ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday February 24, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 39
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Free speech or death of democracy

By Neville de Silva

Last week a local newspaper carried an interesting view on the meaning of democracy. Headlined “We are a democracy, Mervyn can say anything”, Champika Ranawaka of the Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU) adumbrated the opinion that democracy equates to an unsanctioned right to say what you will and I suppose, when you will. Expanding somewhat on his interpretation of an unbridled right to free speech, the minister for Environment and Natural Resources Champika Ranawaka was quoted as saying: “Dr de Silva has the right to express anything he likes since this is a free country.”

Let’s leave aside, for the moment at least, the appellation that the minister attached to de Silva’s name. One does not wish to get side- tracked from the main proposition contained in Ranawaka’s simple but far- reaching statement which should be of interest not only to students of political science but also to the punditry that is to be found in assorted institutions and the legal fraternity.

Various international bodies that deal with human rights including such busy bodies as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that suffer from selective amnesia and periodic outbursts against small or smaller countries that they feel are vulnerable to coercion, would scarce forbear to cheer Champika. Others such as Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), whose pretentious claims to impartiality is best known to journalists who study its dubious assessments and reports, would probably issue a statement that it considers as historically significant as the Magna Carta. If RSF does not issue a statement extolling the intellectual contribution of Champika Ranawaka to the growing regimen of constitutional and legal opinion on the right to free speech, then Victor Brossel and the Asian chapter of RSF, are falling down on their job. After all, the fall of a diphthong is usually sufficient to generate a dissertation from the desk of its Paris headquarters or the naïve and inexperienced arbiters in its Asian office.

For the Sri Lankan media there are more fundamental questions raised by the Ranawaka observation. Does this elastic interpretation of democratic freedom apply specifically to Mervyn Silva or is this a general right that should be shared by all the people of this country? Unfortunately those who spoke to minister Ranawaka did not see the importance of eliciting an answer from him on this because they had not even thought of it or had any intention of going beyond getting that comment. The fact is that the reporter or reporters of this weekly newspaper missed the opportunity of getting a more comprehensive response which would have done a lot of good all round.

If, on the other hand, this latitude is extended only to Mervyn Silva one is constrained to ask, why this graciousness? Is he some special person who deserves the gratitude of Sri Lankans everywhere that a minister of state is ready to buck the legal system of this country and even international conventions to extend to a government colleague a non-existent right? Maybe that as minister of Natural Resources Champika Ranawaka considers his parliamentary colleague a natural resource that should not only be preserved for posterity but also sustainably developed for the good of the nation. I always thought that the freedom of speech as applicable in this country is circumscribed by the laws of libel and defamation. Those laws still exist in our statute books the last I heard.

In fact the law of criminal defamation which was a part of our laws was thankfully removed five years or so ago. Surely minister Ranawaka knows that those guilty of criminal defamation could end up behind bars for exercising, according to his interpretation of freedom of speech, that very freedom. It was not too long ago that we heard of a paper that made a sudden appearance at a cabinet meeting making a case for the reintroduction of criminal defamation into our legal system. Fortunately, that seemed to have been dropped, thanks to the presence of a couple of alert ministers who were critical of this stealthy attempt to put the law back into our statute books.

Strangely one did not hear minister Ranawaka’s name being mentioned as one of those alert ministers who saved the day. Perhaps he was out that day looking after a deteriorating environment to worry too much about criminal defamation which of course would be a severe curtailment of free speech that he advocates as a democratic necessity. I am sure that there would be many to applaud minister Ranawaka if he was to take a public stand on free speech and advocate its acceptance at the highest levels of government. The truth however is different though there are some in the West, especially in the media, who believe that freedom of speech which includes freedom of the press, is untrammelled.

It might be recalled that somewhere last year when a Danish newspaper published some offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and other European newspapers reproduced them as an expression of freedom of speech, it sparked a violent reaction including attacks in some European cities by enraged Muslims. It is curious that the very editors who claimed the right of free speech had either not read the European Convention on Human Rights or just ignored it. The fact is that ECHR which includes an article on freedom of expression does not extend absolute freedom of speech. It is circumscribed by several factors. So is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which followed the European Convention and was adopted several years later. The only absolute freedom is freedom from torture.

Minister Ranawaka made one other remark when questioned about Mervyn Silva’s claim to be a descendant of King Dutugemunu. Having spoken about the freedom of expression, the minister said, “But that does not mean that we accept whatever he says or claims.” While one commiserates with Mervyn Silva because his colleague appears to cast some doubts about his kinship with Dutugemeunu, he would understand as an upstanding member of Sri Lankan society and a defender of the faith, that the more relevant issue is that of the freedom of speech rather than his relationship to the great king.

Champika Ranawaka is wrong when he invests democracy with the absolute right to free speech. That is not what worries the media and others who believe in freedom of expression. The worry is that whatever freedom exists would be further eroded creating a society of closed mouths and heads nodding in assent. That minister Ranawaka, would be the death of democracy.

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