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A check to freedom of expression

A check to freedom of expression

The recent statements of Pope Francis related to the Paris terror attacks are thought provoking and command attention.

Francis en route to Philippines on Thursday said that free speech was a fundamental human right but there were limits to it, especially when it ridicules other religions and the sentiments of others. His statements come amidst the terrorist attacks on the French Satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed its top cartoonists including the Editor. The pontiff said that he did not mean justifying the Paris attacks and that religion should not be used as a means to defend violence and slaughter. The Charlie Hebdo attacks by the Al Qaieda terrorists were condemned by the world leaders and millions of people around the world who took to the streets to denounce the attacks and express solidarity with the magazine staff killed. The weekly had published highly offensive depictions of the prophet earlier due to which they were targeted frequently. The survivors of the attack launched a retaliatory attack by publishing last week’s special edition that carried a cartoon of the prophet again. Widespread attention and an increased demand for the weekly hiked up the circulations rates that came close to around three million copies.

The current scenario is aggravated by the conflicts between advocates of free speech who claim that there are no limits to the freedom of expression through writing, art, speech and journalism, on one hand and the extremist religious fanatics who take to violence targeting those who offend their religion, on the other. The Paris attacks have triggered controversies and debates all across the world. The prophet, in whose name the attacks are being carried out, was an epitome of love, justice and dignity. He spread the message of peace and brotherhood and was compassionate and merciful towards people of all religions. He is revered by millions of Muslims around the world who think it forbidden to touch the honor and sanctity of the prophet in any way. Lambasting the prophet therefore doesn’t come under the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The fundamental rights are enshrined in the constitution of most of the democratic countries and also the UN documents. Only despotic authoritarian governments ban or limit the freedom to speech through various mediums. Several such instances can be found in history. In former Soviet Union, Boris Pasternal, who authored Dr Zhivago, was sentenced to prison. Similar incidents still happen in communist China and North Korea. Considering the recent incidents in our country, one might think that India too is moving in the same direction. The protests and fascist warnings against the film PK and the targeting of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan by the extreme Hindu forces for writing his novel “Madorubhagan” are all instances that block the freedom of speech. The writer recently announced on social media that he has stopped writing and would recall all his previous works. The Tamil Nadu government has been widely critisised for failing to protect the 'Freedom of Expression' of the author.

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan also fall into the same category. The courts in Pakistan order death sentence for any offense related to religion and prophet forcing the Human rights groups to believe that the law is often used to discriminate against religious minorities. In such a scenario, it is natural for questions suspecting the level of faith and tolerance of people of different religions to surface. There should, indeed, be a limit to everything.

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