Even the United States has lost a little ground when it comes to press freedom because of secrecy and security issues. Recently, some new data has emerged on press freedom around the world and the picture is disappointing. Freedom House has released its 2014 data and reports a decline in press freedom around the world with an estimate of only one person in seven living in a country where political news and press freedoms are encouraged and robust. The Freedom House data is available here.
The Freedom House report indicates two reasons for the decline in press freedom: an increase in restrictive laws constraining the press typically justified on national security grounds, and the difficulty a journalist has reporting from a particular country. It is becoming more difficult for journalists to move around in order to properly report a story. Curiously, in this age of information explosion it is so difficult to get information firsthand.
As you might expect, there seems to be a correlation between increasing restrictions on press freedom and the political conditions of the country. Obviously those countries guilty of atrocities or engaged in war continue to see declines in press freedom (e.g., Syria, Sudan, Libya). A few other trends are noteworthy. (1) There seems to be an increasing distain for democratic standards. Authoritarian regimes used to cover themselves in the language of elections and human rights, now they blatantly flout democratic values and argue for the superiority of their own political conditions. (2) The escalation of terrorism is increasingly used to apply repressive measures under the guise of security. And the debate about how democracies should respond to terrorism is a legitimate one, but in the meantime more regimes are silencing dissidents and restraining the media. (3) What was once pretty extensive Internet freedom is beginning to fade. Censorship and surveillance are increasingly of more interest to governments than access. There is increased monitoring of online communication, even in the “freer” countries, such that places like South Korea increased monitoring and censorship, and even Israel imposed stricter constraints on social media pertaining to the Gaza Strip. (4) The percentage of countries that are classified as “free” stands at 46% which represents a small decline.
So! What are the top 10 (or bottom 10) worst countries or territories when it comes to press freedom?
The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories, with the lowest Freedom House scores were Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Crimea and Syria joined the bottom-ranked cohort in 2014. Any sense of independent media is nonexistent in these countries or barely workable; the press is little more than a mouthpiece for the regime or so biased and restrictive that it barely qualifies as useful information. Iran continues to earn its place among the worst of the worst. Iran regularly monitors citizens and newspapers and jails journalists for the slightest criticism.
Democracies are currently struggling with the balance between freedom and control. The observation that authoritarians and terrorists can take advantage of the openness and tolerance of democratic societies is true enough. Some might even take it a cynical step further and suggest that these trends are no advertisement for democracy. But the report also highlights a few positive trends. There were citizen uprisings in Ukraine demanding increased press freedom, and ramped up pressures on the Chinese leadership to adhere more closely to democratic principles.
Democracies just have to wait out authoritarian regimes. Sooner or later their own people will challenge the regime or it will begin to stutter under its own oppression. But, clearly, it would be a mistake to think that democracies are weak in the face of authoritarianism because increased press freedom and access to information literally guarantee a bleak future for repressive political systems.
In the wake of the attack in France on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, I call on all news and publication outlets to reprint satirical articles from the magazine and publish images that Jihadis object to. This should be done in the name of freedom, symbolic expression, and solidarity with those killed in France. I consider myself a pretty decent democrat committed to liberal values that includes such qualities as tolerance, diversity, compromise, pursuit of the best argument, deliberative processes, and respect. But these Islamic extremists who kill people because of some flimsy insult push the boundaries of all of these.
They consider nothing to be outside the realm of their own decisions about what is deserving of violence, and represent the type of political sensibilities the world has been evolving away from for 200 years. They care about nothing except their own ideological purity, always a dangerous condition. And we certainly have not seen the last of these. The communities that ring the city of Paris have become infested with radicalized extremists who advocate mass murder and even genocide in certain cases. These are the kinds of extremes that call for restrictions on liberty and that’s always a dangerous moment. But what can you do? Can we make it easy to blowup soccer fields, performing arts centers, kosher grocery stores, and schools just because we object to inspections and security profiling?
