Monday, 08 March 2021

E Editorial

The Freedom of Speech and Responsibility

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The right of free speech has always been at issue in Armenia, but each period has had its peculiarities.  Since the 1990s the independent authorities have tried to restrict it in different ways.  In the first president’s days such manifestations were more obvious, with newspapers and political parties being shut down and journalists and editors beaten.

In the following period harsh methods were replaced by softer forms of free-speech curtailment, such as by controlling the press and television through “awards” and a variety of enticements.  Let us not forget that during that time there was a broad array of “responsible” media on which the authorities would rely.

Beginning in 2018, however, the principle of freedom of speech went into free flow and became absolute, surpassing all boundaries of ethics and morality, and the irresponsibility for speech reached unprecedented proportions.  In fact, freedom of the press and the dignity of the individual became mutually exclusive phenomena, thus raging into a major public problem.

After the change in regime, the role of public opinion markedly increased.  And since in a series of events it became decisive, the struggle waged to control the minds of men began to assume grotesque and unacceptable manifestations.  Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, underscoring the importance of the liberty of expression, cautioned that it was necessary to accustom people to the culture of free speech.  In his view, the liberty to conduct dialogue helps societies to discover the truth and to be tolerant of alternative viewpoints, which in turn spurs progress and development.

In Rousseau’s eighteenth century, they had understood that the absolute freedom of expression could become a plague, and so it should be limited by moral norms and they should be prepared to bear responsibility for it.  Free speech cannot and must not belittle human dignity, and falsehood must be strictly condemned.

Our society today, unfortunately, does not capture the full meaning of this truth.  Lies, slander, attacks upon one’s dignity, unfounded accusations have become customary operating procedure in the press and social media, for many authors and public-political figures, while the invention of cursing “fake” farms is a means to threaten alternative points of view.  The absolute liberty of expression, without ethical limitation and without responsibility, has become a serious public and political scourge.

True, speech is legislatively regulated, particularly with respect to national security, morality, other persons’ dignity, personal information and related categories, but those limitations are rarely, if ever, enforced.

The time is ripe to reassess and revamp Armenia’s legislation and enforcement in this regard.  But that is not enough.  As long as the freedom of speech is not established as a culture, lies publicly condemned, and responsibility for speech ensured through formal and informal institutions, we will be unable to achieve the standards of civilized enlightenment, let alone stable and reliable state structures.

The Armenian Center for National and International Studies

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Yerevan, Armenia


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