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Freedom of expression: Growing discontent and the culture of fear

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Unless we are vigilant and make our voices heard, we might be heading towards a deadly precipice that will bring us misery, says Abd Rashid Hanafi.

The purpose of freedom of expression is to allow everyone to express his or her views without the threat of persecution or the fear of losing their lives over it.

The expression comes in many forms: speeches, publications, visual arts, performing arts and assemblies.

Where freedom of expression is denied, evil takes root and authoritarianism rules.

The right to freedom of expression is an elementary necessity of citizens in any democratic society. And there can be no society unless its members are free to express their opinions and views without fear of reprisal.

It is only through free expression that we benefit from the opinions, ideas and experiences of others. Without free expression, society will stagnate.

Freedom of expression is a means of self-protection. When we are free to express our opinions we can protect ourselves against the tyranny and injustice of others or of any individual person.

People should be free to participate in legitimate public discourse on matters and issues of concern that are vital to the interests of citizens and the nation without any interference by the government (state).

Such freedom implies that every citizen should be free to criticise any policy and action pursued by the government that they deem to be unconstitutional and detrimental to their rights and as well as to the nation.

Freedom of speech never does harm to anyone. In fact, the space enables concerned citizens to express their concerns, counter falsehoods and expose the supression and the misdeeds of corrupt leaders.

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Unfortunately, our leaders have lost their perspective and have developed a tendency to automatically equate dissension with disloyalty to the nation. They view any criticism of the government as sedition and subversion and therefore unwarranted.

The government is not a power system. It should be a fellowship of people aiming at the enrichment of common life. It is given powers because it is entrusted to carry out duties, and one primary duty is to create conditions of happiness and of spiritual upliftment for the people.

Coercive power, no doubt, is at the disposal of the State, but it is not the essence of the State. It is only the clumsy and the stupid who seek to attain their ends by force. When force becomes the basis of the State, its indiscriminate use crushes the personality of the individual and destroys the social order.

Many concerned citizens hold no special brief for any particular ideology, party or group. They criticise or comment with sincerity in their heart apart from those who personally seek to disparage the government for whatever ulterior motive or reason.

The freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are indispensible; these are the charateristics of parliamentary democracy. The right to freedom of expression is, of course, not absolute – it entails responsibilities.

In the interest of social order and out of respect for the rights of others, restraints are required on freedom of expression. We see the State best not in what it is, but in what it does. It must give to its citizens those conditions which contribute to the common interest and the common welfare.

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If in order to protect and promote their welfare, the State is compelled to use force then it must be on the basis of upholding the common good and preserving moral and social values.

The exercise of power must not be abitrary. It must be consistant with justice – to protect the weak instead of the strong. It must be to penalise utterances which tend to corrupt public morals, stir racial unrest, defame individuals, incite people to hate others and all other unwarranted activities that undermine the foundation of our constitution.

The sphere of the State is vast, but it is not omnicompetent. History tells us that when the State crosses its legitimate bounds, disregards the constitution, and stifles individual freedom, it creates confusion and discontent. It is then and sure to fail; such actions eventually will lead to its downfall. This has happened in the past and it may happen again, today, if it attempts what it ought not to attempt.

We have to stop, to see and, to question where we are heading to. Unless we are vigilant and make our voices heard, we might be heading towards a deadly precipice that will bring us misery.

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