Thursday, October 23, 2008

I say, you say - Not I say what you can say!

The Nobel prize winning economist from India, Amartya Sen, is noted for having pointed out that no known modern democratic society with a free press has ever been struck by a famine. By contrast, all despotic states with no freedom of the press – an essential ingredient, by any measure, of a credible democracy – have been ones that are chronically prone to famines. Indeed, the examples abound; one only needs to look into the history of famines around the world and see the glaring evidence. His argument essentially is that in legitimate democracies, such where a free press is respected and valued, elected governments are accountable and, as such, have a ‘strong incentive’ to avert human-made – and hence avoidable - disasters such as famines.

I could not help but be reminded on Sen’s argument after coming across the report that Malaysia’s press freedom ranking seems to be on a ‘free fall.’

 No, I’m certainly not suggesting that given the apparent undermining of democracy we’ve witnessed as reflected through the pattern of restrictive press freedoms and the muffling of free speech means that we’re on a path toward famine. As a matter of fact, Sen has himself asserted that it would be a misapprehension to believe that democracy solves the problem of hunger.’

Sen’s argument, however, is very telling about democratic societies – and by implication, a free press’s role - in ensuring accountability and economic well-being. But his argument is also crucial to understanding how democracy and a genuinely free press are essential to social stability.

There is no denying that a legitimate democracy is a precondition to fostering a stable and prosperous society. This point often seems to be lost on those who repeatedly use the argument that we need to control press freedoms or prevent dialogue of ‘sensitive issues’ in the open because it will undermine stability and prosperity. Yes, it might seem like common sense:  Controlling freedom of speech avoids controversy, and this in turn prevents conflict from arising. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, once upon a time, ‘common sense’ also told us that the earth is flat! Much like the misconception about free speech and stability, common sense tells us a lot of other things, which are not factually correct.      

The fact is, free speech, rather than threatening stability, actually promotes stability. When a society values the right of all voices to be heard, it conveys the message that we respect the need for debating ideas freely without threat of censorship or persecution. By implication, a genuine democratic culture therefore abhors and rejects suppression, aggression, and certainly violence, as means for resolving differences. Accordingly, a democratic society becomes vibrant and grows because it is stable; and it is stable because it values the importance of free speech and debate.      

That is why I was also deeply disappointed to see that some of our university students – those who are supposedly committed to free inquiry and exploration of ideas – were successful in gagging free speech by having the Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi’s invitation to speak at the University of Malaya withdrawn. Imagine, the very students who should be appreciating the principle of free inquiry and debate that is the virtue of a university, have abated the process of damaging and undermining  the culture of free speech and debate.  

No, Malaysia is not under threat of a famine because since 2006 we’ve steadily slipped down a slippery slope where the idea and practice of a free press has been undermined. We may not be a Sudan, Zimbabwe, Somalia, or North Korea. But these despotic societies and inherently unstable societies lack something fundamental to achieving stability: a genuinely free press. Even if our politicians, unlike those in other despotic countries, are well-intentioned in their motives for controlling the press, let us remember that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.   

And politicians’ intentions notwithstanding, let us not continue to be hoodwinked that our stability is directly dependent on controlling and suppressing free speech. Yes, it might seem like common-sense that censoring a free press or free speech is necessary for stability. I say nothing could be more erroneous.

G. Krishnan