Free Expression – the fundamentals of civilisation

\r\n \r\nToday marks the 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day. The day was established to celebrate freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to uphold freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Freedom of the press is fundamental to any healthy democracy but throughout the world many journalists live in fear of reprisals because of their work and serious attacks against them often go uninvestigated. 
In recognition of World Press Freedom Day the Foreign Office is hosting a number of guest bloggers from across the globe
Today I’m pleased to feature a guest blog by Maldivian journalist Ismail Rasheed, who goes by the name of Hilath. Hilath has witnessed intimidation and brutality first hand in his native Male’ where he narrowly escaped death following a particularly vicious attack last June. 
The Maldivian government condemned the attack but Hilath now lives in exile in Sri Lanka.  He continues to write as a journalist, but his website has been blocked in Maldives.
Ismail Rasheed - aka HilathIsmail Rasheed – aka Hilath
Twenty years ago, most Maldivians had not heard of the word ‘democracy’ because the Internet and satellite television channels were yet to reach these isolated islands in this remote corner of the world.
I and my friends were a handful of students studying History and Political Science at high school. The arts were viewed with suspicion because it smelled of ‘rebellion’ in a society where people viewed that harmony can be maintained only through homogeneity. This belief was cemented in the fact that most Maldivians spoke one language and followed one religion.
So it came as a shock to my family when I decided to chose a career of journalism. It spelt trouble.  But my classmates and I persisted. My classmates would later go on to become democracy activists – with Abdulla Muiz going on to become Attorney General and Hassan Latheef the Human Resources Minister under Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected President who was ousted from power in February 2012 under contested circumstances.
The result of a lack of true freedom of expression allowed successive governments, right from the beginning of the twentieth century, to systematically manipulate our education system to ensure that generations of Maldivians grew up to be unthinking, unquestioning, and uncritical “zombies”.
A Cabinet Minister once claimed that the people of North Korea were the most obedient people on Earth.  To my horror, he made the comparison to Maldivians.
The media was systematically controlled to the extent that in the latter half of the twentieth century Maldives had not seen any great linguists, poets, writers and film makers. Creativity and the arts were considered “sinful” and thus people still hold the belief that expressions like photography, art and music are haram.
I remember the time when an Islamic scholar claimed that the press and media were prohibited in Islam because it “sowed discontent and divided the Ummah” (Islamic Nation). This was at a time when some local reporters dared to publish some critical anti-government articles which put a lot of pressure on the incumbent government.
Poverty is the strongest obstacle to democracy. Hence, a top priority of any successive government should be making people economically fulfilled – and of course, making people think critically and objectively for themselves without spoon-feeding them (politically?) correct information. Everybody should have a mind of his/her own. The attitude should be: Nobody should do my thinking for me.
And for any reformist-minded government, the first item on its developmental agenda should be to include civics in our education curriculum so that the next generation will grow up to be humane and enlightened.  A government which does not know what the people really feel and think is in a dangerous position.  A government that muzzles free speech runs a risk of stifling the creative instincts of its people – and thus destroying the foundations of civilization.
Hilath in hospital after his attack in 2012Hilath in hospital after his attack in 2012
To mark the 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, 2013, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office aims to “shine a light” to highlight repression of the media and freedom of expression using personal testimonies and other accounts from around the world.
For more information on our activities on freedom of expression, and human rights more broadly, read our 2012 annual human rights report.

  • The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), or its policies.

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