmic waves to planet Earth. I do not know whether that is true or not. But, one thing is for sure, the explosion of digital space has dumped many trends and beliefs including the concept of freedom prevailing in the first world to our very own backyard – the third world. And we as a society were not ready for many of these troubling gigabytes.
Just recall “mera jism meri marzi” slogan and make a dispassionate analysis in the above context. You may also advert to the blasphemous cartoons of yesteryear that led to widespread unrest in many Muslim countries including Pakistan. The West would want us to view both these instances in the light of their standards of freedom of expression. Are we ready to do so? Not me at least.
Twitter, Facebook and many other such communication channels opened a wormhole between two divergently placed worlds. The interaction that ensued has created a peculiar situation, especially in Pakistan. The West has an educated, informed and reasonably aware population not particularly influenced by religious beliefs yet it continues to grapple with the challenges thrown by the openness and undefined but growing boundaries of the social media platforms.
Germany and UK are the front runners in their efforts to bring social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to abide by the local laws or face penalties. They have proposed legislation to combat hate speech, fake news, criminal content and defamation on said social media networks. Pakistan on the other hand has to face different ground realities.
The social fabric of Pakistan, its human capital and intellect has remained underdeveloped. There are political reasons behind retaining an impoverished, hungry and uneducated populace but that is not our subject today.
So the age of e-communications dawned upon a nation that lagged far behind in terms of education and awareness. With limited understanding of their rights, totally unfamiliar with their obligations, culturally confused, ethically untrained and aesthetically compromised but linguistically liberal, a large part of this population sits on Twitter several times of the day to express and enlighten others about their views on a particular issue!
Our Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to the citizens just like the Western countries. However, as in the West, these are not absolute rights. Keeping the general state of the population in mind, heavy restrictions are imposed on these rights in the name of religion, state security, and integrity of the country, independence of judiciary and protection of our armed forces.
The Constitution further states that these restrictions have to be reasonable and based on some instrument of law. However, one interesting fact that stands out is that here the restrictions are far better implemented than the right itself!
Unfortunately, since the State is more occupied in preserving its rights, so when it comes to enforcement of defamation laws, fake news, online theft of personal identity, blackmailing and harassment on social media, our best option is to ignore them. Who would go to the FIA, one of the most inhospitable institutions around, to file a formal complaint? Why on earth would one go to the court to file a defamation case when he very well knows that his defamation will outlive him and so will the case. Understandably, in Pakistan reporting a matter is far bigger a crime than the crime being reported.
Fakeness of Twitter
The matter has been compounded by Twitter as well. There is no real or urgent need within Twitter about controlling the prevalent unchecked high mix of fake identities with genuine accounts both sharing the same space but one with a physical existence and a conscience and the other without both. These fake identities or identifiable “Trolls” pose a clear and present danger to the future of free expression and Twitter in Pakistan.
In most cases, these fake identities and Trolls are also used or “deployed” either to negatively target a person, an idea or a point of view or to artificially promote a person, an idea or a point of view. There is compelling evidence on Twitter which shows that these fake identities and Trolls use naked abuse, unconcealed threat and damning character assassination in pursuit of their common nefarious design.
Regrettably, these fake identities and Trolls cannot be held responsible for their views and have no threat of accountability. The enforcement wing of the government and the judicial system is unable to punish him.
Another matter of serious concern is that Twitter, as a business, is not registered in Pakistan and therefore our laws do not apply to its operations. So even if Twitter receives a “legal request” about an account by Pakistani authorities, Twitter is not obliged to allow that request. Before taking any action Twitter will examine if the “legal request” conflicts with the standards of freedom of expression set by it. Twitter holds the final say in this regard. This creates a space for many groups paid or otherwise to continue with their designs against the interest of Pakistan.
We believe that speaking or writing anything that comes to our mind is a legitimate form of “expression”. We do not set any intellectual filters or practice self-restraint. In such situations, it becomes imperative that some regulations may be introduced to check the spread of this malaise in the guise of freedom of expression.
The government must take all stakeholders on board. Institutions, civil society, thinkers, reformers, religious scholars and ITC experts all should sit down and create some regulations to differentiate between freedom of expression and abuse of expression. It may be appropriate to regulate social media through special legislation. A regulatory body called Social Media Regulatory Authority (SMRA) may be established which is governed by a board headed by a renowned personality and supported by individuals representing different segments of our society.
Other regulatory bodies in Pakistan may also extend a helping hand to this new body by way of advice and facilitation. The main purpose of SMRA must be to create an environment that promotes the legitimate exercise of the right of expression. It should identify and swiftly penalize instances of abuse of expression and fake news. Moreover, it should engage with Twitter and other social media platforms for introducing reforms where required, start a public awareness campaign to educate the masses about their right to expression and corresponding duties attached therewith.
I will conclude by saying that words have tremendous power but every power comes at a cost. Our right of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution. However, it is equally important that we filter this right through the multiple layers of self-restraint-self censorship and self-control so that we do not indulge in an abuse of expression. If we fail to achieve this, and we are slipping in that direction, government regulation will and must step in. I have always believed that freedom of expression means to speak after your prejudices fall silent and to write with healing hands. Remember, your words carry your worth.
Faisal Zaman is a lawyer with more than 25 years of professional experience. He has also worked with the apex regulator of the corporate world and has acquired intrinsic knowledge about core corporate issues. His legal practice involves transactional & contractual drafting, mediation, advisory and research assignments within one or multiple jurisdictions. His main areas of interest include social, legal and political discourse in Pakistan as well as past & emerging global trends. Faisal Zaman can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.