As we welcome 2019, we must confront the wide-scale trend of economic migration and the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of refugees clamouring for space. We must deal with and manage what appears to be increasing extremism and xenophobia. Unsurprisingly in that quagmire, hate-speech is becoming more and more common.
Many may not question the assertion that this is rooted in a right-wing populism (to differentiate from the left wing populism associated with the pink tide in Latin America), linked to the nationalist, anti-foreign speeches of US president Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen whose party, the National Front (associated with xenophobia) increased its parliamentary presence in France’s last parliamentary elections though her brand of politics was rejected in the presidential race. More may be in store as France reels from protests and killings as Le Pen renames her party to “Rassemblement National,” which translates roughly to National Gathering or National Rally.
The above global developments really demand greater emphasis on the fundamental human right to freedom of speech and expression, greater tolerance and mutual respect in societies that are far more heterogeneous and plural than ever before, but instead what we witness is hate speech especially on social media. And of course, the hate is oftentimes directed at the newcomer, the migrant, the minority among us.
How dare people with different accents, a different race, who have been “welcomed” into a community, criticize and demand change in a context where unspoken but understood inter-positionality is expected. This inter-positionality sets a clear hierarchical system where the “outsider”, who can be deported if needs be, can only adhere to the belief system of the national, behave like the national and communicate like the national. And it is really a form of xenophobia and smugness that must be resisted.
It is in that context that it is useful to read The Expression Agenda Report for 2017/2018. Its conclusions and identified trends in global freedoms are alarming. In fact, the report boldly states that “freedom of expression and information is at its lowest point for ten years. 2017 was a year in which journalists and activists were murdered with impunity in record numbers, protests were met with violence, and our online behaviour was ever more watched and restricted.”
Alarming indeed, but not surprising, as we are fed on a diet of world leaders at our doorsteps attacking the media and any and everyone who dares to speak the truth and question behaviours which are unacceptable in a modern democracy. Indeed, as we watch, many of us wonder where is the real “banana republic.”
This trend is clear in the number of journalists who were killed and imprisoned across the globe. The Report notes that between 2012 and 2016, five hundred and thirty journalists were killed, an average of two deaths per week. Seventy-eight journalists, and 312 rights-defenders were murdered in 2017 with 326 journalists imprisoned. In Mexico for example, five journalists were attacked in March 2017 and three of them died instantly with one journalist being killed monthly. Between 2006 and 2017, one hundred and one journalists were killed in that country.
In 2018 we know that the most spectacular of these was the chilling execution of Saudi Arabian journalist and world-renowned Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi for the crime of having an opinion. Ironically, had it not been for the sounding of the alarm bells by Turkey (Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world), his murder, ostensibly orchestrated and planned by the State of Saudi Arabia, would have gone unpunished.
The report goes on to state, “Although a few of the world’s authoritarians fell from power in 2017, a broader trend is clear: men with autocratic regimes and little tolerance for criticism or even curiosity, are at the helm of countries across the globe, charting a course towards nationalism and isolation often through populist politics which rely on new forms of manipulation to claim legitimacy. We are witnessing a period where strongman politics are on the rise.”
In Arab States, thousands of citizens are routinely detained, imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases murdered by their own governments for the ‘crime’ or ‘security threat’ of speaking out, and opposing official position. So Jamal Khashoggi is but the tip of the iceberg in the war against freedom of speech and expression. But is this a tendency only associated with authoritarians? Again, are we not regaled with such behaviour at our doorsteps?
So despite the benefits of social media, (I have already referred to the dark side of social media in an earlier column), it appears that the civic space which is important to freedom of expression is under siege. Robust civic space forms the cornerstone of accountable, responsive governance, and stable open societies. The Report notes that governments are implementing laws, policies, and practices which would serve to shrink this crucial space, both on- and off-line and that in 2017, attempts to use laws to control dissent have mushroomed globally.
This is obvious in the increasing criminalization of the right to protest and the “excessive restrictions on protests and through the ‘management’ of protest events.” Whether one speaks of Haiti, France, Spain, the United States, Turkey, or African and Latin American countries, we have seen the excessive use of force against protesters.
