To call Freedom of Expression the true hallmark of democracy is a case of belabouring the obvious. The value of the freedom could only be truly appreciated in its total absence like during the British Raj or during the short shrift given to democracy by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. Blanket bans and censorship of the Media constitute the most insidious onslaught on democracy. Nations of the post-colonial era, therefore, have been taking great care to grant their people the right to Freedom of Expression along with the fundamental rights to life, liberty and freedom of worship, and make it an inalienable part of their Constitution.
The governments are, however, seldom appreciative of the fact that Freedom of Expression serves the unintended purpose as a safety valve in a society of people overcome by pent up anger and frustration. On their part, it would be unfair to expect a free people to leave governance entirely to the tender mercies of a government, albeit legitimately elected by the very same people, and be mere onlookers. It is as much a people’s right to make suggestions to a government and point out the latter’s lapses and excesses as it is that of a government to make laws and govern, affecting the lives of the people. It is unthinkable to expect people to fulfil their democratic obligation of holding a mirror up to the government without the freedom of expression.
However, Freedom of Expression is the most grossly abused of all the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The misuse of the benefits of the technical revolution in the sphere of information technology has made the abuse of Freedom of Expression more frequent and alarming than in the past. Both the society and the individual have to inevitably pay a hefty price for their indulgence although it is the nation which ends up as the ultimate loser to the abuse of the Freedom of Expression.
Cyber warfare has emerged as a much-dreaded form of attack on a nation by the enemy. It is, therefore, absolutely essential for a government to keep a strict vigil on the abuse of online control systems and networks from the espionage and sabotage points. This necessitates a guarded view of the use of the Freedom of Expression.
History is replete with instances of people misusing the right to speak out regardless of the age they lived in or the form of the government that was in vogue. One of the earliest accounts of such an instance may be found recorded in the Hindu epic Ramayana. The loose talk by a nosy parker in Sri Rama’s kingdom, which depicted Devi Sita in poor light, triggered a series of grave incidents that changed the course of the story altogether. How lack of self-control by way of loose talk could have an irrevocable impact on the course of events is a case in point.
Mud-slinging in Public Life
Faceless people and neighbourhood gossip mongers notwithstanding, the biggest offenders in today’s India are those in public life, such as political figures and celebrity artistes with a narrow personal agenda. They cast aspersions on the character, reputation and image of their rivals in broad brush strokes of vague accusations and baseless allegations with characteristic elan. For instance, what happens when a leader of a political party wanting to harm the party in power, calls a selfless leader of the nation a thief, without a shred of evidence to support his charge? Similarly, there are celebrity artistes and self-proclaimed intellectuals who complain about a perceived atmosphere of intolerance or the alleged targeting of members of the minority community by the government.
To start with, a ripple effect among the members of society is caused. The mainstream media goes gaga over such stories. The combined effect of the baseless accusations repeated ad nauseam, and the unwarranted media glare and publicity to the stories tend to enlarge the ripple effects into a storm. When the targeted leader is able to face the charges and stands his ground by virtue of his proven track record of a sterling character, integrity beyond doubt and blemishless financial propriety, the storm blows over. But not before an odious course of trading of charges and countercharges transpires.
At the end of the futile exercise of trying to pull down a tall leader from the podium of people’s adulation on the basis of false accusations, those who resorted to the cheap tactics and failed, do not have the courtesy or decency to aplogise. Nor do they wait long before going through the motions of throwing more mud at their rival. In short, this is a never-ending story. The unprincipled politicians who spread canard and are exposed in the bargain, do not have qualms about facing the people, with egg on their face. The only redeeming factor that provides relief to the victims of character assassination is recourse to law.
However, with the wheels of justice grinding much too slowly in our system for an innocent person’s comfort, it is much more important for him to win the people’s confidence and trust and win the war of perceptions. There are many misogynists in Indian politics who have a flair for heaping humiliations on their female colleagues and rivals by resorting to gender-specific invective and expletives. Their intention is to demoralise the targeted persons and provoke them into making a blunder or faux pas, which would lower their estimation in people’s eyes. When a woman politician proves too suave and well-grounded to feel affected by gutter politics, the cheap tactics backfire.
Family and Public Life
Those in public life are, more often than not, at the receiving end of uncharitable remarks by their opponents regarding their personal life. Many a mighty oak has fallen in the realm of public life in the face of a furious storm over a perceived unseemly behaviour or inappropriate conduct by a family member. Prudence demands that a person in public life keep his distance from his family and operate in an upright manner from the safety of splendid isolation to ward himself from the evil designs of those who are purveyors of human weaknesses and filial failings.
Preventing Misuse of Such Freedom
Freedom of Expression is stretched to its tether’s end when a government’s patience and political will are put to the test by anti-national elements and their connivers. The Tukde-Tukde gangs and Urban Naxals are those who take pride of place among such anti-nationals of whom there is no dearth. The support they get from the paid sections of the mainstream media in real terms, and the oblique and clandestine support from the power brokers with whom they enjoy consanguineous and close incestuous relations, constitute a daunting Gordian knot. Our nation is currently in the process of re-electing its honest and upright leaders who are capable of undoing the knot and putting an end to the misuse of the Freedom of Expression by the anti-national forces.