The forgotten essence of freedom
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These words were written into the US Declaration of Independence in Congress on July 4, 1776. They may sound revolutionary, but that is because at the time of independence, the US did experience a revolution. One which swept away the chains of colonial rule forced onto Americans by the British, similar to what happened here in 1971, when Bangladeshis too gained their independence from the oppressive hands of the Pakistan government.
Yet, the revolutionary aspect of these words enveloped more than just the physical revolution. What was most revolutionary was the idea they promulgated. The idea that, “Our lives come from our creator and our liberty comes from our creator. It has nothing to do with government granting it”, as former US congressman and presidential candidate Dr Ron Paul explains.
Freedom then, according to Dr Paul, “is defined by the ability of citizens to live without government interference” in their lives.
That freedom that an individual has, in the interest of the collective that forms a nation, must incorporate the freedom to dissent because, as Thomas Jefferson said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” And that must never be curbed by threats of insecurity because, as Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
While we may have shared a history of independence struggle with the US, our shared history of values and principles appear to have quite a way to go. One such value is the right to criticise the government. Criticism directed at the government by citizens in Bangladesh is often seen by those in power as criticism of the state—forgetting the fact that government is formed to serve the citizens. And that the services provided by the government are meant to be rendered for the benefit of the citizens, and not without their consent. This is why citizens must speak, and have the freedom to speak, openly, to let the government know when and where it is succeeding in fulfilling its duties, and where it is not.
This means that citizens are not the only ones to be told what is good for them, but they too must be able to give that feedback to the government. Yet, that is exactly what is in danger of being curbed with the Digital Security and ICT Acts which, as most people have expressed openly, they are against.
As the Human Rights Watch noted in a report summary on May 9, 2018, the “broad and sweeping terms” used to formulate Section 57 of the ICT Act invites “misuse of the law”. And, already, “Hundreds, including several journalists, have been accused under section 57 for criticising the government, political leaders, and others.”
Although “such treatment may chill free speech”, according to the HRW and many others, the government has remained adamant that it is right and everyone else wrong. What is even more chilling as we have seen following the two recent student protests—for quota reform in civil service recruitment and the student movement for road safety—is the government's decision to more closely monitor social media platforms to curb rumours and unsubstantiated news, including through physical detention. Because what that will most likely do is take the power to verify and judge what is true or not away from people, and hand it over to the government.
The question, however, remains why that is necessary. It is not a new reality for rumours and unsubstantiated news to be propagated by certain individuals and sections of society even, sometimes willingly and, at times, unwillingly (as those propagating them may not have known any better at the time).
Because of that, what has worked best always is to counter bad speech with more free speech—to counter false speech with true speech. But now the government wants to stop what it deems to be false speech altogether, which is fraught with dangers that may not seem obvious on the surface.
Firstly, how do we know what is false and what is true before it has even come into being? Secondly, why should the government be the only judge of what information individuals should consider when forming their perceptions? Are we then to accept that people are incapable of filtering out bad information for themselves? That they are not competent enough to choose and verify for themselves the information they should and shouldn't take into consideration?
These are questions that are much more important than what they may initially seem because, at the end of the day, the ability to choose, verify, etc. for oneself, is what freedom is all about. And one who cannot, or does not, exercise such freedoms, is arguably not free.
After all, as the great Mahatma had once said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”
But when the government sees it necessary to intervene in the lives of citizens, crossing boundaries that have been well established for decades across the world, and for good reasons, what gets lost in the process is this revolutionary idea, one which recognises and best describes the true worth of the individual human being: “that all men are…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, that have “nothing to do with government granting it”.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,” not for any other reason, and especially not to police individual speech, thought, etc. that clearly must remain fully under the command of one, who is to be free.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal