Make space for the art of free speech

Make space for the art of free speech

It is no coincidence that the word “articulate” begins with the word “art”. There is an art to the formation of clear and distinct sounds in speech. Speech, the expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings by articulate sounds, has articulation ingrained into its very definition. And all art necessitates the existence of open spaces to flourish. The art of speech is no different.

The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises freedom of expression as a human right under Article 19, which states that, “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” It is also recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

There were later amendments of Article 19 in the ICCPR, though stating that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals.” Freedom of speech and expression, therefore, may not be recognised as being absolute. And what are some of the common limitations to freedom of speech? They relate to slander, obscenity, pornography, incitement, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, food labelling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy and the likes. Basically, the limitations are set based on the harm principle, or the concept proposed by John Stuart Mill that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

When I started writing this article, the much-debated draft of the Digital Security Act had just been passed. Section 57 of the ICT Act, which was repealed in the light of this new act, was in action and thriving, used to file cases against everyone starting from journalists to the common citizen who posted “inciting” videos on social media.

However, my social media was rife with, first posts trolling Miss Bangladesh, and second with moral policing of trollers. And here I was laughing out loud, possibly for the lack of more dignified, articulate response to sheer frustration.

Until I was put in place by my fellow Facebook vigilantes. Several people have expressed concern about whether or not the digital space, rife with trolls, is enabling cyberbullying. Noteworthy were reactions to the Miss Bangladesh debacle, questions about a video made viral by a member of the police being bullied by a woman claiming to be related to the ruling party, comments on the birth date of cricketer Taskin’s newborn. Some were unquestionably out of line and could easily be classified as intended to cause harm and pain, while others were slightly more across blurred lines.

There is considerable debate, however, about what constitutes cyberbullying. Psychology Today defines “trolling” as the following: “Trolling is internet slang for a person who intentionally starts arguments or upsets others by posting inflammatory remarks.” Cyberbullying, on the other hand, is defined as follows: “Cyberbullying is deliberate and repeated harm inflicted through using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or mobile phones.”

Often times, laughter is the only response in the face of adversity, crude and unsophisticated as it may be, often venturing across blurred lines into acts of cruelty. Laughing at oneself, laughing at another, laughing with each other, may, oftentimes, be the only way a person in duress restores their sanity. In this stifling era of moral policing where one can barely breathe, literally (thanks to the renewed threats of winter dust) as well as metaphorically, our ability to laugh at situations that normally warrant anger and heartbreak as an appropriate response may only be a method of survival. But in addition to political opinions and religious views and anger being policed, if social media vigilantes have taken on the moral responsibility of policing sense of humour as well, don’t we risk shrinking the digital space even further?

While I must acknowledge that I am hardly an expert at keeping up with ever-changing rules, vocabulary and the definitions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct in digital spaces, might I humbly point out that making things bigger than they are may have some unintended consequences. When we merge lines between “trolling” and cyberbullying, especially in this era, we may, in addition to implicating people who should not be implicated, be further limiting the already very limited space for freedom of expression.

To clarify further what I mean by “this era”, let’s have a closer look at the world. We currently live in a world where more than 300 activists were arrested in the US for protesting in favour of Ford in the Ford-versus-Kavanaugh case; and where Bulgarian journalist Victoria Marinova was raped and beaten to death after she interviewed two investigative reporters who were recently arrested while looking into corruption involving the misuse of EU funds. Maybe, we should ask ourselves: what is more of a cause for concern? The fact that we laugh at people who ask stupid questions that are met with equally stupid responses on live telecasted television shows? Or the fact that people can barely express a view, any view, without fear of being implicated legally or socially?

In no way am I condoning misconduct, harmful comments and bullying on social media. In fact, parts of the Digital Security Act make sense. False and/or provocative electronic publications that incite violence and religious sentiment, for example, are undeniably condemnable. As are comments that qualify as sexual harassment, rape threats, and false information that instigate panic and threaten to destabilise the state. Concerns regarding such issues are legitimate.

However, many clicks, “likes” and “shares” as of now are innocent, albeit thoughtless. They do not consciously attempt to incite. Many trolls are humorous self-expressions, where the self is seen as a broader part of the national collective, where we are extensions of each other. As I make fun of you, I make fun of me too.

Yes, it is crude and unsophisticated. The art of thinking before sharing and posting is one that must be honed with practice. However, all art is mastered through practice. And practice of art necessitates open spaces to flourish. The art of articulation is no different. Even if these spaces are sacred, digital spaces.


Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a columnist at The Daily Star.

Source: The Daily Star.


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