08 March 2014

Freedom of expression and walls (regime-made and self-made)

The walls are coming down in the City of Colombo.  This is one of the more apparent elements of the improvements that we see in the city’s landscape.  It has provoked an interesting response from an academic, I was told: mardanaye thaappath e vidihatama kadanavanam hondai (it would be good if the walls of repression are similarly dismantled).  This academic had elaborated and I translate here the comment as it was conveyed to me, leaving out names not out of fear but because they are irrelevant: ‘There are only two journalists who are able to write without fear.  I want to write about these walls; i.e. those of repression. In fact this is an article that I write every single day.  In my head.’

First of all I think he was grossly underestimating fearlessness and the numbers of the fearless.  There are many who openly criticize the regime and moreover do this on a regular basis. He is correct, however, on the fact of walls, although I might disagree about their strengths, heights and the costs of transgression.   

There are no countries without restriction, without censorship, formally or informally.  Some are smart about it, some not.  Some don’t have the resources to maintain an information apparatus so efficient that few would even believe it existed.  Some actually do.  What is important to understand is that in this uneven world the fact that there are rules implies that they can be stretched.  There’s always a way around censorship but there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled, fear or rather the overcoming of fear being just one.

There are two kinds of restrictions. There are formal rules which indicate boundaries that separate possible from impossible or at least ‘deemed impossible’.  Then there are informal rules which flow from the not so ad hoc construction of fear-culture.  Such restrictions are created by ‘exampling’ if you will of those who transgress the relevant lines.  Intimidation in the form of threat, attack, abduction, torture and even killing are well known instruments of defining such lines. Manifest lethargy of the law in investigating cases where such instruments have been used not only indicates strength or otherwise of the relevant legal apparatus but reveals key characteristics of relevant regime, including degree of complicity. 

How does one operate in regimes which are made of repressive walls, formal or otherwise? 
I believe that the most important weapon is integrity.  If one is motivated by malice, then one immediately turns the ground on which one stands and the territories that need to be crossed into quicksand.  This makes wall-jumping or wall-breaking extremely hard.  If, for example, one’s opposition to a particular regime and its repressive infrastructure is motivated by a preference for a different political camp that neither has a better track record in these matter nor shows any signs of having the political will and the ideological bent to do things differently if in power, wall-battering becomes a tainted operation and one which has to be undertaken without requisite numbers. 

If, for example, a person who has directly or indirectly supported a terrorist outfit on the premise ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ that person’s credentials as a righteous advocate of media freedom, let’s say, are severely compromised.  If someone is brave in pointing error of a particular political entity but is blind to the blemishes of another, the fact of selectivity compromises integrity.  If one advocates media freedom and goes on to mobilize support through the development of organizations and proceeds to pilfer the organizational kitty and use the process for self-aggrandizement, then too integrity loses out. 

Integrity constitutes the legs that make for wall-jumping, the shoulder that makes wall-breaking possible.  It is the heart that manifests itself as a beacon that draw mass to cause.  

One has to also avoid becoming victim of one’s own propaganda.  The enemy hardly ever appears in true dimensions.  It is profitable to make people believe that walls exist where there are none or else to convince them that existing walls are stronger and taller than they really are.  Sometimes, we often forget, that we too add to enemy-size. We make gonibillas (monsters) for purposes of expediency and they take a life of their own inside our own minds!  This is how walls acquire feet and start marching towards us from all sides.  We believe that the perimeter has contracted when in fact it is just that we’ve decided to stop a long way before we reach the no-no line. 

Wall makers know that people have prices and sometimes they purchase the would be wall-breaker.  We all have something to lose. We all come with a price tag. The question is whether or not we sell ourselves cheap.  Our price is a personal wall and we don’t do ourselves any favours by indicating to wall-maker what our price is.  

Then there is the wall of ignorance.  There is a wall of sloth.  Another of dishonesty.  These are not regime-made walls. They are the instruments of self-censorship. 

The first step to wall-breaking is the breaking of the walls that we ourselves create.  The academic who writes the wall-breaking article in his mind every single day, might do well to examine if he has himself constructed any walls and whether his inhibitions and lack of mobility is as defined by these as by regime-constructed repressive walls.  In fact, that’s a good exercise for all journalist and indeed all citizens, myself included of course.