Plato rightly said that “your silence gives consent.” Therefore it becomes the duty of all to defend the freedom of speech and not be complicit or obsequious to the grave challenge that we are faced with. There is a perceptible threat to the freedom of speech when caustic criticism or unfavourable opinion is viewed within the myopic lens of political attack or propaganda against the government, and not towing the official line is seen as antinational.
I believe that an unfettered allegiance to a government is the symptom of a sick democracy.
It is thus no surprise then to realize that India has constantly slipped down in its freedom of press ranking from 133 in 2016 to 142 in 2021. The recent spate between the government and social media giants will only dent the credibility of our democratic system.
Social media are also tools of democracy, in that we find a conduit for popular opinion. For democracy to be real, its fourth pillar must be strengthened rather than be held hostage to excruciating government control in the name of regulations and use vagueness of laws for self-serving purposes. Otherwise, it would tantamount to belief in the self-proclamation of North Korea to be a democratic republic which abhors freedom of speech.
Political engineering by muzzling dissent, curbing popular opinion and tethering the press with sinister regulations only heightens popular skepticism. This can indeed narrow the spectrum of public debates.
The government must also thus address the elephant in the room, ie, ensure civility in public debates and encourage public voice in governance. It must then cull the polarized atmosphere where bullying by cyber mobs has reached the level of digital nuisance. It is cyber-mobocracy where people are digitally lynched to toe the lines of a particular narrative.
Realization must come soon that a healthy press and open public debates encourage transparency, fix accountability and are thus sine qua non for a vibrant democracy. Thus, the government must have broad enough shoulders to take trenchant criticism. It can only then improve the ranking in the democracy index, which now sits poorly at the 53rd position.
Nevertheless, the press as the torchbearer of freedom of speech must also develop self-regulations to enforce professional ethics. It is depravity of the press to scandalize every government act based on its ideological leanings, even to the extent of calling India an ‘electoral autocracy’ and discounting the popular elections. Thus, the panacea for the conflict between government and the press and social media giants must be resolved soon. And rather than thumping down the press, the governed must grow a thicker skin to criticism and engage in building confidence and trust with constant dialogue with the media for an amicable solution. This will help in the realization of an enlightened government, as reflected in the words of Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it.”