On Freedom of the Press

28 10 2010

The question of the freedom of the press or, more generally, the freedom of thought and expression, has come increasingly into public debate in India. This perhaps is a global trend from what it appears to me, but in India hardly a month passes without some important issue taking centre stage in public debates around the question of freedom of thought and expression.

Whether it is protesting against a film, a book, a speech or public statement, a work of art, a newspaper report or even a question paper, there are demands for banning, censorship, prosecution (often followed by extra-judicial persecution) and punishment for those who are seen to be exceeding the limits of freedom of speech. 

As I write this, there are demands for filing sedition charges against Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Arundhati Roy for demanding independence for Indian administered Kashmir from the Union of India, for stating that Kashmir has never been a part of India and for accusing India of being a colonising power in the Valley. This particular case is much more serious than the other instances of demands for curtailment of speech and censorship of opinions. That is because this happens to be about Kashmir, has got the main opposition party to take an open, unequivocal stand and because the demand is to prosecute these two worthies under the serious charge of sedition.

In this context many people have come out to defend the right to free speech and to freedom of thought and expression. Many who are defending Geelani and Roy are doing so despite their clear disagreement over the substance of what was argued by these two. The defence is of the principle of free speech and the intellectual tradition on which it draws is of the European Enlightenment. Starting with John Milton through John Locke, Voltaire and John Stuart Mill, liberal theory developed a robust conception of free speech based on the principles of the autonomy and integrity of the individual, the search for truth through intellectual constestation based on reason and the fact that freedom was a constitutive element of making us human.

This has been an important intellectual and political resource but given the intellectual and political lineage which these thinkers represent, freedom of speech has come to be identified with a particular form of liberal politics, very often adjectivised with the prefix “bourgeois” or “European”, or even “Western”.

Thus it became easy for regimes which denied their bourgeois or European linkages to reject this concept of freedom of thought and expression. While much of this rejection of free speech by labelling it so has been malafide, it has also led to a situation where political activists informed by Marxism have either come to view freedom of thought and expression as part of the harmful bourgeois tradition or at other times, have had to fall back upon this very same tradition and thinkers to defend their right to speak truth to power.

This is unfortunate. Firstly because it indicates that Marxists have forgotten an important part of their own philosophical and political heritage; a heritage which gets Rosa Luxemburg to state

Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.

Secondly, this neglect of the arguments for freedom of thought and expression (as part of a larger, more generalised freedom of the individual) within the Marxist traditions has so often led to a situation where authoritarianism and the banning of all such freedoms has been so easily accepted by Marxists since freedom of thought and expression, freedomof the press and freedom of the individual in general is identified with “bourgeois” ideals.

It is my personal belief that every person who claims affiliation to any form of Marxist belief should read Karl Marx’s On Freedom of the Press (1842) where he argues, over one hundred pages, the centrality of human freedoms to any emancipatory politics.

For those who cannot, or will not, wade through 100 pages of text I am copy-pasting here some 2,000 plus words of immediate relevance from Chapters 4 and 5 of this document.

Karl Marx: On Freedom of the Press (Selected Text)

Chapter 4.

The press in general is a realisation of human freedom. Consequently, where is a press there is freedom of the press.

True, in the land of censorship the state has no freedom of the press, but one organ of the state has it, viz., the government. Apart from the fact that official government documents enjoy perfect freedom of the press, does not the censor exercise daily an unconditional freedom of the press, if not directly, then indirectly?

Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents implement it while combating its reality; they want to appropriate for, themselves as a most precious ornament what they have rejected as an ornament of human nature.

No man combats freedom; at most he combats the freedom of others. Hence every kind of freedom has always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, at another as a universal right.

… … …

The censored press remains bad even when it turns out good products, for these products are good only insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press, and insofar as it is not in their character to be products of the censored press. The free press remains good even when it produces bad products, for the latter are deviations from the essential nature of the free press. A eunuch remains a bad human being even when he has a good voice. Nature remains good even when she produces monstrosities.

The essence of the free press is the characterful, rational, moral essence of freedom. The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilised monster, a perfumed abortion.

Or does it still need to be proved that freedom of the press is in accord with the essence of the press, whereas censorship contradicts it? Is it not self-evident that external barriers to a spiritual life are not part of the inner nature of this life, that they deny this life and do not affirm it? In order really to justify censorship, the speaker would have had to prove that censorship is part of the essence of freedom of the press; instead he proves that freedom is not part of man’s essence. He rejects the whole genus in order to obtain one good species, for is not freedom after all the generic essence of all spiritual existence, and therefore of the press as well? In order to abolish the possibility of evil, he abolishes the possibility of good and realises evil, for only that which is a realisation of freedom can be humanly good.

