Freedom of Expression and Speech

Jamshid HaidariAbout the author: Jamshid Haidary is a former Star student who is the head of the Media License Department at the Ministry of Information and Culture.

To be free means being able to choose among several alternatives, so freedom is having a choice. To be free is to be able to choose with full knowledge of facts after deliberation. Freedom is autonomy within a specific sphere of activity.

To be free is to be capable of pursuing activities conforming to their own rationality which implies that one is able to recognize and grasp human activities’ specific rationality or purpose. So, freedom is rectitude.

Political freedom:

Political freedom is the capacity and ability of self-determination as an expression of the individual will. It is closely linked with the concept of civil liberties and individual rights.

Most democratic societies are characterized by various freedoms which are guaranteed or legally protected by the Constitution. Some of the different forms of political freedoms are freedom of assembly, association, religion, education, press, movement, speech and expression, thought.

Freedom of speech and expression:      

Free speech promotes the free flow of ideas essential to political democracy and democratic institutions and at the same time limits the ability of the State to subvert rights and freedoms. It promotes a marketplace of ideas which includes, but is not limited to, the search for truth. It is intrinsically valuable as part of the self-actualization of speakers and listeners

Freedom of Press:

It is a simple extension of the fundamental individual rights to freedom of speech and expression. It is closely related to the Libertarian thoughts which had its origin in the writings of John Milton’s Areopagitica. Philosophical support was found in the writings of John Stuart Mill. In his book, On Liberty, he explains, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation, those who dissent from the opinion, even more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” A free press has thus been seen as an essential component of a free and rational society.

Requirements for media freedom:

For media freedom to be realized, there must also be access to channels and opportunities to receive diverse kinds of information.

Freedom of information/communication has a dual aspect, offering a wide range of voices, responding to a wide-ranging demand or need. It also needs absence of censorship, licensing or other control by the government so that there is an unhindered right to publish and disseminate news and opinion without any obligation to publish what one does not wish to. There needs to be equal rights and options for citizens for free reception of and access to news, views, education and culture.

Freedom for news media to obtain information from relevant sources requires an absence of concealed influence from media owners or advertisers on news selection and on opinions expressed, an active and critical editorial policy in presenting news and opinion. These prescriptions assume that the only legitimate interests to be served are those either of communicators or of citizens or both, but there are conflicts and inconsistencies.

Freedom of public communication or media can never be absolute but has to recognize limits sometimes set by the private interests of others or by the higher collective good of a society. There is potential conflict of interests between owner or controllers of media channels and those who might want access to the channels but have no power or legal right to secure it either as senders or receivers. There may be an imbalance between what senders want to say and what others want to hear.

It may be necessary for government or public power to intervene to secure some freedoms which are not in practice delivered by an unfettered system. Benefits of media freedom include systematic and independent public scrutiny of those in power and supply reliable information about their activities.

Stimulation of an active informed democratic system and social life, the chance to express ideas, beliefs, views about the world, continued renewal and change of culture and society, increase the amount and variety of freedom available.

Limitations on media freedom include corporate pressure, pressure from ruling elite, social, economic and political pressures, religious, legal and governmental restrictions and pressures. In the book Manufacturing Consent-The Political Economy of the Mass Media, written in 1988 by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, they describe the Propaganda Model of the media. According to Herman and Chomsky, media performance is largely shaped by market forces by the bottom line goals of media corporations operating within capitalist state-society. Built into the system itself is a range of filters that work ceaselessly to shape media output. It argues that the bias derives from five ‘filters’ which all published news must pass through and this, in turn, distorts news coverage. The five filters are the following:

  1. Ownership: most large media outlets are owned by big corporations/companies.
  2. Funding: All media outlets depend heavily on advertising revenue and news, as a product, plays a minor role. Hence, stories that will affect the ‘buying mood’ of the readers or the interests of advertisers will be marginalized or avoided.
  3. Sourcing: or sourcing of information, media depends on government institutions and major businesses and information provided by these sources is generally biased.
  4. Flak: this filter refers to the various powerful groups that target the media directly or indirectly to manage information their way.
  5. Anti-ideologies: this filter exploits public fear and hatred of groups that pose real or imagined threats.

 

The Afghan Case

The press freedom situation in Afghanistan has improved in the last years amid greater media diversity, rising professional standards for journalists, and decline in legal harassment and censorship. However, violence against journalists increased in 2014 as the country suffered from growing insecurity, and the media continued to face legal and other interference from the authorities.

To give insight into the legal environment, Article 34 of the constitution allows freedom of the press and expression, and the 2009 Mass Media Law prohibits censorship and guarantees the right of citizens to obtain information. However, there are broad restrictions on content that is deemed “contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and sects.” Cases involving journalists are supposed to be handled by a commission devoted to media issues, but the legal framework’s ambiguity has led to muddled implementation. Four media laws have been approved since 2002, and journalists lack clarity on how different provisions are meant to be applied. Article 130 of the constitution vaguely stipulates that courts and Islamic jurists can rule on cases “in a way that attains justice in the best manner,” creating leeway for discriminatory or contradictory rulings.