As 2019 begins, government campaigns around the world to stifle free expression by independent and critical voices are proceeding apace. This is happening not only in China and Russia, whose governments have lately taken to extending their internal repression across borders, and in semi-pariah states like Nicaragua and Burma, or in autocracies transactionally aligned with the West, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan—but now even inside the West, in Poland, Hungary and Spain. Official assaults on free speech are widespread and widening. The world has not seen such grim prospects for political and artistic expression globally since the end of the Cold War, which of course roughly coincided with the fall of Apartheid and the acceleration of what Samuel Huntington had described as “the third wave” of global democratic advancement. The early 1990s was a hopeful time; a quarter century later, not so much. Happy New Year, indeed…
“Campaigns” and “assaults” are in the plural above because these are not necessarily parts of a single coordinated campaign by anything resembling some kind of Authoritarian Internationale. They are nonetheless of a kind and mutually reinforcing. We may be seeing an illustration of what scholars such as Briton Laurence Whitehead have described as a “contagion effect” in international politics. It works in both directions: for instance, military coups d’etat proliferated across West Africa in the 1960s; later, communist regimes in central and eastern Europe fell like dominos after 1989, yielding to democratic forces. When a wave of coups in Africa returned in the 1980s, the term contagion reappeared in The New York Times and elsewhere.
The abortive “Arab Spring” of 2011 also appeared to be such a phenomenon—and indeed it was, even as it boomeranged. When the momentum of self-reinforcing positive developments (i.e., the fleeing of longtime dictators in the face of massive popular demonstrations) slowed, a return wave of violence and repression spread quickly as regimes doubled down on violence to regain the upper hand against their peoples, in Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and Egypt. Undeniably, local case-specific events in various countries directly inspired action—and reaction—in other Arab states. But political actors also learn from their neighbors, and what they see happening around the globe, and they tend to adapt it to their own circumstances.
This is why, even though most responsible actors around the world have come to discount the Trump factor in U.S. politics as an aberration that will be mostly corrected when his time concludes, the American example still remains important. Donald Trump’s relentless campaign against free expression he does not like—from the professional journalism he fears, to civic protest by football players genuflecting in opposition to police violence against unarmed black men, to those who would organize a rally on the National Mall—puts wind in the sails of those elsewhere who seek to discredit, harass and even imprison or murder truth-tellers.
In a telling illustration of the current tenor of official discourse in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent critique in Cairo of Barack Obama’s missteps in handling the Arab Spring, falsely advertised in advance as an articulation of Trump Administration policy, was notable in that it was delivered on the 100thday after Jamal Khashoggi’s grisly murder at the hands of the Saudi state. On the day a high-level bipartisan memorial for the Saudi journalist was underway in the Capitol, Pompeo neglected to even mention the episode. He did, however, find time to speculate that General al-Sisi might well “unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people . . . and promote a free and open exchange of ideas.” Meanwhile, Egyptian songwriter Galal El-Behairy is imprisoned for his lyrics, short-story writer and essayist Ibrahim al-Husseini languishes in pretrial detention, and thousands of those who participated in nonviolent sit-ins against Sisi’s military takeover in 2013 remain incarcerated.
Seemingly oblivious to the conspicuous, festering wound on the country’s face that is the Khashoggi murder, Saudi King Salman and his favorite son Mohammed continue to show the world that none of the values enumerated in our First Amendment shall be tolerated in their Kingdom. Not freedom of religion, not freedom of assembly, not freedom of speech—and certainly not for the women who have advocated for the small liberties the Saudi royals have belatedly started to grant, like the opportunity for women to now drive a car. Dr. Eman Al-Nafjan, a linguistics professor, contributing opinion writer at The Guardian and The New York Times and the engine of October 26 Driving campaign in 2013, is now imprisoned and smeared by the state as a traitor. Dr. Hatoon Alfassi, a distinguished professor of women’s history and recipient of numerous awards for her role in women’s rights advocacy, is imprisoned since last June without trial.Or Loujain al-Hathloul, also a prominent women’s rights activist, who has languished in prison since last March, when she and her husband, the comedian Fahad Albutairi, were both grabbed, blindfolded, and taken to Saudi Arabia — Fahad from Jordan, and Loujain from the UAE. Ten months later, Loujain is still in jail; her father reports she has been brutally tortured. Albutairi’s family has no idea where he is.
The panoply of repression of women can be summed up in the bizarre Saudi “guardianship system” which obliges every woman, no matter her age, to have permission from a male guardian to travel, go to school, to work, to marry, to divorce, even to open a bank account. As the imprisoned driving advocates learned, even the most innocuous expression of opinion is severely punished.
The contagion is spreading in Azerbaijan, where a distinctly less royal family governs well into its third decade. The latest innovation in repression here involves waiting until an anti-corruption crusader, a blogger, or a journalist, nears the end of his or her term in prison (usually on trumped up charges in the first place). A month or two before release is due, the person is charged with a new crime, supposedly committed while in prison, such as hiding a knife in one’s cell or “distributing medicine illegally.” Following a hasty trial, imprisonment is extended another few months or years. This could, of course, go on indefinitely, and thereby become an unacknowledged life sentence.
