Times of Oman
Aug 29, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 08:23 AM GMT
Flying a flag for free speech
December 12, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Arab Spring was not an instant phenomenon, the undercurrents were present in the society for long which the moderator Tim Sebastian could easily fathom while conducting debates across the Middle East. Tim Sebastian.

Muscat: Growing intolerance among people across the world is a cause for concern, says Tim Sebastian.

 One of the most-admired moderators of New Arab Debates, Doha Debates, and the Outsider Debates, says: "It's an irony that we are better connected today and we have better technology to inform people around the world to have open minds, yet their minds are closed. There is a new wave of intolerance across the world. We are seeing intolerances in attitudes.

Many times when I travel across the world, I see the 'I don't like it so ban it' attitude. If we go on banning like this, there won't be a book that is safe, a film that is safe and a picture that is safe anywhere in the world. This is an unfortunate trend. We need to open our minds and eyes. We should be tolerant of others' views and attitudes even if we don't like them."

The man who started his career in journalism in 1974 feels that "people have grown more intolerant over the years" since the time he entered this field.

Speaking on the freedom of expression, Sebastian said, "If that is curtailed, we are in for dark days, indeed. If freedom of expression is restricted, other rights will be restricted too. I believe the right to criticise governments or fellow human beings is a central right. It goes to the heart of the kind of creativity you want in your society."

 Agreeing that the governments across the world are becoming more repressive, Sebastian, said, "I do believe there is a sliding backwards that we are seeing at the moment."

Free speech
He said that free speech is absolutely essential for the progress of a country. On the governments restricting the press in the interest of the nation, he said, "There are legitimate reasons for certain restrictions on information - national security, incitement to hatred and incitement to violence. These are red lines in any society but beyond that when we are talking about legitimate criticism, there should be no restriction on people's right to freedom of expression and people's right to criticise others."

He feels societies should become more open than closed because "it is the only way you can allow people to speak and help them in opening their hearts out and contribute maximum for the betterment of the society in which they live in. If you put restrictions around them, they are never going to give their best. Then you are not going to have a free thinking, open, creative and functional society."

About moderating the popular Doha Debates for eight years (from 2004 until May 2012), he said, "It was a very useful experience because we exposed quite a few hundred young people to debating and inculcated the concept of accountability. Holding their leaders for their faults, criticising them for not living upto their expectations - we had some remarkable discussions."

Sebastian also added, "What we did in the eight years was to fathom how much diversity existed in the Arab world even before the Arab Spring started. It wasn't a total surprise when the Arab Spring erupted because we had seen diverse opinions being expressed quite widely in the Arab world before that."

Speaking on the Oman Debate organised by the Oman Economic Review (OER) in association with the Capital Market Authority (CMA), he said, "I was surprised how frank and open the discussions were."

Having interacted and engaged with the youth in the region through the three debates, Sebastian feels they are determined to have their say.

Craving for freedom
"Young people are determined to influence policy. They are insisting for answers. They have clear ideas about where they want to go, what kind of freedom they want in the society and the level of accountability they want from their politicians. The youth in Cairo and Tunisia are very assertive and vocal. They have realised that they have to play a daily role in the political life of their country. It is about new politics in action in the Middle East," he said.

But he stated, "We will have to see where it goes from here. These are deeply conservative societies at the core. It is going to take a long time to change."

 Sebastian feels revolutions don't solve problems but they bring the unaddressed problems to the surface. Though, he is hopeful of better future of the region, he says: "It is going to be chaotic time. It is going to be a time of political chaos and turmoil."

  "The region has some extraordinary brave people who are prepared to take risks for their freedom and want bigger political space for discussion and debate. I am delighted to have met some of them and wish they had more influence. I salute their bravery, determination and persistence," he said.

On the importance of addressing problems, he feels: "Nothing changes if you put them under the carpet."

"We shouldn't be discussing the same issues in 50 years time. I hope not. We should not bequeath this legacy to our children. If we do so, we would fail catastrophically in improving our society," he says.

People continue to talk about BBC's flagship television programme Hardtalk interviews conducted by Sebastian. His style of tough questioning got him a huge fan following across the world.

About that experience he says, "I did Hardtalk for seven and a half years which is a large slice of my professional life. I did it to the exclusion of everything else because it was one of those shows you had to devote everything to it. You have to do your homework constantly, every night and I didn't have a life for seven and a half years outside Hardtalk. But I don't regret it. It was a privilege for me. I think the programme has progressed very well. I am delighted at the way it has developed."

The best part of Hardtalk is that "like the debates I moderate in the programme "Flying a flag for free speech" and it asks questions that other programmes don't ask."

When asked about the interviews with famous people or politicians, he says: "I have found common people having something extraordinary in them. I think about them and not about the politicians, the usual liars. Somebody had asked me whether anybody had ever lied in my programme, I said the question should be "Did anyone ever tell the truth?" If we had to cut out the lies, we wouldn't have much to broadcast," he laughs.

Is media across the world on the right path and which part of the world practices good journalism?

Bad journalism
"There is good and bad journalism everywhere. Unfortunately, there are extremes of good and bad as well. At its worst, the press is terrible and at its best it is an inspiration and enlightenment. It keeps societies functioning freely and democratically. Press is essential for connecting different levels of the society. The day it becomes a mouthpiece of the government, it should be shut down," he says.

His message to journalists is to never stop asking questions.
"Don't stop asking questions whether you get answers or not. Don't stop asking questions because in the end they are the only protections and the only weapons you have in a free society. Target these questions precisely because you are the watchdogs. Without you, there is no way the public can hope the politicians will stay honest. Only journalists can ensure that politicians will act in a free and fair manner. It is our solemn duty though a difficult one. Don't ever give up because you will win in the end," he says.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?
"I want to spend time in Africa. The reason we have wars around the world is because people haven't still learnt to talk to each other. One of things that I try to do is to set up platforms where people can talk to each other and become more tolerant towards each other. I want to work in Africa, Asia (maybe go back to India, Pakistan and China). I want to keep myself busy," he says.  But currently, he is busy travelling around the world "Flying a flag for free speech".

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