Monday, January 12, 2015


A pair of hooded gunmen on Wednesday attacked the offices of a French magazine, opened fire and killed at least 12 people.

The publication, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical weekly publication renowned for commentary and cartoons ridiculing politicians, celebrities and has published numerous cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

The magazine has received numerous threats in this regard and there is a strong suspicion that the gunmen were Muslim radicals, even though no one has claimed credit for the attack by the time of writing this article.

The attack speaks to the larger question of freedom of speech; what is it? Should it be absolute or take into context the cultural situation in which it is being exercised?

That debate can go on till the cows come home.

I admit to a bias. My livelihood depends on the free movement of ideas. I therefore look on any restrictions of the flow of information with a jaundiced eye.

Essentially the gunmen and their promoters did not like some of the things Charlie published and took the law into their own hands to express their displeasure.

We will save judgement for the courts and God, but we should see this for what it really is an attempt to stifle the free flow of information. This has far reaching repercussions not only for Charlie or media practitioners but also for human development.

"If you chart the course of human progress it has been at its fastest when and where the flow of information has been unrestricted, either because free expression is institutionalised or the infrastructure speeds up information dissemination...

In our very own society the improvement in telecommunication and transport networks means we can access our bank accounts anywhere in the country, farmers are less beholden to crafty middlemen who had a monopoly on price information and access to information is not the preserve of the “first-world” schools anymore.

We are more productive than we were a decade or two ago and our productivity is improved with every passing day.

Furturistic author Alvin Toffler has illustrated in his various writings how power has shifted over time from the most muscular man in the village to the richest and now to the man with access to the most information.

In fact people have argued that the real scandal is not the sharp economic inequality between the more developed northern hemisphere and the south, but the vastness of the digital divide between the two, a gap which is less likely to be bridged than the wealth divide.

The key difference between you and your richer or poorer neighbour is not the millions on your payslip but the difference in access to information between the two of you. He is richer than you because he knows something you do not.

As a principle any attempt to restrict information flow should be opposed because it has a negative effect on human progress.

Of course, there is the argument that in exercising this freedom we should not do it at the expense of other people’s freedoms or rights like the right to privacy. And I agree. And I believe every society has right to place some limitations on freedoms of whatever sort, but we have to be careful not to do this at the cost of progress....

Even at the family level isn’t it interesting how the brightest kids seem to come from those families where kids speak their minds freely – within reason of course, than from those families where kids are to be seen but not heard?

So the Parisian gunmen are threatening more than journalists. We better recognise this regressive tendency wherever it manifests for what it really is – an attack on human progress, which serves no one.

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