The list of journalists being harassed by the government of aspiring president-for-life, Ilham Aliyev, is only growing. These include Khadija Ismailova; out of jail now but on short-leash parole, she has in recent weeks been stalked by state agents at her residence and threatened with reincarceration. Blogger Mehman Huseynov, in prison since March 2017 for “defaming an entire police station” for complaining about his mistreatment following an earlier arrest; he was charged December 26 with “resisting a representative of the authorities,” for which he can be sentenced to seven more years in prison. Though that charge was dropped in recent days, Huseynov remains in jail and could still be charged anew. In another cruel extension of the campaign against free expression, charges have been pending for three years now against Akram Aylisli, an 81-year old novelist. Lauded as a hero of the nation during Soviet times and later, Aylisli even served a five-year term as a member of parliament for Aliyev’s governing party (which of course is another kind of honorific, as the legislature is politically inert). His offenses include a fictional portrayal of an unnamed despot resembling the current president’s late father, and sympathetic portrayals of ethnic Armenians. These “crimes” led to an officially sanctioned book-burning campaign when one of his novels was published in 2013. Aylisli has been living under house arrest for three years awaiting trial on a charge of allegedly assaulting an airport border control officer in 2016, when he was stopped from getting on a plane to Italy for a literary festival.
In Burma, an appeals court this month ruled against an appeal of the conviction of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, sentenced in September after a nine-month trial to seven years in prison for their reporting on atrocities committed by the Burmese military against the Muslim Rohingya people. In a stance that has dismayed Aung San Suu Kyi’s dwindling number of admirers worldwide, the de facto leader of the civilian portion of what remains fundamentally a military government has responded publicly—and also to private to entreaties from longtime friends in the international community—with angry denunciations of the journalists as “traitors.”
In Nicaragua, a months-long campaign of violence by the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega against peaceful protestors—principally students and pensioners complaining about cutbacks in their benefits—in December escalated to seizures of independent media outlets reporting on the crisis, as well as closures of civil society organizations. Armed police in mid-December raided the Managua office of the privately owned Confidencial and its sister television programs, Esta Noche and Esta Semana. A week later, another privately owned cable and internet news station in Managua, called 100% Noticias, was ordered off the air, and the channel’s director Miguel Mora and news director Lucía Pineda Ubau, were arrested. Venezuela and Cuba remain, well, Venezuela and Cuba. Cuba’s innovation in repression is Decree 349, which punishes artists for delving into an expanded list of forbidden subject areas, and those protesting the new restrictions have already been arrested.
Readers of these pages are familiar with the ongoing sagas of Hungary and Poland, once promising leaders in post-Communist democratic transition, where the current leaders have made U-turns toward autocracy, corruption and systematic (and often rather novel) attacks on independent and professional journalism seeking to hold these leaders accountable to their publics. In a truly innovative maneuver to eliminate critical voices, in late November prime minister Viktor Orban orchestrated the simultaneous “donation” of hundreds of private Hungarian news outlets by their owners to a central holding company run by his cronies, in a move The New York Times reported was “unprecedented within the European Union.” Orban’s assault on the full range of democratic institutions has clearly been strengthened by the rise of Donald Trump. As the Washington Post reports this week, Hungary’s increasingly autocratic leader said Trump represents “permission” from “the highest position in the world.”
In Poland, meanwhile, independent judges continue to defend the rights of news media to report on official shenanigans, such as Gazeta Wyborcza’s November 13 report about a complex scandal involving the chief bank regulator. American Ambassador to Warsaw Georgette Mosbacher has been outspoken in opposition to the government’s harassment of journalists of TVN, an independent television stationed owned by National Geographic, but it is unclear whether she would do as much for non-American outlets, or speak in favor of a general right to free expression—given the Administration for whom she works.
Freedom of expression is also under threat at the western end of Europe, as Catalonia’s October 2017 referendum on independence—effectively a large-scale act of civil disobedience because Madrid did not consent to the electoral exercise—is a being criminally prosecuted as ‘rebellion.’ Even in democracies, as we Americans well know, challenges to free expression are real— and must be acknowledged and addressed. But in Spain, Oriol Junqueras, former vice president of the Catalan regional government, is set to go on trial this month on charges of “rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds”—for his central role in organizing the ballot. Eleven others will also be on trial with Junqueras in televised proceedings in Spain’s Supreme Court, including civil society activists Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, who face charges for their advocacy of the referendum. Another dozen indicted persons, including the former president of the Catalan regional government, Carles Puigdemont, fled to European countries—all of which have thus far declined to extradite any of the accused back to Spain for trial. Regardless of one’s opinion on Catalan independence, what’s at stake here is the right to peacefully dissent and to advocate for political alternatives. “In a democracy,” said Junqueras in a recent interview from prison, “no one should end up in jail for putting out ballot boxes.”
Far and wide, east and west, 2019 is shaping up to be a rather daunting time for those who would speak their minds when their governments don’t want to hear (or don’t want others to hear) what people have to say. Countries—and a world—in which the right to free expression is protected and advanced, do not arise spontaneously nor is their arrival inexorable, as Damir Marusic and Bob Kagan recently reminded us. Kagan’s point in his recent book, The Jungle Grows Back is that the construction of the much beloved, much despised Global Liberal World Order was never inevitable, but was circumstantial—entirely contingent on who won WWII and the insight and persuasiveness of the few dozen Americans and their allies who thereafter rebuilt the world.
The center of gravity in defending and advancing democratic values has now moved outside of governments and official channels, as the anti-democrats and those who are rejecting long-established norms about free expression are moving into the halls of power. Acolytes of Donald Trump—specifically emboldened to attack the press and other critics—are coming into office from the Philippines to Brazil.
To Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, Donald Trump is a role model—proof that incendiary comments, a history of trafficking in conspiracy theories, and assaults on the news media are permitted in democratic countries. “What happens in the U.S. inevitably influences us,” said Sergio Dávila, the executive editor of Folha de S. Paulo, a newspaper that has been a target of Bolsonaro’s ire.
A very dangerous, highly contagious virus is sweeping the world. It is time to develop a vaccine—and government funding will not be available for the research any time soon.