By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
In its March 10 statement this year
, the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile made a far-reaching assertion. The Parliament warned the Tibetan people not to “resort to speaking, writing articles, and propagating information through the various communication channels without any sense of responsibility.” This statement was issued in the name of the entire Parliament, and would have been drafted by the leadership in the Parliament’s Standing Committee; it was read out in Dharamsala by the Deputy Speaker while the Speaker was traveling in Europe.
Coming from the supreme legislative authority of the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE), this statement should be given its due weight. The Parliament leadership is apparently suggesting that the right to free speech for the Tibetan people should be limited by a requirement to behave “responsibly”. It leaves unspoken who has the right to decide what is “responsible” or not.
The Parliament’s statement further appealed to the Tibetan people to “stand together, turn in the same direction, and direct their efforts at achieving the common desires of the Tibetan people”. It seems clear from the context that the Parliament leadership defines these “common desires” as including autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, i.e. the Middle Way policy.
This editorial is short and is not intended to react to the Parliament's entire statement. Much of it was good and commendable. For example, it made an excellent point refuting China’s claim that the self-immolations are encouraged by Tibetan exile reporting: it asked rhetorically “why does not the same logic apply to the reporting all the other news throughout the world”. In this brief editorial, we focus instead on the one paragraph the Parliament explicitly directed “[w]ithin the Tibetan people ourselves”. We believe this is important because this was the one paragraph in the March 10 statement that appealed directly to Tibetans.
This is not the first time that the current exiled Tibetan leadership has made statements that may have a chilling effect on the right to free speech. TPR previously wrote about them in a September 2012 editorial entitled Are the Speaker and Kalon Tripa Stifling Free Speech?
Similarly in April 2012, Woeser criticized the Tibetan exiled leadership for suppressing criticism
, and warned against being “arrogant, conceited and arbitrarily denounc[ing] other ideas and opinions”. Therefore, there is a larger context to the Parliament’s statement.
The Parliament leadership’s apparent attempt to restrict the right to free speech raises a few questions for the Tibetan electorate to consider:
1. Do the Tibetan people accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
’s (UDHR) definition of freedom of speech? The UDHR says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (Article 19);
2. Do the Tibetan people want to avoid a definition of freedom of speech used by authoritarian systems? For example, the Chinese Constitution
recognizes “freedom of speech [and] of the press”. However, China limits this right by requiring it be exercised only in a way that does “not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and of the collective”, and in a way that observes “public order and respect[s] social ethics”. (Articles 35, 51, and 53);
3. At a time when Tibetans in Tibet are literally dying for universal human rights, how do the Tibetan people feel about the Parliament leadership suggesting that the right to free speech should be limited by a “responsibility” test?;
4. Who has the power to decide what is and is not “responsible”? For example, is any view that is contrary to the current TGIE administration’s Middle Way policy thereby “irresponsible”?
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression recently wrote in a report
that “the general rule is the protection of the freedom; restriction of such freedom should be the exception to this rule.” Specifically, the Special Rapporteur stated that any restriction on free expression should be (i) provided by law, (ii) necessary to achieve a few limited goals such as public health or national security, and (iii) proportional.
With respect to the first requirement, the Special Rapporteur’s report suggests that the Parliament leadership should not attempt to limit the Tibetan people’s right to free speech unless they first pass a law to this effect.
Regarding the second requirement, it is possible that the Parliament leadership feels that it is “necessary” to Tibet’s national security for the right to free speech be limited. This is debatable, but they are certainly free to make this case if they believe it. However the burden is on them to show why restricting a universal right is necessary, not just politically convenient.
Obviously, all Tibetans should be sensitive to the nature of the Tibetan struggle against the authoritarian might of China. And obviously, all Tibetans should work toward unity in the sense of devotion to our common Tibetan nation and culture. No doubt many Tibetans legitimately wish to speak out as private citizens against speech they disagree with – and they should. But it is another matter entirely for the Tibetan legislature to use its official statement on the solemn occasion of March 10 to advocate a view of free speech that seems more in line with authoritarian systems than democratic ones. The Parliament was not talking as a private citizen.
Even setting aside normative questions, the practical situation is that the strength of the Tibetan cause is its moral clarity. It does practical damage to this moral clarity when the leadership of the Tibetan legislature endorses a view of free speech that is at odds with basic international standards. In short, this is embarrassing to the Tibetan cause.
More broadly, we reject the argument that the Tibetan struggle is so weak that it must be somehow protected from free speech. Sometimes free speech is messy or “irresponsible”, but it is firmly established in liberal democracies that the antidote to harmful speech is not less speech but more. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had it correct when he said that freedom includes the “right to be stupid.” The Parliament’s leadership should trust the intelligence of the Tibetan people to discern when they are being fed a “stupid” argument.
Finally, we firmly believe that the Tibetan cause is actually strengthened and sustained by the robust protection of all human rights, especially core rights like free speech. The Tibetan people are united in their dedication to the Tibetan nation. Some may support autonomy, some may support independence or self-determination, but all support Tibet. The cause of Tibet is made stronger through all Tibetans coming together to have their voices heard in a robust and free democratic debate. Protecting this right to free speech is the responsible thing to do.The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.