Censorship does not abolish the struggle, it makes it one-sided, it converts an open struggle into a hidden one, it converts a struggle over principles into a struggle of principle without power against power without principle. The true censorship, based on the very essence of freedom of the press, is criticism. This is the tribunal which freedom of the press gives rise to of itself. Censorship is criticism as a monopoly of the government. But does not criticism lose its rational character if it is not open but secret, if it is not theoretical but practical, if it is not above parties but itself a party, if it operates not with the sharp knife of reason but with the blunt scissors of arbitrariness, if it only exercises criticism but will not submit to it, if it disavows itself during its realisation, and, finally, if it is so uncritical as to mistake an individual person for universal wisdom, peremptory orders for rational statements, ink spots for patches of sunlight, the crooked deletions of the censor for mathematical constructions, and crude force for decisive arguments?

… … …

…if we do not want to confirm the old Jesuitical maxim that a good end — and we doubt even the goodness of the end — justifies bad means, we have above all to investigate whether censorship by its essence is a good means.

The speaker is right in calling the censorship law a preventive measure, it is a precautionary measure of the police against freedom, but he is wrong in calling the press law a repressive measure. It is the rule of freedom itself which makes itself the yardstick of its own exceptions. The censorship measure is not a law. The press law is not a measure.

In the press law, freedom punishes. In the censorship law, freedom is punished. The censorship law is a law of suspicion against freedom. The press law is a vote of confidence which freedom gives itself. The press law punishes the abuse of freedom. The censorship law punishes freedom as an abuse. It treats freedom as a criminal, or is it not regarded in every sphere as a degrading punishment to be under police supervision? The censorship law has only the form of a law. The press law is a real law. The press law is a real law because it is the positive existence of freedom. It regards freedom as the normal state of the press, the press as the mode of existence of freedom, and hence only comes into conflict with a press offence as an exception that contravenes its own rules and therefore annuls itself.

Freedom of the press asserts itself as a press law, against attacks on freedom of the press itself, i.e., against press offences. The press law declares freedom to be inherent in the nature of the criminal. Hence what he has done against freedom he has done against himself and this self-injury appears to him as a punishment in which he sees a recognition of his freedom.

The press law, therefore, is far from being a repressive measure against freedom of the press, a mere means of preventing the repetition of a crime through fear of punishment. On the contrary, the absence of press legislation must be regarded as an exclusion of freedom of the press from the sphere of legal freedom, for legally recognised freedom exists in the state as law.

Laws are in no way repressive measures against freedom, any more than the law of gravity is a repressive measure against motion, because while, as the law of gravitation, it governs the eternal motions of the celestial bodies, as the law of falling it kills me if I violate it and want to dance in the air. Laws are rather the positive, clear, universal norms in which freedom has acquired an impersonal, theoretical existence independent of the arbitrariness of the individual. A statute-book is a people’s bible of freedom.

Therefore the press law is the legal recognition of freedom of the press. It constitutes right, because it is the positive existence of freedom. It must therefore exist, even if it is never put into application, as in North America, whereas censorship, like slavery, can never become lawful, even if it exists a thousand times over as a law.

Chapter 5.

We have shown how the press law expresses a right and the censorship law a wrong. The censorship itself, however, admits that it is not an end in itself, that it is not something good in and for itself, that its basis therefore is the principle: “The end justifies the means.” But an end which requires unjustified means is no justifiable end, and could not the press also adopt the principle and boast: “The end justifies the means”?

The censorship law, therefore, is not a law, it is a police measure; but it is a bad police measure, for it does not achieve what it intends, and it does not intend what it achieves. If the censorship law wants to prevent freedom as something objectionable, the result is precisely the opposite. In a country of censorship, every forbidden piece of printed matter, i.e., printed without being censored, is an event. It is considered a martyr, and there is no martyr without a halo and without believers. It is regarded as an exception, and if freedom can never cease to be of value to mankind, so much the more valuable is an exception to the general lack of freedom. Every mystery has its attraction. Where public opinion is a mystery to itself, it is won over from the outset by every piece of writing that formally breaks through the mystical barriers. The censorship makes every forbidden work, whether good or bad, into an extraordinary document, whereas freedom of the press deprives every written work of an externally imposing effect.

If the censorship is honest in its intention, it would like to prevent arbitrariness, but it makes arbitrariness into a law. No danger that it can avert is greater than itself. The mortal danger for every being lies in losing itself. Hence lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind. For the time being, leaving aside the moral consequences, bear in mind that you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!

And what do you lose with a free press?

The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form. It is a people’s frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.

What a difference there is between a judge and a censor!

