Monday, 24 February 2020

Let Ink Flow, Not Blood

Updated: January 24, 2015 8:10 am

What is described as the deadliest attack in France in four decades, heavily armed gunmen shouting Islamist slogans stormed the office of a satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo and shot dead at least 12 people. According to witnesses, the attackers, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and a rocket launcher, were shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet” and “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is greatest). Paris has been placed under the highest alert status after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which sparked anger in the past among Muslims for publishing cartoons of Prophet Mohamed.

That a free press is a necessary bastion in the defence of freedom of religion should never be forgotten. The freedom of expression is a cherished and necessary value in any free society. The freedom of expression and of the press has been made secure the world after many years of struggle and sacrifice. A free press has always been the first target of dictators and authoritarians; even in stable democracies, journalistic and artistic expression frequently comes under pressure from political leaders and interest groups. It can be argued that these two core democratic principles – free expression on the one hand and respect for religious diversity on the other-are at odds today. Agreed, that in their writings and depictions, journalists and artists have an obligation to respect the values and sensitivities of religious believers and minority groups. At the same time, it may well be that the cartoon that has drawn the ire which led to the shooting of twelve journalists was actually a jibe, not against Islam or its adherents, but at those extremists who have besmirched the name of a major religious faith by resorting to violence in its name. The larger and more urgent issue, however, is not journalistic fairness or propriety, but the threats to freedom of expression posed by those who have resorted to intimidation and violence in their response to the cartoons’ publication or who have manipulated and goaded others to a violent response.

India, the world’s largest democracy, remains one of the most restrictive places for the press. In its report published in 2014, Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit group, ranked India 140th out of 180 countries surveyed for the free speech it affords the media. The Freedom of the Press is nowhere mentioned in the Indian constitution. The Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression is provided in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. It is believed that Freedom of Speech and Expression in Article 19 of the Indian constitution include freedom of the press. Freedom of expression enables one to express one’s own voices as well as those of others.

While all kinds of decent values were enshrined in our Constitution ( which has been amended many times to suit the political class) including freedom of expression, that included free press, sadly many owners of media empires have succumbed towards decline in standards. In 1976, during the Emergency, Parliament enacted the Prevention of Publication of Objectionable Matter Act. The Janata Government in 1978 repealed the Act. However, the 44th amendment adopted in 1978 has given the Parliament substantial powers to regulate press freedom. A new article, Art 361A has been added to the constitution with this object in view. The publication of the cartoons in the French magazine does not stand apart from the many instances of hard-edged, polemical, blatantly unfair, and even obnoxious commentary that occur regularly in societies with an independent media and traditions of free speech. Democratic societies have ways of dealing with biased or insulting journalistic expression by means of robust and free public debate and criticism.

Press freedoms are nonexistent in many Islamic societies, as are truly independent opposition voices. Were they to achieve power, the extremist non-governmental movements who also bear responsibility for provoking acts of violence in this context would eliminate whatever independent and dissident voices exist as a first order of business. They would also eliminate freedom of religious belief, another core democratic value that is at stake in the cartoon controversy. As enraged Muslims take to the streets to protest cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, few seem to be aware that representations of Islam’s last messenger have existed throughout history without causing alarm. Although rare in the 1,400 years of Islamic art, visual representations of Muhammad were acceptable in certain periods. Today, his likenesses grace collections around the world, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Edinburgh University Library, the British Museum and the Bibliotheque National de France in Paris.

In July 2010, the American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, had written, “If you have the right to slander the Messenger of Allah, we have the right to defend him. If it is part of your freedom of speech to defame Muhammad it is part of our religion to fight you.” He added: “Assassinations, bombings, and acts of arson are all legitimate forms of revenge against a system that relishes the sacrilege of Islam in the name of freedom.” It is a matter of great concern that the fanatic religious empire is fast expanding in the world and no effective steps are being taken to counter or contain it. Almost all Muslim countries are facing internal trouble or are being raven by terrorism of one kind or the other. The worst development is emergence of ISIS that now occupies area between Syria and Iraq almost equal in size to Britain and earning near three million dollars a day from the oil wells captured by it. The fatwas, killings, riots and burnings, have a purpose that goes beyond an expression of anger over perceived insults to the Prophet. It is essential that those who cherish democratic freedoms recognise the stakes in this controversy. The adversaries of freedom of expression have resorted to demagoguery, scare tactics, and violence to advance their cause. The democratic world, curiously, has responded with confusion, bewilderment, and in some cases a lack of intellectual clarity.

Deepak Kumar Rath

Deepak Kumar Rath

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