Another Good Year For Strongman Politics, Another Terrible Year For Freedom Of Expression

Freedom of expression is a right from which other human rights flow, and its decline is a wake-up call: I argue that defending this right is a challenge to us all

Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in cold blood. CNN’s Maria Ressa has had her licence revoked for questioning the Rodrigo Duterte’s statements about the war on drugs. Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are in prison for investigating murders by the Myanmar army. Staff at the Capital Gazette worked through the night in a car park after a gunman attacked their offices, killing five of their colleagues.

Time’s choices for People of the Year 2018 are a stark reminder that journalists, and freedom of expression as a whole, are under attack as never before.

This is reality, not just opinion. A metric developed by ARTICLE 19, which uses 32 indicators to measure and track freedom of expression, provides empirical evidence of the decline in freedom of expression over the last decade. There has been a noticeably sharp fall in the three years up to 2017, and leading this decline has been a narrowing of media freedom, which has reduced at a greater rate than related aspects of free speech assessed by the metric. 2018 has been an especially challenging year.

One of the factors driving this decline is a rise in ‘strongman’ politics – the coming to power of autocratic leaders whose aggressive tactics include imprisoning journalists and activists, condemning political opposition as anti-state, and attempting to control what their citizens can see, hear and read on the Internet. The current wave of “strongmen” includes Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro.

These leaders often evoke both the language of patriotism and anti-terror laws, appealing to nationalists while positioning their opponents as enemies of the state by undermining any criticism as treasonous.

Unsurprisingly their first target is the media. In Turkey, the Erdogan regime has set out to destroy the independent media, with the closure of over 150 media outlets. Erdogan cites counterterrorism to position his critics as the enemies of state; hundreds of journalists, academics and activists have been charged with vague anti-terror offences since the attempted coup in 2016.

Similarly, in Hungary the pro-government media has accused journalists critical of the Orban government of being the mouthpiece of George Soros. Orban has called Soros a “national security risk” and “a public enemy”, and the passing of a controversial law to restrict the work of NGOs has been seen as a direct attack on Soros. Orban’s comments are part of the strongman playbook; explicitly anti-semitic, openly discriminating against minority ethnic groups, women and LGBT people.

In recent years we have seen leaders around the world display open contempt for the media, normalising and thereby encouraging the violence that many journalists face. This includes US President Donald Trump, who has relentlessly attacked the media, descending into hitherto unheard rhetoric by an incumbent President calling the media “the enemy of the people”. These verbals attacks have worsened an already hostile environment for journalists in the US. Despite its strong constitutional protection, media freedom in the US is declining and this has global implications.

Trump’s announcement that the US would not be seeking sanctions against Saudi Arabia following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, delivered a clear message to the world: A journalist’s life is worth nothing when pitched against power and business; states can act with impunity as long as they have something to offer the US.

Trump’s other contribution to the strongman playbook is making accusations of ‘fake news’ the go-to excuse for any political leader who finds themselves the subject of media criticism. This is not a new tactic – authoritarian leaders have used laws and other means for centuries to silence criticism by declaring it false But thanks to Trump, the phrase has been globally adopted and legitimised. It has been used by Nicolas Maduro to dismiss criticism of changes to Venezuela’s constitution; by the Chinese state agency, Xinhua, to deny reports of torture; and by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to refute a report on torture by Amnesty International. Most recently, Brazil’s President-in-waiting, Bolsanaro, has threatened to withdraw government advertising from Folha de São Paulo after the newspaper ran stories about the spread of misinformation via WhatsApp by his financial backers.

While many of us are concerned about the proliferation of unverified or inaccurate content on the web, ‘fake news’ is being weaponized by some governments who want to control what the media is allowed to report. In the current political climate we can expect to see more laws that claim to tackle ‘fake news’, yet many of them will undoubtedly be used to chill free speech and debate.

Freedom of expression is a right from which other human rights flow, and its decline is a wake-up call: I argue that defending this right is a challenge to us all. Despite the threat of violence and arrests, we still see people challenging power through protest - whether women’s marches in the Americas calling for an end to sexual violence, political protests in Kenya or vigils in Myanmar demanding human rights reforms. Yet to defend freedom of expression against the threat of the strongman in politics, we need robust independent judiciaries that can consistently defend the rights of citizens against the erosion of public freedoms which underpin healthy and diverse civil societies. We have seen encouraging signs in Kenya where the judiciary are checking executive power, but in 2019 we need to hear more from global leaders who stand for an invigorated international community. It is they who will provide a much needed antidote to isolationism and self interest, embracing diversity and the courage of citizens who are willing to speak truth to power.

The strongman may be on the rise, but this particular fight is being met by those who value the freedom to speak and the freedom to know across the world.

Thomas Hughes is Executive Director of international freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19


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