Freedom of expression remains a sensitive issue in South Asia. Though growing in importance, it seems unlikely that governments will grant such basic freedoms to their citizens.
“Freedom is the right to choose, the right to create for yourself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.”
- Archibald MacLeish
Freedom is one of the most elusive concepts to human beings. It is the longing of all persons, yet when gained or celebrated at the expense of others, its value is questionable. Freedom is a concept that calls for wholeness. A person is not a fully free member of society if he is restricted politically, economically, socially, culturally or religiously. History has witnessed great thinkers, politicians, writers, and artists waste their lives trying to find the meaning of freedom. Men have spent generations floating various definitions, examples and quotations on what makes freedom so important.
Freedom of expression, as Justice Felix Frankfurter puts it, “is the wellspring of any civilization.” Speech, words and expressions are not simply limited to public speaking. The right to express oneself is preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is granted formal recognition by most nations. An essential part of freedom of expression is voicing one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment. Unfortunately, such freedom is often curtailed by governments, especially in South Asia.
South Asia is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and is
described as one of the poorest regions on Earth. The most vulnerable to discrimination are not only the poor and minorities but also women and children. This is evident through discriminatory gender laws, physical punishment of both women and children, lack of equal and safe working conditions, child labor, female feticide and lack of access to education for girls, amongst numerous other grievances.
In an era dominated by the influx of media, South Asians are still struggling for their freedoms of expression and opinion. In 2011, during the closing session of The World Press Freedom Day, South Asian journalists highlighted the importance of press freedom in South Asia, stressed the need to evaluate and defend the media from attacks on its independence and paid tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty.
In Sri Lanka, almost twenty journalists were killed during the last decade and in Pakistan, deemed the most dangerous country for journalists, at least eleven journalists lost their lives last year alone.
Journalists in South Asia are courageous supporters of press freedom and access to information. In recent years, South Asian journalists have had to face hard battles in their perseverance to report the truth. Standing bravely in the face of persecution and death threats, the journalists’ community serves as an easy target motivated by political backing.
At a time when international media and governments around the world are raising a collective voice in favor of human freedoms, South Asia is only drifting further into darkness. Despite efforts made by hu- man rights organizations addressing pressing issues, it seems interests of governments are greater than the rights of the common man.
It is imperative for the social and political situation throughout South Asia to become conducive to responsible reporting and for governments to guarantee journalists the freedom and protection they deserve. Until there is no protection, media freedom and individual freedom of expression will stagnate and ultimately deteriorate, plunging South Asia into an even more complicated and controlled web. The need of the hour is tolerance to differences of opinion and not persecution based on disagreement.