Saturday 10 January 2004

Freedom, the prison of civil society

Where freedom is not liberty but taking license
In the free world, there are many protagonists of freedom. The one that features most is the freedom of speech or the freedom of expression.
Strangely, this freedom by nature is now the pre-eminent right above other rights, most especially the right to life. As many have lost the right to life through their freedom of expression.
The free world however is governed by socially acceptable norms and morass, which are dictated through tradition and imposed by law. What then becomes acceptable is either weighed on the balance of the interpretation of law, the application of commonsense or the abuse of both by an enforcing authority.
In the end, freedom is not necessarily the absence of restraint but an understanding of where one's contribution to society is beneficial to all who might be affected by that individual's use of freedom.
To that purpose, it is clear that the exercise of freedom does carry responsibility and where that responsibility is not understand, it leads to sanctions, censure or even proscription.
Liberty depicts a state of freedom or being free. It appears one gets given liberty by some instrument of free enterprise or freedom of expression in whatever sense, one does not take liberty which connotes the abuse of understanding the responsibility of freedom.
Then the commonly known situation arises where freedom without responsibility may degenerate into license.
Freedom, Liberty and License are synonyms but can never in reality be used in place of the other. Rather they represent varying degrees of freedom and the responsibility that governs a quality of restraint.
The news
Two stories are breaking the news, the first being the article in a British newspaper making overt or alleged racist commentary on the Arabs and the second being the imprisonment of French journalists in Pakistan.
A politician turned talk-show host for the BBC had written an article in the Sunday Express newspaper under the title "We Owe The Arabs Nothing" in which he made some unprintable observations, which have resulted in his talk show being taken off the air temporarily.
The amusing but interesting twist to this story is that the first publication in April 2003 went unnoticed and now some cack-handed editor either deliberately seeking to cause mischief or inadvertently sanctioned the copy for a second publication eight months after.
Herein, is the reason why the public freedom of expression must have a purpose, a context and a timing.
In April, the world was in the throes of the Iraqi war and any anti-Arabs sentiment to boost the flaky reasons why we went to war was welcome. The Arabs not being part of the Coalition of the Cajoled were then fair game.
In January 2004, we are no more at war, though the body bags returning with regularity. That is a completely separate issue. The article might still have a purpose and context but the time was off by eight months.
The article creates both consonance and revulsion amongst the citizenry; the reactions of the writer's employers represent both sides all too clearly. The Sunday Express has condemned the BBC from over-reacting by taking the writer's programme off the air.
Hardly six weeks ago, the writer hosted a programme on racism in Britain and loudly proclaimed the multi-cultural nature of the British society debunking the racists and their supporters.
Having been caught in the act, they who live in glasshouses and throw stones risk breaking the glass in their own houses.
I hear a shattering sound.
Nowhere has the freedom of expression become a forum for taking liberties and license than in the work of journalism.
The journalist is the beacon of freedom in repressive regimes and the scourge of excess in the free society. The journalist can also represent whatever perspective serves their best purpose in any news or documentary piece.
In that case, they are either a welcome insight or a bloody nuisance. The point in the Pakistani case is, just because one is a journalist you do not automatically have a diplomatic passport to visit any place in the search of a scoop.
There are many instances where breaking the rules have produced new stories that should have been aired to create positive and necessary change but the risks abound and understand those risks are part of a journalist's occupational hazard.
The main charge against the French journalists is the violation of visa requirements in visiting a particular region. The concealed charge, which might as well have exacerbated the gravity of the punishment, is the view that they were trying to portray Pakistan as a Taliban haven.
Pakistan borders Afghanistan and that border is literally impassable terrain. More so, the states boundaries outside Europe were not drawn by the locals but by colonialists.
The tribes at the borders share a common culture, heritage and society. Unlike the West, those cultures are not given to surrendering relations or abrogating ethnic ties for the benefit of others.
If the Taliban find refuge and succour in Pakistan, it is because the trust their people to give them protection as part of a sworn allegiance of tribal affinity.
For the West to seek to destroy that, only creates a Pariah of tribesmen who succumb to the temptation of reward for breaking age-old traditions.
It is the reason why the Americans are yet to get a full park of cards of Iraqi culprits.
Finally, in the words of Benjamin Franklin "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
It appears accepting the Patriot Act, the functions of the Department of Homeland Security and people who deign to travel to America for humiliating inspection in the name of security deserve no liberty in every sense of the word.

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