And this sort of extremism in the name of religion is not the result of weak economies or abstract political theories objecting to US foreign policy. It increasingly looks like an ideological system bent on imposing its doctrines on others.
I turn at these times to the Euston manifesto with respect to democracies which advocates a muscular democracy. That is, it clearly defends the limits of tolerance and acceptability. I quote two paragraphs below but it is the very last sentence of paragraph 2 that is the most muscular. In other words, democracy is not about that spectrum of the left that knows no group that is not oppressed and gives all sorts of groups a free pass with respect to responsibility being associated with individual volition rather than abstract social forces.
1 For democracy.
We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.
2 No apology for tyranny.
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.
Two groups of leaders need to denounce these attacks and speak up in defense of liberal values. Muslim leaders are one of these groups and they need to go beyond simply objecting to violence. They must begin a program of explanation and clarification about Islam making clear that the God of Islam does not endorse such behavior. And secondly the leaders of Western countries must systematically explain, clarify, and defend the liberal state. Many immigrants as well as citizens of a country – whether it be in the outskirts of Paris or to the United States – need to understand more clearly and sharply what it means to live in a democracy and the boundaries of diversity and tolerance. This will include proper forms of protest. I might make the argument that a news outlet should be aware of too much satire and criticism of one group and respect in a diverse society requires limiting such copy. But this sort of criticism or humor still exists in the realm of symbolic behavior and is protected speech. The only way to object to what someone writes is more writing and the power of the better argument.
Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in the multi-faith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it. John O’Sullivan
I have been a pretty standard liberal Democrat all my life, but recently I have been more critical of the left’s retreat from First Amendment protections. I’m talking about the left’s willingness to restrict symbolic expression that is critical of an ethnopolitical group or identity group of any kind. A recent article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of the new limits on free expression in the name of protecting religious and ethnopolitical group sensitivities. The article is an excellent treatment of these issues and I highly recommend it.
The harsh and anti-democratic strand of jihadist Islam has successfully scared enough people into restraining free expression in the form of restricting criticism of religion and political culture. Earlier in the history of free expression, O’Sullivan explains, the predominant restrictions on speech were with respect to obscenity, pornography, and language that was sexually explicit. The purveyors of these restrictions were moralistic and believed themselves to be defending proper standards of society. Political speech was strongly protected. But now, the calls for restrictions are designed to limit the political speech of others and consider off-limits the entire array of topics surrounding religion and politics. Obscene and pornographic speech was limited on the basis of protecting the broad moral foundation of the culture, limiting speech that is critical of religion is justified on the basis of particular groups with each making their own demands.
Burning an American flag is considered political speech and symbolic expression that is protected. I can legally burn the American flag in the center of the town square as a symbolic statement of opposition to some aspect of American foreign policy. But if I burn the Koran, which would still be legal in the United States as politically protected expression, it will cause a different reaction. There is a suggestion that the US endorse an international blasphemy law that would define the Koran as so special that burning it constitutes a particular offense, rather than simply protected symbolic expression.
The traditional approach to protected speech is to ignore the content of speech but simply disallow symbolic expression that will cause imminent danger (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).Yet feeling free to limit speech because words are supposedly so powerful and dangerous is a slippery slope that will slowly erode freedom.
The Answer: Education
One does not come into the world with established political ideology and sensitivities to managing group differences. Democracy and freedom of speech is advanced citizenship in a democracy and must be taught. Free and open societies, where citizen participation is rich and required, necessitate learning the habits of pluralism and democratic processes. The legal environment surrounding freedom of expression has drifted toward an oversensitivity to categorize speech is injurious and in constant need of management. We should not be in the business of restricting all sorts of pure symbolic behavior. Living amongst one’s fellows in a pluralistic, multi-faith, diverse environment requires living in a world that is not of one’s own making and is constituted by differences. These differences must be managed through the deliberative communication process which is by definition “contestatory.”
