No government has ever been able to completely control freedom of speech and totalitarian regimes have always failed in the end. The rapid development of technology is such that people will find ways and means to express themselves
By Sada Reddi
In both the past and presently, governments throughout the world have always had recourse to the law to infringe on the right of free speech for a variety of reasons. While freedom of speech, a fundamental human right, has never been unlimited in democratic states and has been hedged by a number of restrictions depending on different contexts and value systems, very often in totalitarian states these restrictions have been enlarged to control the population and to buttress the regimes in place
Several factors may explain the obsession of state authorities to be too inclusive in their restrictions. More often the reasons are narrowly political and are meant to protect and safeguard the governing class especially when it feels the urgent need to arrest a rising tide of unpopularity. In these circumstances, though one cannot and should not expect any authority engaged in such practices to acknowledge the fact, it is up to the people to make a critical analysis of government practices and discourses when they occur and to make the distinction between the overt reasons explicitly articulated for public consumption and dressed up in the garb of national interests, and those covert and hideous motives.
Embarking on a policy to suppress dissent will always result in a hollow victory in the short term but will ultimately provoke such a backlash which in the end will become untenable to manage, with dire consequences. This is what happened in the eighteenth century when the English government took strong action against John Wilkes, a Member of Parliament.
John Wilkes had launched scurrilous attacks on Lord Bute, an ineffective Prime Minister whose sole qualification to office was the King’s favour. In those days, it was the King who chose and appointed the Prime Minister. In his newspaper the North Briton, Wilkes accused Bute of sleeping with the King’s mother. Lord Bute resigned as Prime Minister. Wilkes continued his attack and criticized the King himself for a giveaway peace with France with the Treaty of Paris, 1763. The Government prosecuted his paper for seditious libel under a general warrant against ‘its unnamed authors, publishers and printers’.
Wilkes made the case an issue of civil liberties and had the general warrant declared unlawful. The Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Pratt, declared Wilkes’ imprisonment a breach of parliamentary privilege. Wilkes was released from prison and won damages for wrongful arrest but was convicted for seditious label. Subsequently the Government searched among his papers for an essay, written years ago, and a charge of blasphemy was brought against him. He fled to France and was outlawed, but repression turned Wilkes into a popular hero.
Wilkes returned from exile in 1768 and was triumphantly elected in a by-election in Middlesex. His triumph caused two days of rioting in London. He was re-elected several times in Middlesex and he got elected unopposed in his last bid for re-election. He was later elected Mayor of London. He fought for parliamentary reform, used the jurisdiction of London to protect journalists from imprisonment and supported American colonial rights. Repression turned Wilkes into a popular hero of the anti-establishment and the people and marked the beginning of radicalism in English politics.
Similarly in India, British policy in curtailing freedom of expression and press freedom contributed significantly to the growth of an extreme form of Indian nationalism. British rule in India was considered illegitimate, oppressive by the Indian elite and the British felt vulnerable to criticisms. Two newspapers in Marathi – Kesari by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Kaal by his friend Shivram Mahadev Paranjape – were critical of British rule. British response throughout the nineteenth century was to rely on the censorship of the Indian press in India. A series of laws were passed to curtail freedom of expression. The Press Act of 1835, the Gagging Act of 1856 and the Newspaper Act and the Press act of 1910 were of no avail to limit the growth of Indian nationalism. Many Indians bore the brunt of repression, among whom were Tilak and Paranjape. They were imprisoned on several occasions but the newspaper Kesari survived and, at the beginning of the 20th century, the vernacular press sustained criticism of British rule until they obtained the final prize – independence – and the lowering of the British flag on Indian soil
These two examples show the futility of controlling freedom of speech and freedom of expression on whatever type of media platform. In a country like Mauritius, such restrictions will result in heaping opprobrium on the authorities. It is worth remembering that if the history of Mauritius could be summarized in one phrase, it is ‘the struggle for the conquest of liberty’.
Right from the Dutch period to the present-day, there has been a continuous struggle to make our society democratic – think of marronage, vagrancy, the demand for press freedom by Adrien d’Epinay, the clamour of Balance by Remy Ollier, trade union activism, political activism, action for press freedom, struggle for independence – all these have one major objective: to extend our human rights, of which freedom of speech and expression are fundamental.
Unlike newspapers and radio where information can be easily censured, or where the covert partiality of the moderator or sample-fixing of broadcast calls are detectable by the public , the internet has become a major democratic institution where people enjoy a sense of freedom and empowerment within the rule of just laws. To tamper with that freedom for indeed vile reasons with the passing of abusive legislations will inevitably provoke a backlash in the country.
When a government embarks unwisely on any measure to limit freedom of expression in the hope that it will cow down the public through fear, it is being defensive, myopic and delusional. First of all, it sends the signal to the public that the government is insecure, weak and vulnerable such that any piece of simple information or criticism against it can provoke panic within its ranks and consequently a flurry of repressive measures.
Even if it does not take any action to implement its repressive legislation, it creates a growing and strong perception that it is hiding a lot of undesirable things from the public eyes and there is a lot of cover-up going on. In the end, it will further undermine any remaining legitimacy and the minimum trust that a government needs. We have seen how many institutions are fast losing their trust among the public. For example, does the public need the MBC to learn that lawlessness is rife in the country? The public has its own sources of information and for many the MBC has become Mauritius Broadcasting Deception. Rather than allowing the public to express themselves and even to vent their anger, legalized state censorship will smother them in its breasts only to burst out when the time comes.
Moreover one knows that no government has ever been able to completely control freedom of speech and totalitarian regimes have always failed in the end. The rapid development of technology is such that people will find ways and means to express themselves. Finally it is worth remembering that men and women do not live by bread alone.
* Published in print edition on 16 November 2018