Published: Friday, May 10, 2013

Does freedom of expression sanction freedom to lie?

IT is said that a group of people went to Prophet Mohammed (SM) and complained against an individual who was involved in all kinds of mischievous acts. Prophet (SM) called the person and asked him if he was involved in the kind activities as noted by the complainers. The person, of course, denied committing those deeds. At that point, Prophet (SM) asked him if would be willing to make only a single promise, which would be not to tell a single lie. The person readily agreed. At that point the complainers enquired from the Prophet (SM) how it would prevent him from continuing with his misdeeds. Then the Prophet (SM) explained that if he adhered to his promise, it would be good enough to prevent him from continuing with his misdeeds. For example, if he was on his way to commit a crime and if anyone asked him where he was going, what would be his answer if he had to tell the truth? Even after committing a crime what would be his answer if he was asked “did you commit this crime”?

Truth is an integral element engrained in the ethical value of human society. During my long stay in the Western society, I was able to differentiate the various elements of ethical values which are treated differently in the East from the West. In the West, if a politician’s son is convicted for corruption in an international court or if his case of embezzlement of public fund, for instance, makes an entry into an international handbook, the politician’s fate would be sealed once and for all.

In generally perceived more religious Eastern societies, truth should be the centrepiece of the ethical value system, which, unfortunately, it is not in Bangladesh. I am not aware of any law in Bangladesh that stipulates punishment for telling lies since I have never come across any conviction in any such case had it been brought to the appropriate jurisdiction of the legal system. In Western society, on the other hand, truth occupies the centre of society, more so in the political arena since politicians are more accountable to the people.

In the Watergate scandal of former US President Richard Nixon, he had to resign not so much for the scandal itself as for lying. In most Westminster type democracies, parliament members are immune from prosecution for their utterances inside the House, but not when they are out of it. A few years ago, the leader of the opposition in the Canadian parliament raised an allegation against the PM in the House of Commons. The PM refuted the allegation and said: “If you utter the same outside the parliament, I will sue you.” When the leader of the opposition came out of the parliament, the waiting newsmen asked him if he would make the same allegation now. His response was: “I guess I would not.”

In Singapore, there are strict laws to punish anyone if he accuses his political foes without any valid proof. The first example of this case occurred in 1981 and caught worldwide attention as the person concerned was the lone opposition MP of the parliament, J.B. Jeyaretnam, who made an allegation against PM Lee Kuan Yew, which, according to Lee, was based on a false premise. He was sued by the PM and the court stripped him of his parliamentary membership and fined him $260,000 plus legal cost.

Democracy and freedom of press go hand in hand in a civilised society. But freedom of press does not sanction anyone to spread lies, venom and bigotry. There are hundreds of newspapers in Bangladesh and each of them is publishing whatever it thinks is true, not what is happening and has happened. There are only a handful of them whose reports one can trust. An analyst has the right to interpret the fact differently but does not have the right to distort it based on speculation.

When the whole nation was glued to the rescue operations in the aftermath of the Savar tragedy, the leader of the opposition, instead of praising the state authorities, including the army and thousands of ordinary citizens, for their good work, claimed that hundreds of corpses had been secreted away. What was the basis of her fallacious accusation? How could the government do it in front of thousands of people and scores of news media personnel?

After the removal of Hefajat supporters from the Shapla Chattar (they had outstayed their time limit) following their unprecedented destruction of public and private property, there was astronomical inflation of casualty numbers spread by some politicians. An octogenarian BNP standing committee member said that the number was in the ‘thousands.’ Even after the unprecedented havoc, he said the rally was peaceful, and blamed the destruction on ruling party supporters and the burning of Quran and Islamic book shops on an individual of religious minority. What could be more devoid of conscience?

The ruling party has challenged him to present proof in favour of his astronomical figures of casualties and absurd hypothesis while the accused person has sued him. If nothing happens to this man under the existing law, may we ask our lawmakers to frame a stringent law to bring the tongues of these dissolute politicians to account?

Through satellite TV, we saw that had it not been with the help of police, AL supporters would not be able to defend even their own party office, let alone burn and loot hundreds of shops and set fire to buses and car in the government bus depot. Vivid accounts were given by the victims themselves as to how their shops were burnt, in spite of their pleas to the perpetrators.

The writer is the Convener of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh.

  • subterraneo

    Good article. A pedagogical remark might be the sense of incompleteness left by the last paragraph. It leaves the impression that the article has established a number of points and has supported them with relevant historical examples, but has not strung them into a coherent conclusion.