The lines and distinctions implied here are difficult. For example, do we allow street gangs to deface public buildings with racist slogans and call it “freedom of expression”? I presume it would be possible to define such activities as sufficiently harmful and capable of producing imminent danger, but it will depend on many factors. Slow and long term as it is democratic cultures must continue civic education that includes democratic values.
The recent dust up over Brandeis University’s decision to revoke an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak and receive an honorary degree is truly interesting. It clearly exposes the issues of free speech and the rights of intellectual contestation as well as shines light on that place on the political spectrum where the left meets the right. A picture of Hirsi Ali is below. First some very quick background:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been objecting to the treatment of women by Muslims for over a decade. She was born in Somalia and experienced female circumcision which prompted her to organize in protest against the practice which led to her forceful criticism of Islam. She immigrated to the Netherlands in 1992 and has developed a powerful reputation as an advocate for women’s rights and an opponent of religious extremism of all types but Islam in particular. Hirsi Ali is the recipient of numerous international awards.
Hirsi Ali is in general an honorable and articulate human rights and democracy advocate. Over the years I have enjoyed listening to her and found myself in agreement. But apparently, she goes too far; she’s too strident in her objections to Islam and once referred to Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death”
She was invited to speak and receive an honorary degree from Brandeis but the invitation was revoked as result of a protest against her criticisms of Islam which were considered extreme and politically incorrect. Muslim students at Brandeis objected to her appearance and she was quickly uninvited by the President of Brandeis. One noteworthy Brandeis graduate, Jeffrey Herf, wrote a damning letter criticizing the President for rescinding the invitation and defending Hirsi Ali. That letter can be found here. In the letter Herf chastises Brandeis for running to the defense of one of the most anti-semitic organizations in recent history and pointed out the inconsistencies between the freedom to criticize Israel versus the freedom to criticize Islam.
Liberals have supported the president claiming that Hirsi Ali’s statements are not compatible with certain values of free speech, namely, tolerance and respect. And conservatives of course are very critical of the president for not supporting free speech and kowtowing to a few minority voices.
This is the place on the political spectrum where the left starts to act like the right. The right typically wants to limit political speech that is critical of the government, and the left wants to limit speech that is insensitive to or critical of ethnopolitical or religious groups. The left in this case stands for nothing. I agree that Hirsi Ali is intemperate but she is also representative of a position, and the nanny state should not be in the business of deciding what people hear – within limits of course. Hirsi Ali should be allowed to speak and if she is too extreme she should be taken to task for it and the issue should be discussed rather than automatically taken off of the discursive table. Brandeis students and faculty are mature enough to listen to Hirsi Ali and not be oppressed by her.
The decision by Brandeis to uninvite Hirsi Ali amounts to using political opinions to determine who speaks on campus, something I think the University community is not interested in. Other critics, such as Yossi Klein Halevi and Abdullah Antepli have suggested that honoring Hirsi Ali would be a slap in the face to Muslim students and a negation of Brandeis values of inclusivism, tolerance, and interdependence. Halevi also made the distinction between a dissident in a renegade where a dissident tries to change things but a renegade just damns them. Hirsi Ali is a renegade according to Halevi, but she remains a renegade with respect to symbolic behavior, that is, language and argument. She is not organizing violent revolution.
As I stated in the previous post, Julian Assange is clinging to free speech rights and access to information rights to defend his release of government documents. He’s being held criminally for releasing such information and violating presumed security rights of the state.
All speech is free speech except for that which is justifiably constrained. The nature of this constraint and meaning of “justifiably constrained” is what we will explore here for the moment. We begin with the entering assumption that freedom of expression is a basic human right and if we are going to error than we will error on the side of free expression. So, we take the most well-known example of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, people rush to the exits and hundreds are trampled to death, and then “free speech” is your defense of what you did. You do not of course have the right to freedom of expression when it endangers so many people. You obviously cannot be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of moviegoers and stroll away comfortably on the basis of freedom of speech.
