Defending Free Speech in ASEAN

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Defending Free Speech in ASEAN

There have been some troubling regional developments on the issue of late.

Defending Free Speech in ASEAN
Credit: Flickr/Davao Today

The issue of free speech is often wrongly articulated. It is not just the right of the person to speak, but the right of others to listen.

The corollary is important. Indeed, take the example of when governments crackdown on the media. It is not because journalists write but because readers read. In Cambodia, for example, the English-language newspapers can practically write what they want about the government and politics because, the government knows, few Cambodians read these publications. The Khmer-language press does not enjoy such freedom.

Before me lies the latest issue of the Mekong Review, which includes an interview with the Thai journalist Thaweeporn Kummetha, of the online newspaper Prachatai. In a few words she explains exactly what I mean by the “right of others to listen.”

In October 2015, Thaweeporn was pulled in for questioning by the Thai authorities after she wrote an infographic on the country’s lèse-majesté law. After being asked if she changed her writing after the questioning, which didn’t lead to her arrest, Thaweeporn said she began removing her byline from stories relating to the monarchy. “It put doubt in my mind,” she said. “I used to be the one in the office to push the boundaries of the unutterable, but after that, not anymore. I have to be more careful.” And when asked if the intimidation was successful, she replied tersely: “Yes.” She went on: “In this climate of fear, I began to lose hope for the future of Thailand.”

Now, give pause. Consider the saying that has entered the realm of Churchillian drift: “Knowledge is measured by the realization of one’s own ignorance.” This may sound oxymoronic but imagine speaking with an astrophysicist: it won’t take too long until it dawns on you just how little you know about the fundamentals of the universe. The same rings true for space as politics: you don’t know how little you know about politics until you meet someone who knows more than you.

Which returns us to Thaweeporn. Talking of her earlier support for the “yellow shirts” in Thailand, she reveals the process of how she changed her mind. “The book On Liberty by John S. Mill inspired me to place a high value on freedom of expression,” she said. “Then I started to question other ideas promoted by the ‘yellow shirts’”.

She continued a little later on: “When my friends questioned me about the ‘yellow shirts’, they presented me with different information that I’d never heard before. And when I read more and more, I found a logic that I’d never seen and I wondered why I hadn’t. You know, it was a form of enlightenment, or an eye-opener.”

Questioning Beliefs

Is this not a perfect encapsulation of what I mean by the “right of others to listen”? It was by reading and speaking to others with different views that Thaweeporn discovered the extent of her own ignorance. It was then with this realization that she started to question her beliefs and principles, and soon underwent a significant change in opinion. But all of this relied on Thaweeporn, first, being able to purchase a copy of On Liberty and, second, being able to listen to friends with different political views.

Yet, when one extends Thaweeporn’s experience to that of all Thai citizens, the same paths to what she calls “enlightenment” are not available to everyone. First, perhaps the copy of On Liberty she read was in English, not Thai – how many Thais can read this 19th century treatise and understand it in full? I doubt some native-English speakers could. Second, Thaweeporn’s experience relied on having friends with differing political opinions, who were steadfast in informing her of them. But such a luxury is not enjoyed by all.

So where do people turn when they cannot read Mill or have enlightened friends with whom to discuss politics? Typically, newspapers, television, and the Internet. But in Thailand, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, these are the mediums that are being most heavily censored, limiting the ability of an individual to, first, discover the extent of their ignorance and, second, listen to differing opinions.

How to Think Freely

But there is an even deeper issue here. Thaweeporn describes herself as having a “typically middle-class background.” She was raised in Bangkok; her father was an engineer; she studied at Chulalongkorn University. Was it this background that allowed her to change her mind?

The ability to listen, and understand, differing opinions and to change one’s mind takes not only a great deal of maturity but also a good deal of education. It requires the realization that what you have been taught by teachers, parents, seniors, or governments might indeed be wrong; it requires the acceptance that one’s elders might be wrong and that hierarchical thinking is sometimes illogical.

Freedom of expression does not begin in adulthood; it begins in childhood. A child who is taught that asking questions is wrong faces a difficult task when he reaches adulthood. If teacher knows best, so too does the government.

Karl Marx was right when he wrote: “To fight freedom of the press, one must maintain the thesis of the permanent immaturity of the human race… If the immaturity of the human race is the mystical ground for opposing freedom of the press, then certainly censorship is a most reasonable means of hindering the human race from coming of age.”

To put this in simpler terms: those who argue for censorship render the populace infantile. They believe citizens are either not able, or are too sensitive, to listen to others’ opinions. Indeed, to live in a society where free speech is honored necessitates maturity. It means that one shouldn’t be easily offended; one must listen to things that you doesn’t want to hear; one must appreciate that others think differently and, often, remarkably differently.

