In a world where Martin Luther King was declared as “the most dangerous hero” by the FBI two days after his “I Have a Dream” speech, in a world where Muslims are often viewed as perpetually guilty, in a world where journalists are jailed for doing their job, in a world where the US government can spy on journalists using foreign intelligence surveillance, in a world where stories of women are dealt with a double dose of suspicion and disbelief, one must also still remember that freedom is to be sought and that it is not above and beyond a patient, negotiated discourse.
Last month, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism won a case against the UK government when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that mass surveillance by the GCHQ and other intelligence agencies without putting enough safeguards to protect the freedom of press is unlawful. This victory will enable journalists to protect their sources. Snowden reacted to the verdict by tweeting: “Today, we won. Don't thank me: thank all of those who never stopped fighting.” Good news.
In Pakistan, where the fresh wind of change was expected to blow, quite unexpectedly, the powerful military quietly, but effectively, is restricting media and is encouraging self-censorship. While the number of killings is decreasing, free speech has fallen prey to an organised control mechanism and more and more people are speaking up less. Bad news.
In the States, when there were immediate protests following the news of Brett M Kavanaugh being the Supreme Court nominee, Trump in an interview had said that protests should be deemed illegal. He said: “I think it's embarrassing for the country to allow protesters…In the old days, we used to throw them out.” Worst news ever.
Now despots like Trump may dampen our spirit or we may opt for the choice of taking a hard look at countries around us and the world we live in and decide that we must responsibly lobby hard to have the best standards in place, set in a perfectly ethical landscape. In the absence of which, one could be victimised by self-censorship and end up with a murmur instead of a shout. After all, one can't be free and reckless; one can't be bold without the burden of accountability; one can't be critical when saddled with favours from the side that one critiques. Being free is not easy.
True, there are norms and rules that do not allow all of us to sound as free as we would want to when we participate in society as humans. There are also times when we minimise our own voices, curb our own rights, and restrict our own needs. There are multitudes of ways we oppress ourselves by our own systems and institutions. According to Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, it's through powerlessness that we oppress ourselves leading to the creation of a culture of silence. Silence eventually kills our ideas, energy, communities, relationships. There are times when we don't rock our boats. Many a time we allow people around us to say the most blatantly false statements and yet we silence ourselves just to keep the peace.
Dr Christine Blasey Ford, Research Psychologist at Stanford University, testifying live the other night was a real-time example of freedom that set many of us free. Her testimony against Kavanaugh included details of the sexual assault that happened years ago and while Kavanaugh has continued to deny her claims and confirm his love for beer, Ford has steadily maintained her position of remembering her trauma from the past. And while defending her memory, she referred to brain chemistry and shared that the neurotransmitter epinephrine “codes memories into the hippocampus” and the trauma stays locked there, while the other details drift away. These traumas are for sharing. They are not for being stashed away… After Ford, Padma Lakshmi, the celebrity chef, revealed her #MeToo experience as a 16-year-old in an MIT event right after Ford's testimony. The culture of sharing has begun; the culture of celebrating the disadvantaged has started; and thus, the stories of pain and shame must also surface and be shared.
While we celebrate the news of the first ever woman in Bangladesh in the last 47 years being appointed as major general and congratulate Susane Giti, while we share the news of Gita Gopinath being appointed as the chief economist of IMF, we must also share the anxiety of Sandhya Ravishankar, the Indian investigative journalist, facing threats and intimidation in Chennai for her four-part exposé on the sand mining mafia in Tamil Nadu.
In the process, let us remember that all oppression is trauma. All surveillance is an insult. While surveillance is mostly used for security and safety, let that not be about controlling who we want to be, as limiting self-expression is deadly. Therefore, if one negotiates for freedom not by force or protest, but rather with empathy appealing to the better senses of the system that we live by, we are most likely to succeed. But then, let not our silence be so deep and insidious that it eats us up alive. Let's try being open. Let's talk about race, class, religious oppression or gender issues. Let's remember that being blissfully segregated or institutionalising silence is not where the triumph lies. Victory lies in being able to create a safe space for voice and memory to last till the end of time.
Writer and photographer Elizabeth Rush best expressed the issue of perspective when she said that an innocuous creative act in one country could also be considered as a threat to national security in another. As for artists, defiance is best expressed through art. That too may be of a unique mode. The best example that Rush gives refers to the “performance” in Burma and concludes, “The most tenacious and telling art in Burma isn't painted, printed or hewn. It simply takes place.”
In art, life and politics, reality is what “simply takes place.” Imagination is the only element that runs beyond censorship. Rest are to be negotiated for. With responsibility of an accurate expression and with the pledge of accurate reportage. Period.
Dr Rubana Huq is the managing director of Mohammadi Group.