Moreover, the most specific constraint on freedom of expression is “imminence.” This means that you cannot cause imminent or immediate danger as a result of your expressive behavior. So the Nazis and skinheads have a right to express their political opinions (noxious as they might be) but they do not have the right to express those opinions while marching through a Jewish neighborhood creating imminent danger and clearly provoking violence. One of the legal arguments against Assange is that he retrieved government documents that had been classified and were not available to the public. But it is easy to “classify” something. And even though we cannot have individuals making their own decisions about what justifies being classified and what does not, the principle of available access to information and free expression does require justification if your rights are going to be constrained. Last February on this blog I wrote about bloggers and new media with respect to their contribution to the Arab Spring. I retrieved from Wikileaks a copy of a briefing (reference ID 09CAIRO544) about bloggers broadening their discourse. The briefing from 2009 warned that Egypt’s bloggers were playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of the acceptable political communication. Bloggers’ discussion of sensitive issues such as the military and politics represented a significant change from the previous five years and had influenced society.
As recently as 2009 the cable noted that a more open atmosphere had been created. Bloggers were influencing independent media to break important news and cover previously ignored or forbidden topics. One personal rights activist in Egypt stated that the youth were able to express their views about social and political issues in ways they never could before. Free speech tends to produce free speech, and the accumulation of effects from blogs in Egypt is apparent.
This post about blogs was an effort to explain how more information was circulating in Egypt and that was at least partially responsible for political uprising demanding even more freedoms. Was the release of a cable that reported on the general state of bloggers in Egypt a security matter? Surely such a cable does not rise to the level of significance of military secrets or something that can directly affect the safety of the state. In fact, if a government is tracking bloggers and writing reports about blogging in an effort to thwart access to certain information then this should be known to the public. It does not threaten the security of the state.
It does hold, and is imperative, that if citizens of a state are going to monitor the conduct of their government and engage fully democratically then they have to have access to state information – at least certain types of state information. Moreover, government should not be allowed to impose limitations on the citizenry under the pretext of national security and their rights to “classify” information.
The burden, if you will, must be not on access to information but on the government’s decisions to constrain that access by classifying information; that is, freedom of information and symbolic expression is the default political condition and the burden of proof that communicative rights must be limited is on the state. Below are a few more specific principles:
- As much as possible any restrictions on freedom of information must be prescribed by law beforehand. Restriction conditions should be drawn as precisely as possible.
- There must be opportunities for independent courts to judge the quality of safeguards for freedom of information.
- To restrict freedom of expression or information there must be a compelling explanation for the protection of national security. Some examples are in cases of war or military threat, internal sources of discord, or incitement to overthrow the government. This explanation must not only be compelling but able to show specific harm.
I’m not defending Julian Assange per se. His methods are of course illegal and of all the thousands of documents he gained access to and released there are probably more than a few that could have been classified as genuine security threats. But it becomes a little easy to accept government restrictions on freedom of information rather than honor the rights of a democratic society. A good way to keep the proper balance between democratic rights and security is to remember the principles below:
- People have the right to information about public officials in the workings of the state. Limitations on those rights must be clearly and strongly justified. A security justification designed to deny information must be unequivocal with respect to protecting national security interests.
- The public’s right to know is the most foundational assumption.
- There should be a clear system in place which provides independent review and credible oversight of situations where information rights are limited.
- If a person discloses information that is not harmful and is found not to pass the test of legitimate constraints, then that person should not be criminally charged.
- It should be possible for the public’s right to know to outweigh the importance of disclosed information.
- Confidential sources should be protected.
- New technology should make information as available as possible and open to scrutiny by the public.
Assange is not the newest hero for freedom of information. He not only has a grandiose ego and sees himself as the great liberator of information, but Assange goes at the problem with a machete rather than a scalpel. He captured access to thousands of documents with no concern for the nuances of their importance. Still, he has infused new energy into a tired but important democratic principle.