Of course, sedition or the crime that consists of any attempt short of treason to excite hostility against the government — or more commonly, speech or the expression of opinion known as seditious libel which incites resistance to and tends to cause the disruption or overthrow of the government — is a talked-about issue in many countries. Usually, dissent voices, be it students, civil rights activists, journalists, intellectuals, or opposition political leaders, are often unfairly victimized because of seditious acts, which may sometimes include the promotion of feelings of ill-will or hostility between races, classes, or ethnic groups in a given country. Expectedly, global voices are rising against seditious acts: in the meantime, a crucial question is raised on the significance of sedition acts in the world.

As it appears, seditious libel first entered Anglo-American jurisprudence, according to Encyclopedia, in 1275, but the term “sedition” appeared in its modern meaning in the Elizabethan Era. The publication of libel or the utterance of speech or words — especially words or writings considered to be a notion of inciting disaffection towards the constituted or state authority — appeared as a crime in English Common Law in the 1600s. Subsequently, statutes on sedition became more widespread and sedition acts as offenses appeared in colonial and other countries. At present, many countries have sedition laws that aim at the prevention of diverse seditious activities such as subversion of the constitution, incitement of discontent toward the established authority, or rebellion against the government.

Of course, there are controversies over sedition acts. While defenders of sedition acts usually claim that these must exist, outright opponents claim that these should not exist. Proponents usually argue that sedition acts are undeniable on the ground of the preservation of public order that is threatened by seditious acts such as incitement or provocation of acts of violence or civil disobedience and putting restrictions on freedom of speech is justified to protect the public interest. On the contrary, opponents usually argue that sedition acts are in contrast to fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and serve no useful purpose rather these are anachronistic. Opponents also claim that seditious laws are used as a mere tool of oppression by the ruling party against dissenting voices.

In actual fact, allegations against seditious acts are not always made on unreasoned grounds. On some occasions, individuals intentionally do seditious acts including incitements for subversion based on unreasoned grounds and such incitements sometimes lead to the actual occurrence of subversion and make situations unnecessarily chaotic. Seditious activities are sometimes merely done for materializing unreasoned interests of a different quarter(s) — within and outside of a country — or defaming the country for any other reasons. As defenders say, there are a large number of actual seditious activities in many countries. As a consequence, it remains practically difficult to eliminate such acts across countries all in all, despite the fact that some countries including South Korea did away with such laws.

But the undeniable side is that seditious laws, as reformists rightly say, are often loosely and vaguely defined. In fact, a number of terms including incitement or provocative speech, hatred, discontent, assisting, and disturbance or disruption which often appear in seditious acts are ill-defined. Moreover, seditious speech (even if it falls under definition) — written or verbal — does not always result in the actual occurrence of violence or subversive acts. But there remains a limited attempt to accurately address such a discrepancy. By reason of such loopholes, the scope of misinterpretation and misuse increase across countries, along with the increased possibility of political or other gains of the ruling elites and restrictions of freedom of speech on unreasonable grounds, at least to a certain extent.

Undeniably, freedom of speech — rendered as fundamental human rights — is linked with, and upholds, some other crucial rights such as freedom of association, the right to assemble, the right to protest, etc. which are acknowledged in national constitution or legal documents varyingly across countries. These rights allow individuals to come together to realize their reasoned interests. When freedom of speech is restricted to the extent that prevents the exercise of such subsequent rights, the reasonability of sedition acts is questioned, though “harm” and “offense” principles justifiably allow some restrictions on libel or other forms of speech for preventing individuals from causing harms to others or doing offense to others. Contrarily, arbitrary restriction leads to the firmer establishment of an authoritarian system in many countries with the possibility of more harmful effects on citizens.

In reality, all claims of seditions or seditious cases filed are not based on genuine grounds. On many occasions, these reflect an intention to materialize unreasoned political interests. As is often criticized by human rights-based organizations, seditious cases are sometimes filed merely for the suppression of dissent voices including intellectuals and opposition political leaders. Of different countries, authoritarians apply sedition prevention acts more, despite the fact that liberals employ such acts too. This is mainly because freedom of speech is allowed less in authoritarian countries compared to liberal ones, even though people of all societies now want is to be governed by rationality and reasonability to protect their rights instead of the imposition of some forms of draconian laws.

In addition to lessened freedom of speech of citizens and increased authoritarian rules, the impacts of charging seditious acts are enormous on individuals and their families. Once a case of sedition is filed, individuals can be ineligible to apply for government jobs and are forced to give up the passport on some occasions; also, there are harassment in visiting courts and there is a necessity of bearing legal costs for proving innocence. Of course, the damage is done to the individual’s reputation and the reputation of his/her family in society. Because of misinterpretation and misuse of the law driven by political reasons, an individual may get a few years to life-term imprisonment — the highest level of punishment against seditions in some countries — leading to enormous unnecessary suffering.

Given that elimination of sedition acts altogether may increase the possibility of chaos, disturb effective functioning of state or lead to some other undesired situations on some reasonable grounds, it is at least desired that ambiguity of diverse terms used in defining sedition does not exist, such acts do not punish innocents, misuse of such acts for mere political reasons does not occur and justified criticisms and protests activities against the government are not considered to be seditious. In this respect, states need to do much. Additionally, the United Nations, human rights-based organizations, and civil society organizations may play some significant roles. In my opinion, the UN may pursue a legally binding convention or protocol or guideline directly on sedition aiming at securing justice with sedition and preventing its encroachment on fundamental rights.

© The Eastern Herald
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Amir Sayem
Studied Masters of Population Sciences from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Writing about issues including social, political, public health, environmental, and international relations. Contributor to The Eastern Herald from Bangladesh.