The censor has no law but his superiors. The judge has no superiors but the law. The judge, however, has the duty of interpreting the law, as he understands it after conscientious examination, in order to apply it in a particular case. The censor’s duty is to understand the law as officially interpreted for him in a particular case. The independent judge belongs neither to me nor to the government. The dependent censor is himself a government organ. In the case of the judge, there is involved at most the unreliability of an individual intellect, in the case of the censor the unreliability of an individual character. The judge has a definite press offence put before him; confronting the censor is the spirit of the press. The judge judges my act according to a definite law; the censor not only punishes the crime, he makes it. If I am brought before the court, I am accused of disobeying an existing law, and for a law to be violated it must indeed exist. Where there is no press law there is no law which can be violated by the press. The censorship does not accuse me of violating an existing law. It condemns my opinion because it is not the opinion of the censor and his superiors. My openly performed act, which is willing to submit itself to the world and its judgment, to the state and its law, has sentence passed on it by a hidden, purely negative power, which cannot give itself the form of law, which shuns the light of day, and which is not bound by any general principles.

Even if censorship were in fact the same thing as justice, in the first place this would remain a fact without being a necessity. But, further, freedom includes not only what my life is, but equally how I live, not only that I do what is free, but also that I do it freely. Otherwise what difference would there be between an architect and a beaver except that the beaver would be an architect with fur and the architect a beaver without fur?

— —  — —



9 responses

22 12 2010

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5 01 2011
a rose cellar

lest i be misunderstood let me be more explicit—binayak has to be supported both in word and deed. otherwise, justice will be truncated. this is precisely why thousands of poor people are rotting in indian prisons—some of them for stealing food! what happens to petition-mongers? where do they disappear? what happens to the idea of freedom? when one considers freedom as a singular and not as socially plural the outcome is no outcome(literally). please come with me, i will show you some prisons in orissa, bihar,and rajasthan(as examples). in other words, if supporting binayak is ethically correct, there is a logical corollary that follows— to fight for “others” who are behind bars, either for having done nothing, or for speaking and writing against the state. and, for those who are inside for petty thefts e.g., stealing a cow, a chicken, a bowl of rice! they have been inside for decades, but there is no petition, no demonstration, no candlelight vigil. yes, a couple of award-winning documentaries!

7 01 2011
a rose cellar

I FORGOT TO MENTION THE BACKGROUND. the students’ federation of india, jnu, has introduced the idea of disproportionate and unjust punishment in this case( many intellectuals of sundry shades have supported this). i am arguing that the conceptual logic of just/unjust punishment is different, which cannot be conflated with the concept of proprotionate/disproportionate punishment. the latter is completely irrelevant in this case because its logical and legal grounding is not the same as just/unjust punishment.

30 01 2011
Shaheen Sultan Dhanji

Well written Comrade!

“…all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” — from the Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx

Comrade Shaheen Sultan

18 03 2011
Vishal Mehra

Yup they want everything censored.

Talk about Democracy



15 04 2011
a rose cellar

the supreme court verdict on binayak sen has come. i never expected sedition charges to stick. but my problem is different.
how should chattisgarh judiciary be treated? the general problem remains—if a state govt. wants, it can get any verdict that it wishes for. the logic of evidence means nothing. till it reaches the supreme court the person(s) involved have to suffer. why has the supreme court left the conditions under which bail shall be effective left on the lower court? i find the whole process to be flawed. first, the govt’s influence over bail and jail in the lower court. knowing this, the apex court now passes on the modality of implementing the bail to the same court!!!
in effect, the chattisgarh govt. is saying that binayak cannot live in chattisgarh! wow! this is called truncated freedom. binayak is out of jail but…
it is possible that the lower court might not listen to the govt. at this point in time. because the apex court has literally made fun of their logic, evidence, judgement etc. i will write after reading the whole judgement. this is my initial response.

15 04 2011
a rose cellar

a minor correction—-why has the supreme court left the conditions under which bail shall be effective on the lower court?

26 08 2012
Karan Kamble

One question often asked, and posited in the form of ‘shouting fire in a crowded theater’ deals with where to draw the line. Introduction of a kind of speech, such as the ‘hate speech,’ calling upon which one can be legally tried, is in my view a form of abating freedom of speech. I prefer to strive more towards Rosa Luxemberg’s maxim.

Here is my take on the same matter: http://www.karan-soulvoice.blogspot.in/2012/01/the-threat-to-our-freedom-case-to.html

17 10 2013

When it comes to state censorhip masquerading as ‘law’ you could not get a better example that us, The Bogside Artists of Derry. What we have to do is support the cause of freedom of expression and you do that by backing and helping targeted artists like us. You can find out more from http://www.bogsideartists.com

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