The Freedom of Speech and the Price we Pay for it.
Here's a video of the PPP workers vandalising the Arts Council.
As many of you know by now, The Shanaakht Festival and all the events related to it have been cancelled. The government could not provide assurances of safety and the organizers could not risk the safety of the festival volunteers and attendees.
This has been an extremely painful and frustrating time, especially for those who had been involved in organizing the festival. I attended the press conference where they announced the cancellation amidst a barrage of hostile questioning from the media present. It was heartbreaking to see something that was truly one of the best things to happen in Karachi, something we could hold our heads and be proud of, come to an end.
It has been an even more soul-crippling experience to read some of the comments on the internet and even on this blog by people who have been blaming the organizers for the entire episode. I know the people who were organizing Shanaakht. They are some of the most passionate, and patriotic citizens of this country I have ever had the honor of working with. It is important to me that their integrity should be defended loudly and unequivocally. These people put their lives into organizing this festival, by Pakistanis, for Pakistanis. It was completely open to the public, a chance many people are not willing to take here. These people were genuinely working towards bringing Pakistanis and Karachiities together, to give us something to be proud of, to celebrate our heritage. But these are the people who today we are lambasting from our safe little shells on the internet.
Not only do I support them because I believe in the ABSOLUTE freedom of speech, I support them because I feel it is our duty to support people who set out to do good for this country. However many mistakes they make on the way, we all know that the greater good was always the point of the Shanaakht Festival.
But more importantly it is our moral duty to speak out against those who commit acts of violence and injustice. If we do not, we are just as guilty of perpetrating it. It is not the criticism of the actual photograph that bothers me. People are entitled to their opinion on a piece of work and I wholly encourage healthy debate over it. What has appalled me is the lack of condemnation for the acts of the Pakistan Peoples Party. It's as if people are implying that the protestors could not be blamed for their acts of violence, destruction and intimidation because their feelings had been hurt and their great love for Benazir Bhutto drove them into a self-righteous frenzy of destruction.
Are we so resigned to the fact that we are always going to be a nation of barbarians?
No, I don't think we are a nation of barbarians. Which is why it is so crucial for us to draw a distinction between ourselves and the perpetrators of those violent acts. You cannot support them. You must not.
It has horrified me that somewhere among the educated people of this country, from people who should clearly know right from wrong that there hasn't been a stampede to CONDEMN the violence that we were witness to that day. This should not be something we are debating over. Nor should this be something people should be looking to justify. It is dangerous to even play Devil's Advocate here because it is our moral fabric that is under question. What kind of people are we that would condone a violent attack over somebody's expression?
There are some of you who seem to have gotten the wrong facts over the incident. Here is a huge misconception which must be cleared up.
Nobody had asked the organizers to take down the photograph before the incident. No one had raised any objection. The exhibit had been up since the morning and no one had raised any objections. When the hooligans from the PPP entered the exhibit they immediately removed the photograph themselves and took it with them. They did not make any requests or ask for it to be removed, they simply attacked the exhibition. The notion that the organizers refused to take down the picture when asked to before is absolutely false. This simply did not happen.
It is important to note that had the organizers in fact decided to refuse to take down the photograph, they would have been well within their rights to. They were not doing anything illegal. Whether it was ethical or not is open to debate. but that's exactly what there should have been. A debate. Not a physical attack. This is extremely important for everyone to realize. There is no law in Pakistan that would consider the display of that picture illegal or obscene. We may be a lot of things but we are not China and we are not the United Arab Emirates. Political commentary is still protected speech.
A long time ago, before I decided to throw away my life and become a musician, I was a journalism student, and the issue of free speech has always been a crucial one. I studied journalism in the US. When it comes to the laws on free speech, I admit I am better versed in US law than Pakistani law. But I do know that displaying a picture like the one at Shanaakht, while it may be offensive, is not illegal. It does not fall under the same category as blasphemy. However you would think from the reactions of the PPP and people over the internet that some religious figure had been mocked or insulted. That is not what has happened.
The point I am trying to make here is that freedom of speech is not a clean cut golden shining value that is going to make all of us happy. It is dirty, and messy but it is the most important value we have. It is worth dying for. Freedom of speech doesn't just mean allowing the people who agree with you to speak. Freedom of speech was made for the people who disagree with you.
"Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you're in favor of free speech, then you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you're not in favor of free speech"
Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992).
We can't simply cherry pick the freedoms of speech we like and disregard the others. We must learn to accept that when we fight for the right to say what we think, we must be prepared to hear things and see things we may not want to.
It scares me that freedom of speech is such a lowly regarded value here in Pakistan. It's worrying because its not just uneducated people or fanatics who disregard it, it is educated people who are politically and morally conscious. The freedom of expression is the God-given right of every man, woman and child on this planet.
We are Pakistanis who may not have a lot to celebrate but we can celebrate the fact that we can criticize our government and we will not back down when they censor us and we will protest when they block out our news or violate our Constitution. Is this the same country that only a few weeks ago loudly exercised their right to free speech by marching on the government and loudly denouncing it's leaders? Once again, we should be on our hands and knees savoring every moment of the few freedoms we have. Because somewhere in North Korea, there are terrified people who fear for their lives for so much as suggesting regime change. Somewhere in the United Arab Emirates there are activists being whisked away by secret police for daring to criticizie the Draconian laws of the state.
And here we are expressing our opinion on the Internet, freely, without fear of being violently reprisal. And if you cherish this freedom and are willing to fight for it, you must denounce those who try to take it from you. It doesn't matter that you find the photograph at Shanaakht offensive. It doesn't matter if you thought it was art or not. What matters is that it was somebody's expression and no matter what it was, whether you agree with it or not, it is your duty as a Pakistani to stand up and defend their right to say it.
We have a real opportunity for debate and discussion here and while the events of last week are tragic, it will give us an opportunity to talk about it, in a hopefully civilized way. You have my point of view. Now lets hear yours.
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing as S. G. Tallentyre in 1906 (commonly attributed to Voltaire, of whom Hall wrote a biography).