Talk to journalists and activists working in tough countries, where criticism is not welcomed, about what keeps them going. And you’ll find, often, that a major factor is that there are still lawyers who are prepared to stand up for them in a court of law. Or defend them when accusations start raining down about disrespecting the nation by running a story, or attending a protest.
One of the motivations for the protesters turning out on the streets of Hong Kong is a considerable worry that their justice system, right now relatively independent from that of mainland China, is being handed back to China’s leaders to pick over and pull apart. Activists are also being threatened with extradition to the mainland.
That the Hong Kong protests started just after the 30 anniversary of Tiananmen Square is significant, as 30 years ago many of those who spilled on to the streets of Beijing and other Chinese cities were calling for a separation of powers, for more democracy, and more access to an independent justice system.
In hard-to-report countries journalists have told me that they take heart from still having, at least the remnants of, independent justice. One friend, a press photographer taking pictures for a story on the streets of Istanbul, was stopped by the police who were about to take his camera away, when by pure chance, a lawyer who was passing, came to his defence. The police left empty-handed.
Many feel while there were still lawyers prepared to stand with them to defend cases, and judges who were not in the pay of – or bowed by – government pressure, there was still hope. Belief in the rule of law, and its wire-like strength, really matters.
This sliver of optimism means a great deal to journalists, activists, opposition politicians and artists who work in countries where the climate is very strongly in favour of silence.
But right now, all over the world, from Brazil to Hong Kong, strong leaders are eyeing up the independent justice system, and wondering how they can make it more malleable.
We need to defend it because it is at the heart of any free country, protecting our freedom to speak, think, debate, paint, draw and put on plays that produce unexpected and challenging thoughts.
Our rights are slowly, piece by piece, being undermined when our ability to access courts is severely limited, when judges feel too close to presidents or prime ministers, and when lawyers get locked up for taking a case that a national government would rather was not heard.
In Brazil the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has just appointed a judge who was very much part of his election campaign to a newly invented super-ministerial role. And until a few weeks ago, when he announced a U-turn, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, was pushing forward with the introduction of a new type of court, administrative courts that would take over cases relating to taxation and elections, and seen by critics as a distinct threat to separation of powers, and independence of the justice system. But then, at the end of May 2019, it was announced that the courts were no longer going ahead. It is believed that Fidesz, the governing party in Hungary, was under pressure from its grouping in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, new President Jair Bolsonaro has a very close relationship with judge Sérgio Moro, who led the Lava Jato, a corruption investigation that netted the heads of many leading politicians, and many saw as having a political agenda and forced Dilma Roussef out of the presidential race. Moro ended up as the head of a new super-ministry invented by Bolsonaro soon after he came to power.
There’s no doubt that lawyers and judges have always come under pressure from politicians but we need to worry when we start to see the distance between them closing and judges or lawyers punished for a ruling that goes “the wrong way”.
In China during the past few years, lawyers have been ended up in prison for defending cases of political dissidents and people who were practicing religion without state permission. The lawyers’ wives continue to fight for justice and try to turn public attention to the cases, but few people with any power will join them.
At this point, it is hard to imagine how they carry on. When they come for the lawyers, we should wake up and realise this is about all of us, and having freedom of expression of many kinds in the future.
Rachael Jolley is the editor of global quarterly Index on Censorship magazine. The latest issue, Judged: How Governments Use Power To Undermine Justice and Freedom is available in bookshops and online.