The right to offend – 14 Apr 2023

JUDGEMENTS that are of consequence to a society`s evolution do not always involve contemporary politics, though they may in time impact how politics is done.

Precisely such a landmark judgement was handed down by a two-judge Supreme Court bench on Wednesday in a case involving Pemra`s punitive actions against a TV channel`s drama serial in 2020. The regulator had axed the serial after receiving complaints from citizens decrying it as immoral and against cultural values, but the Sindh High Court had struck down the ban on appeal, leading to Pemra`s petitioning the Supreme Court against the decision. Dismissing the petition, the bench held that the Pemra law envisaged a two-tier regulatory system in which citizens` complaints were to be first reviewed by the Councils of Complaints, a step that in the instant case was wrongly omitted. However, the most consequential part of the verdict addressed the principles that must act as a guide while regulating media content.

As a society, our propensity to be offended by others`lifestyle choices and beliefs is a threat to the fundamental rights of many fellow citizens. Indeed, encouraged by dubious guardians of morality, this self-righteousness has sometimes led to terrible acts of violence. It has also been an obstacle to the creative arts as a means of spreading awareness of various social ills, and in squarely addressing urgent national issues such as family planning. In a judgement all the more remarkable against this backdrop, the Supreme Court points out that tolerance `does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of the opinions or beliefs of others; rather, it is about respecting their right to hold those beliefs and coexist peacefully`. Freedom of expression is the vehicle whereby tolerance is instilled in society; in fact, says the verdict, it `helps actualise other fundamental rights`. Restrictions on the freedom of expression must therefore be `interpreted strictly and narrowly`; decency is a standard of tolerance, not taste. Perhaps most significantly, the verdict holds that information or ideas `which offend, shock or disturb the state or any other sector of the population` are equally protected. This is as impassioned a defence of the freedom of expression as John Milton`s famed pamphlet on the subject published in 1644, in which he so memorably said: `I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister`d virtue, unexercis`d & unbreath`d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.

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