“I DISAPPROVE of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” goes the phrase often attributed, erroneously, to Voltaire. In that is contained the crux of a mature approach towards differences of opinion and protecting the people’s right to expression and information. In Pakistan, however, we are drifting in the opposite direction. Certainly, there is much that can give offence in Altaf Hussain’s words; at the very least he can be provocative and uncouth. At worst, more than once, his incendiary language has triggered violence on the streets of Karachi. In 2015, after an interim order directed Pemra to ban live coverage of his speeches, the Lahore High Court imposed a blanket ban on the MQM supremo’s speeches or images being published or broadcast by the media. On Friday, the police filed an FIR against the editor and owner of a daily newspaper on charges of publishing a picture of Mr Hussain and his statement that called for a “separate province for Mohajirs”.
The right to free expression is not absolute, even in the most permissive societies. Laws pertaining to defamation and incitement of violence, for instance, are necessary to curb damage to people’s reputations and to protect life and property, respectively. Nevertheless, there is a distinction between political speech and that which provokes violence. Mr Hussain’s words in this instance constitute the former and it is the right, indeed the duty, of the media to report it. Moreover, this is not the first time the MQM founder has made such an assertion; but because of political expediency, the laws being used to justify the present ban attracted no sanctions earlier. Certain illustrious names in our history have also made the same demand at some point: G.M. Syed, for instance, years after he moved the Pakistan Resolution in Sindh, became an ardent proponent of an independent Sindh. For that he suffered prison, but never erasure by a court-mandated media blackout.