No Defense for Free Speech

But infantalism cuts to the root of the matter and, here, we can arrive at the purpose of this article: a defense of free-speech fundamentalism. In the United States, certain individuals are derided as “First Amendment absolutists.” For those of us not from that country, but hold the same principle dear, there is no comparable derision. Yet, I would be happy to be stuck with the label since it in itself a misnomer: it is precisely the First Amendment — and genuine freedom of expression, in general — that attempts to make absolutism impossible.

Defending genuine free speech in Southeast Asia is more important than ever because it appears that those responsible for upholding this right are shirking the task. The examples are too voluminous to list all, but I will mention a few.

In Indonesia, a “blasphemy” scandal is currently engulfing Jakarta’s governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese-Indonesian and Christian. The controversy began when Ahok, who is contesting elections in February, simply read a verse from the Quran, saying that his opponents would invoke it to “deceive” people into not voting from him. Most publications chose not to even quote the verse (verse 5:51 of the Surah Al-Maidah), for whatever reason, but it reads:

“O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you — then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”

Much of the coverage of this scandal immediately decided that Ahok had been flippant or insensitive at best, allowing those who felt insulted to set the tone, without ever asking whether he was correct in what he said. If they had, they would have found that a number of Muslim clerics, including Alwi Wahid, of the prominent Al Furqon mosque in Jakarta, had incited the verse months before to tell followers not to vote for Ahok. “It is stated in the Quran that as Muslims, we must vote for a Muslim,” Alwi Wahid said. “I am a Muslim and Ahok is an infidel. That’s it.” So not only was Ahok’s right to free speech being infringed, it was being infringed while he was essentially telling the truth.

Although a few human rights activists, including some from the Civil Society Alliance for the Constitution (Amsik), came out in Ahok’s defense, most stayed silent. In the face of mounting pressure, perhaps they thought it a battle not worth fighting, or perhaps they thought they would cause “offense” by taking part. In actual fact, the case could be one of the country’s most important deciders of free speech in years.

In Cambodia, only last week a doctored image of the King, with the words “Cambodia King Is Gay,” appeared on social media, sparking a government investigation despite there being no law that prevents such insults. How many people came out to defend the rights of the people who produced it? Not many at all.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak defended the government’s response by claiming the image was akin to “insulting the whole nation.” If the whole of Cambodia is insulted by one juvenile image, the population must be incredibly thin-skinned. The fact it isn’t did not prevent the government from seeking prosecution when no crime was committed, even threatening to look into introducing a lèse-majesté law to protect the monarchy from insults.

Last year, I was downhearted when, during the Philippine presidential campaign, the country’s Commission on Human Rights stated that free speech was not absolute after Rodrigo Duterte made a number of deplorable statements, including one “joke” about wanting to be first in the gang-rape of an Australian missionary.

The commission cited Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Philippines signed, that restricts free expression for the following factors:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.

Article 19 is a shoddy and, probably intentionally, vague example of the cacography of an international human rights movement that lacks true commitment to its cause. Surely its authors must know that “respect of the rights or reputations of others” and “protection of national security” are so indefinable that they can be easily wielded by every autocratic to curtail criticism.

Who Decides What to Curtail?

Of course, Duterte’s comment was deplorable and vile. But that doesn’t mean he should be silenced. The right of others to listen necessitates the right to offend. In the bigger picture, the right of one person to free speech is part of the whole. By silencing one person, I and everyone else are deprived of the right to hear.

But the most important question is this: What gives the Commission on Human Rights the right to decide what can and cannot be said, and what you can and cannot read?  In fact, what gives anyone the right to do so? Should it be governments? No, for it is in their interest to limit what can be said and read.

In my opinion, nobody is up to the task to defining what can or cannot be said. Therefore, the only conclusion is that, since nobody is up to this task, it is a task that cannot be performed. And if it cannot be performed, free speech should never be curtailed, whatever its consequences.

Another consideration must be made. If free speech is to be curtailed to protect certain sensitive subjects, be it religion, monarchy, or national security, how is one to know if these subjects are actually as important as they claim?

Thailand’s monarchy is an institution that makes large claims for itself, and anything that claims not only to embody a nation but also to be above the law demands to be questioned. But herein lies the problem. Perhaps the constitutional monarchy of Thailand is the best possible system. But how is one to come to this conclusion when any talk of an alternative is silenced by repressive a lèse-majesté law, which is said to curtail free speech for the sake of national health and morality?

Indeed, without a genuine debate about the merits of a constitutional monarchy compared to a republic, one cannot say with any real confidence whether the Thai population supports the institution or rejects it. Most journalists and commentators will clutch to the safe consensus that it is widely supported but how does anyone know? When Thaweeporn was asked whether lèse-majesté should be abolished, she said it should “because the monarchy is a public institution and should be held accountable and should be scrutinized and criticized.”

I’ll finish on a lissome quote by Rosa Luxemburg, which should never be forgotten: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”