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Freedom of Speech and Thought: A Historical Perspective

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Islamabad (Imran Y. CHOUDHRY) :- Former Press Secretary to the President, Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France, Former MD, SRBC Mr. Qamar Bashir analysis :
The freedom of speech, expression, thought, and assembly does not have direct references in ancient history, but various rudimentary signs of encoding them exist. In Draco’s Code (c. 620 BCE) and Solon’s Reforms (c. 594 BCE) in Ancient Greece, there was an emphasis on public debate. The establishment of the Assembly (Ekklesia) allowed for more open political discourse among citizens, particularly in legal and political matters. The Law of the Twelve Tables (c. 449 BCE) in Ancient Rome encoded slander and defamation with penalties for false accusations and insults. Hammurabi’s Code (c. 1754 BCE) in Ancient Babylon emphasized retributive justice, where false accusations and bearing false witness were punishable, highlighting the importance of truthfulness and protection of one’s reputation.
During the medieval period, laws regarding freedom of speech, expression, and assembly were significantly influenced by religious doctrines and sociopolitical structures of the time. The concept of individual rights as understood today was not fully developed, and speech and assembly were often tightly controlled by religious and secular authorities. These were encoded in Canon Law, Islamic Law (Sharia), and Common Law.
Judaism’s perspective on freedom of speech and expression is complex and nuanced, influenced by both religious texts and historical experiences. While free speech is valued, it emphasizes responsible speech that avoids falsehood, slander, and inciting hatred. Throughout history, Jewish communities have faced persecution and censorship, instilling in them a strong value for the freedom to speak and practice their religion openly.
Christianity emphasizes the ability to follow one’s conscience and call upon the disciples to spread Christianity despite facing persecution. Canon Laws were heavily based on Christian teachings and ecclesiastical authority, limiting freedom of speech and expression, particularly in matters of faith and doctrine. Heresy, blasphemy, and criticism of the Church were severely punished, with the Church controlling the dissemination of information and ideas. Assemblies were often subject to Church approval, and unauthorized gatherings, especially those related to heretical movements, were suppressed.
Amongst the monolithic religions, the injunctions on freedom of speech, thought, expression, and assembly are enunciated in the most comprehensive manner. The Holy Qur’an calls upon humankind and says, “There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion.” “And speak gently to the People,” “Avoid false statements.” “O you people of faith, fear from Allah and always say the right words.” “So what would you love after clearing the truth except for error?” “And don’t mix the truth with falsehood.” “And the word of your Lord has been fulfilled in truth and justice.” Invite all the people to your Lord with wisdom and best preaching, and only argue with them most graciously. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said, “To tell a word of truth to a tyrant king is the best form of Jihad.” In Islam, “Freedom of Speech and Expression” is regulated by Sharia, the Quran, Hadith, and the consensus of Islamic scholars (ijma), where intellectual freedom, particularly in scientific and philosophical debates, is protected and emphasizes social harmony and the maintenance of public order.
In Hinduism, principles like Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) guide honest and open communication, with respect for teachers and elders being paramount. Buddhism promotes right speech (Samma Vacha), advocating for truthful, kind, and beneficial communication, while avoiding negativity and hurtful speech.
In the post-medieval period, the first formal act to control, censor, and abridge freedom of speech, thought, and expression was England’s Licensing Act of 1662. This act required all printing presses and publications to obtain a license and controlled what could be printed and distributed, aimed at restricting seditious, treasonous, heretical, and offensive materials. The act authorized the government to search homes and businesses for unlicensed presses and printed materials, imposing heavy penalties on violators, including fines, imprisonment, and confiscation of printing equipment.
This act effectively suppressed dissenting voices, both religious and political, but also fueled the growth of an underground press. The law lapsed in 1695, paving the way for a freer press in England but was reimposed in various forms in the Kingdom’s colonies, including India.
In India, the Censorship of Press Act (1799) required prior government approval for certain publications. Subsequent laws like the Licensing Regulations (1823), Licensing Act (1857), and Registration Act (1867) required printers and publishers to obtain licenses before operating, giving the government gatekeeping powers. The Vernacular Press Act (1878) and the Press Act (1910) punished publications that printed seditious material critical of the government or content deemed a threat to public order. These laws allowed the government to seize printing presses and publications, arrest and imprison publishers and editors, and impose heavy fines.
The evolution of media laws in Pakistan bears a notable resemblance to the restrictive laws imposed by the British in India and earlier in England. Though Section 19 of the Constitution grants freedom of speech, expression, and freedom of the press, these rights have been largely ignored by successive governments since the inception of Pakistan. Instead, these governments have focused more on the reasonable restrictions imposed by law. As a result, there are over 52 laws, rules, regulations, and codes of conduct primarily designed to empower the government to discipline the press and media rather than promoting a free, professional, and responsible press. Consequently, Pakistan’s media environment mirrors the conditions that existed in England before 1695 and in British India.
The England’s Licensing Act of 1662 was copied almost entirely by the “Press and Publications Ordinance of 1963” reflecting the same ethos of control, requiring newspapers to obtain government permission to publish. Subsequent regimes, especially military dictatorships, continued this legacy with stringent laws and censorship practices. General Zia-ul-Haq’s era (1977-1988) saw the imposition of martial law regulations that severely restricted media freedom, akin to the oppressive British laws. More recent laws, like the “Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016,” have continued this trend by extending state control into the digital realm, echoing the colonial strategy of stifling dissent and controlling public discourse.
This continuity underscores the enduring impact of colonial legal frameworks on contemporary media governance in Pakistan, highlighting the persistent struggle for genuine freedom of thought, speech, and expression in the country. Despite periods of relative liberalization, the legacy of colonial control mechanisms remains evident in the regulatory environment governing Pakistani media today.

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