In Spain following the Catalan independence referendum, the government which was resolute in its position that the proposed referendum was illegal, resorted to force against protesters. The result was that more than 700 pro-independence Catalonians were injured as police attempted to block the vote. In Kenya, protests were banned in the lead up to the contested 2017 elections. But it is not just against the protest movements and marches that governments have acted; attempts to minimize and control civic spaces in academia, the media, civil society groups are also on the rise.
In Kenya, between 2013 and 2017, the Communications Authority switched off KTN, NTV, Citizen and Inooro radio and television stations for a short period. Kenyan authorities designated the National Resistance Movement (NRM) – an activist wing of Odinga’s NASA coalition (Presidential opponent to Kenyatta) – a criminal group. Kenyatta’s government also ignored the judiciary and showed blatant disregard for court orders which suspended the government ban on the media organizations. Rather than respect the rule of law, the government ordered the police to surround all relevant government offices to block court officers from serving the order.
In Gabon, the media is controlled by the Government and what private sector media houses exist are routinely censored and banned. Reporters Without Borders in its 2018 report noted that press freedom is being eroded for what some deem as minor reports on the government. So we have, for example, the suspension of Ezombolo and Une newspapers, with six-month suspensions. We have the 3-month suspension of the L’Aube (Dawn) newspaper and a six-month suspension of its editor for reporting on the hospitalization and absence of President Ali Bongo for, by then, an over three-week period, and what it deemed as the “very dangerous autopilot” facing the country in the absence of its president. The paper had also made the useful suggestion that the Speaker be appointed interim President. This suspension was handed down by no less than the country’s newly created (February 2018) media regulator, the High Authority for Communications (HAC). In August 2012, we also witnessed the setting on fire of the transmitter for TV+, the television station of the main Gabonese oppositionist, Obame, making it impossible for the television station to do its business.
In 2016, heavily armed officers from the domestic intelligence agency (DGDI), the Directorate of Documentation and Immigration raided the office of the weekly newspaper Echos du Nord and arrested nine journalists and four other staff members. One of the female journalists who was arrested later reported that she had been tied to a metal rod and beaten on her feet, thighs and buttocks to coerce her to provide the interrogators with her email password. These are not isolated events and constitute only the tip of the iceberg.
Are we seeing righteous anger over these developments? In part. Some States and certain communities, have, for the moment, shown their disgust at events like the brutal murder of Khashoggi, the 2017 car bomb murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist who broke the ‘Panama Papers’ story; and organizations like Freedom House note these developments, sometimes in strong language, but little else is done.
Yes, Hollywood seems to have taken note, and mega talent agency Endeavor was the first to act and is understood to be tearing up a $400 million investment by a Saudi sovereign fund, which would have given Saudi Arabia a 5-10 per cent stake in the company. We will wait to see what AMC, Imax, World Wrestling Entertainment and others which have financial and other ties with Saudi Arabia will do. Most have either refused to comment on the Khashoggi case or issued statements that they were “monitoring the situation.” By year-end, the outrage over Khashoggi would have disappeared from official narrative and the shock over the brutality of the assassination would have been dimmed in the eyes of the average citizen. States will continue to openly engage with the man who president Donald Trump refuses to condemn but whom most would agree orchestrated the needless killing.
What has the killing achieved from a Saudi Arabia perspective? It has silenced one man who increasingly, over the last 18 months, had criticized the government. Perhaps, in the apparent State sponsored process of murdering Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia would have heightened the fear environment in the country. So perhaps I misspoke. Because for the State, the end justified the immediate needs of the elites.
But the killing has forced many to pay attention to the very dark side of Saudi Arabia. However, nothing else will change. For it is about money and profit and power. All else can be sacrificed. The dealings with States and governments with blood on their hands will continue unabated, and the ugliness of realpolitik will continue.
The French government is embedded in Gabon and its MNCs reap fortunes from Gabon’s oil money; the political elite continue to buy up properties in France from stolen Gabon’s funds. But, as president Donald Trump stated, “It’s a very simple equation for me. I’m about making America great again and I’m about America first…” If not the US, then for Britain, the Russians, France, Germany, Japan, China, and so on, business will continue as usual whether or not the much vaunted human rights are trampled. Realpolitik apparently has no place for legalism, sentimentalism, and respect for freedom of expression after all.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)