Burmese writer Ma Thida was imprisoned under the censorship laws in her home country. When the writer won the Norwegian Authors Union Freedom of Expression Prize, she decided not to attend the award ceremony. Instead, Thida sent a video note thanking the organisers. Here’s an excerpt from her note: “For me, losing the chance to be a writer in Burma is worse than being imprisoned. To keep freedom of expression, I have to create. In other words, freeing the words is more important for me than freeing myself.”
Living in a society where the right to express is curbed is akin to living in a prison. Thida’s words reflect the tense, hostile climate of her country, where a writer is imprisoned for exercising her basic freedom of expression. However, this is not a writer’s plight alone. Many individuals, at times, fear voicing their opinions. This is a reality in many parts of the world today.
The right to express has been fundamental to man since ages. When an individual expresses his opinions about issues around him, not only does it help in the development of the society, it also helps the individual’s growth. When an idea is put forth through a medium, it starts a conversation. Such conversations enrich and challenge the intellect, helping individuals grow and evolve. It is on this very premise that the fourth estate of democracy–the media– rests.
Ideas, as we know, run the world. They fuel action and create reality. For example, most countries today follow democracy, which was once just an idea. Today’s reality was a probably just an idea yesterday. Mediums like literature, media, and cinema are reservoirs of fresh ideas and perspectives. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, Soulveda explores how these mediums facilitate freedom of expression, thereby ushering in waves of change in society.
Irrespective of the medium–newspapers, television or electronic media–news spreads information mixed with a sense of urgency among its audience.
The written word
Literature has the power to influence individuals by highlighting various issues plaguing the society. For instance, George Orwell’s novel 1984 revolves around a dystopian world where the government controls every aspect of the people’s lives with no room for individual freedom. The leader, called ‘Big Brother’, uses fear and force to control his subjects. The premise of the novel is eerily similar to how the situation is in some countries today. It is making people recall the novel and realise that we are treading a dangerous path.
Says fiction writer Rachna Chhabria, “Literature can throw a spotlight on an issue by bringing it into public view by the way of a book or a story, making it the topic of television debates and editorials,” she says. Even though its scope may be limited when compared to cinema or television, literature has been a steadfast voice of expression and thought, Rachna believes.
The voice of the public
Before they were turned into books, the most important affairs of the world were broken to the people in the form of news. Irrespective of the medium–newspapers, television or electronic media–news spreads information mixed with a sense of urgency among its audience. This, perhaps, is what makes it more effective in terms of bringing change.
We may recall how a major American publication exposed the Watergate Scandal in the 70s, bringing to light the illegal activities of the US government, and eventually leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Closer home, the Bofors Scandal exposed the clandestine activities of the Indian and Swedish governments in the late 80s. These two landmark cases upheld the freedom of the press.
This freedom is fundamental in a democracy, as it keeps the citizens informed and aware of the state of the administration and society. As former journalist Merlin Francis points out, “It is the objective and responsibility of the media is to inform and educate its audience.” Even today, in the age of fake news, publications and media houses strive to keep up their standards and reflect the voice of the public.
Films engage the audience both visually and aurally. Its focused and immersive nature helps it bring many issues to the fore.
The silver screen
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu of the Birdman fame is known to have said: “Cinema is a mirror by which we often see ourselves.” He is indeed right. Movies are a reflection of people, their stories and societies. And stories have the power to start conversations and create change. The Bollywood film Taare Zameen Par brought the truth behind dyslexia to every household. Its massive reach may have even changed many an individual’s perception about this learning disability. Academy award-winning movie Moonlight showed how the environment an individual grows up in can shape his personality. Furthermore, it challenges the way black masculinity and queerness are viewed today.
How does the medium achieve such an impact? Bharat Mirle, independent filmmaker and 2015 Sundance Short Film Award winner, says, “Films engage the audience both visually and aurally. Its focused and immersive nature helps it bring many issues to the fore.” Moreover, the content that an average person consumes is increasing, owing to the various social media platforms, he adds.
Literature, media and cinema have–through their stories–given a voice to the voiceless; introduced new perspectives and ideas among the masses and educated the society. These mediums have opened our minds to the world around us. In doing so, they have bolstered the basic freedom of thought and expression. While we live in testing times, there is still hope that we will continue to hold on to our right to say what we feel, write what is right and present the truth about the world.