Friday, October 1, 2010

Silencing Dissent

A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize;
it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny.
—Winston Churchill [1874-1965], British prime minister

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
—Harry S. Truman [1884-1972], 33rd president of the United States

Dissent of government policies is one of the hallmarks of a well-functioning democracy. Yet, such liberties  face serious threats in many nations, as Freedom of The Press and Freedom of Expression are under attack—a dangerous sign for democracy and human dignity. Many nations do not have a free press. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than one-third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom.

Here are a few examples that I culled from recent news reports, looking at both authoritarian (non-democratic) regimes and full-fledged democracies:

In Canada, the federal parliament, in a rare display of unity, censored a national news magazine over an article that it wrote on political corruption, naming Quebec the most corrupt province in Canada, says the National Post in House censures Maclean's over Quebec article.
MPs voted unanimously on Wednesday to censure the magazine over a controversial article which called Quebec “the most corrupt province.” The motion, put forward by the Bloc Quebecois read:
“That this House, while recognizing the importance of vigorous debate on subjects of public interest, expresses its profound sadness at the prejudice displayed and the stereotypes employed by Maclean’s magazine to denigrate Quebec nation, its history and its institutions.”
According to Sun Media’s David Akin, independent MP Andre Arthur voiced his dissent, but soon left the chamber and the motion was reintroduced and passed unanimously, gaining votes from MPs of all parties.
Mr. Arthur slammed the motion as the House interfering with the press.
In Iran, a noted blogger, Mr. Hossein Derakhshan, received sentence of 19½ years in prison for essentially voicing his views, reports the Wall Street Journal in Iran's Blogfather Gets Prison Term. As the newspaper reports:
Mr. Derakhshan was sentenced on charges of "cooperation with hostile states, propagating against the regime…insulting sanctities," among other charges, the website,, reported Tuesday.
In Russia, the authorities are confiscating computers of dissenting groups, under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software, reports the New York Times in  Russia uses Microsoft to Suppress Dissent:

Across Russia, the security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers in recent years. Security officials say the inquiries reflect their concern about software piracy, which is rampant in Russia. Yet they rarely if ever carry out raids against advocacy groups or news organizations that back the government.

As the ploy grows common, the authorities are receiving key assistance from an unexpected partner: Microsoft itself. In politically tinged inquiries across Russia, lawyers retained by Microsoft have staunchly backed the police.
In Scotland, a journalist and a photographer, Mssrs Anthony Baxter and Richard Phinney, were arrested and charged for doing their job, which was asking questions, reports The Guardian, Film-makers arrested on site of Donald Trump's Scottish golf resort. As the Guardian says in its report:
Anthony Baxter and Richard Phinney were arrested for breach of the peace, held for four hours, and had their DNA, photographs and fingerprints taken, after the Trump organization accused them of entering its offices at the site and filming documents without permission.

The two men were arrested as they investigated allegations that contractors working for Trump accidentally cut off the water supply to several local residents, including his fiercest critic Michael Forbes, for several days. The journalists said their camera equipment was held by police for five days, preventing them from filming.
In the United States, FBI agents raided the homes of anti-war protesters, ostensibly seeking whether they had any connection to terrorists. In FBI conducts terrorism searches in Chicago homes, says ABC News in Chicago.
The targets are people who are known, vocal opponents of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, disputes over Palestinian settlements, and U.S. involvement in Colombia, and they insist this is just an effort to muzzle the voices of dissent.
The common thread in all these stories is how special interests and the elites are attempting to silence dissent. Such actions are a threat to civil liberties, to individual freedom, to freedom of the press, and to the ability of citizens to voice dissent. "The test of democracy is freedom of criticism," says, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, a sentiment that holds true today, yet is not fully endorsed by many democratic nations.

In non-democratic nations, it is easier to understand why the state wants to keep a close watch on and silence dissent. Their position is not a democratically elected one, where they represent the people's interests. So, such autocrats have to be aware of any brewing dissent that might topple their leadership. Such is the basic argument of all regimes put in power by the few.

Although some moderns think that current social-networking technologies will encourage social activism, it's highly unlikely that its effect will be as great as old-fashioned word-of-mouth activism of the 1960s. It's the difference between weak connections and strong connections, says Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker. (For an excellent essay on social networks, see Malcolm Gladwell's article, Small Change, in The New Yorker.)

Justice Thurgood Marshall [1908-1993]:"History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure." Justice Marshall was the first African-American to be appointed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1976.
Source: US Library of Congress.

Democratic elected nations, like the United States, are also watchful of dissent, which is allowed by the U.S. Constitution, But, as in the fear of Communism in the 1940s and '50s (see McCarthyism), the fear of terrorism gives the democratic state more license to bruise the Constitution, all in the name of security. What the state usually wants to secure is the status quo, its way of life, and often that translates to economic considerations.

Consider the following small item that seemed to pass unnoticed under the radar screens of the mainstream media. After the U.S. was attacked on September 11th, 2001, President Bush calmed the American people by saying: "Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop [italics added]."

And then the USA Patriot Act (enacted into law on October 26, 2001), which presupposes by its name that any dissent against it is unAmerican, unpatriotic, essentially against the interests of the state. In a type of Orwellian language, the law has a chilling effect on dissent of any form. That alone might explain why it and its provisions are still in effect. In recent years, the U.S. government has been granted broader and sweeping powers against its citizens, using the threat of terrorism as its justification.

But there is hope. I sense the judiciary will eventually narrow the scope of what the government can and cannot do, and bring back a more robust form of democracy to the United States. As Thurgood Marshall, former U.S. Supreme Court justice, remarked: "Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds."

The people can do a lot. The peopled can bring a lot of pressure to bear on the government, and forcefully and persuasively remind them that they have not been elected for the benefit of only narrow special interests. The press, acting as the guardian and conscience of the Constitution, hammering home these essential ideas and ideals. Liberty is one of the cornerstones of a working democratic society.

To be sure, the United States has faced serious threats that undermined liberty before, most recently during the McCarthy era's unfounded fears of Communism. It has shown that its Constitution is resilient and hardy to withstand such tests, and can bounce back from such threats and regain its democratic ideals. The United States has been likened to a shining beacon of hope.

Now, the beacon is somewhat dimmer.

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