Thinking of Freedom of expression: But not forgetting the emotions of the people

The debate on freedom of information in Sri Lanka has come to a forefront once again. The contemporary discourse takes me back to the dilemma I was in when Salman Rushdie was not permitted to attend Jaipur literary festival. I recall a discussion with a Norwegian journalist in India. She strongly believed banning Rushdie’s novel “the satanic versus” was a threat to freedom of expression in India. In fact, I always looked at it with a question markā€¦

While we understand and of course agree that the essence of free expression is the ability to think and speak, write or communicate freely and to obtain information from others through publications or public discourse or any other means without fear of retribution, restriction, or repression by the government and that it is through free speech, people could come together to achieve political influence, to strengthen their morality, and to help others to become moral and enlightened citizens, I have a simple question. Are we talking about a radical freedom here? Or are we adopting it within the cultural framework of the society that we live in?

My thesis is simple. Let me not complicate it here. It is a fact that people in our part of the world are very emotional about certain things, out of which religion and ethnicity are probably their primary concerns. These are the people who burn or attack the cricketers and their property when they fail matches. We are very well aware about how they have reacted to various incidents based on ethnicity or religion: Ayodya incident in India and 1983 July in Sri Lanka are some of the best scenarios with this regard.

How do we really draw the line between these incidents and the freedom of expression in this part of the world?

My personal belief says the nature of people and about the fact that they are extremely emotional on their religion or ethnicity cannot be ignored. To make things worse, politicians through-out history have successfully manipulated such emotions as well. In such a context, a deeper sensitivity on that is to be considered in making new laws or updating the existing ones. Most importantly it is to understand the context in a western developed country with a greater political maturity is far more different to India or Sri Lanka.

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