Free speech threatened worldwide

The recent attack of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo at the hands of religious fanatics has sent many into a frenzy extolling the merits of a free press. That so many of us regard the right to an open press as a fundamental tenet of society has been laid bare in our incredulity at those who would extinguish the torch of free expression and dictate the parameters of permissible thought. In their march through Paris in the wake of the attack, a myriad of the world’s leaders affirmed that those who value liberty over tyranny would not submit to the demands of terrorists. 

While this collective indignation and resolve in the face of terrorism is no doubt an admirable and just response, it should not goad us into assuming that suppression of journalism is a singularly terrorist activity. It’s no secret that in a multitude of countries there exists routine censorship of the media and the persecution of journalists who dare to report on issues deemed taboo by the government. A number of high profile examples from the recent past demonstrate that many still live under systems in which journalism can be treated as a criminal offense by those in charge.

As I’ve written about before, two Al Jazeera journalists, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, currently reside in Egyptian prison for having reported on the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization whose activities have been outlawed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. For those wondering why I didn’t mention the third journalist, Peter Greste, it was determined on Feb. 1 that he would be extradited to his home country of Australia. After their arrest in December 2013 the men were made to sit in jail for almost two months before being granted a court appearance, and it wasn’t until June that they were handed their prison sentences. 

Whether or not one feels that the organization on which they reported is a terrorist group, as President Sisi insists, it’s ludicrous to suggest that these journalists deserved to be jailed indefinitely for the act of doing their job. As reported by Bloomberg, there are at present 60 journalists detained in Egypt, presumably for offenses similar to those of the Al Jazeera reporters.

The targeting of journalists involved in allegedly subversive activities has also been playing out in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a name for himself as enemy of media freedom by forcibly shutting down Twitter in March of 2014. Last month President Erdogan expanded his anti-media credentials by authorizing a raid on a newspaper and television station said to be in cahoots with one of the president’s political rivals. At least 23 arrests were made, all on the deliberately self-serving pretext that there exists in Turkey a parallel state plotting to overthrow the government. If editorializing in favor of the opposition of the current political leadership served as grounds for imprisonment everywhere many of us would think twice about elucidating our thoughts on Gov. Walker.

These examples are merely snapshots in a portfolio of media suppression whose contributors include many more states than just Egypt and Turkey. The tenuous rationales offered by these governments for persecuting journalists and censoring media would seem comical if it weren’t for how dangerous they’ve proven to be. On a certain level I understand why it is that governments engage in this behavior. Presidents Erdogan and Sisi have criminal business they would be wise to keep from the public eye, so it follows logically that they would target reporters who attempt to unearth that activity for all to see. Additionally, by penalizing those who report on certain political groups it makes the task of delegitimizing the opposition that much easier. 

I remain incredulous, however, at the fact that governments can so willfully quash basic human rights seemingly without paying heed to the eventual ramifications. History tells us you can only oppress people for so long before something snaps and they decide they’ve had enough abuse, making it incumbent on leaders to recognize the inevitable and often bloody fallout born from denying citizens the rights they know they deserve. Such a degree of cognizance might be a tall order for these individuals, whose egos and anxieties have severely limited their capacity for foresight, but in this writer’s opinion anyone who can claim responsibility for shutting down entire social media sites is in dire need of a new political strategy. 

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was at once disgusting and deplorable, but it would be remiss of us to lose sight of other, arguably more pervasive threats to freedom of the press. One can only hope that leaders who feel compelled to curb this right will be deposed in the end, and that the societies over which they reign will adopt permanent safeguards to media freedom. I don’t know how long it will be before this takes place on a mass scale, but with continued vigilance and pressure there may come a day when journalists need not live in fear of doing their job. In writing this I article I was made to think of a Bruce Springsteen lyric that’s apropos of this situation: “Darlin’, will tyrants and kings fall to the same fate, strung up at your city gates?”

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