In the absence of free speech, the people suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic will never know how it all began, though they have the right to know it. Given China’s suppression of free speech and powerful Western nations’ secret plans to counter China’s military ambitions, we do not know whether the virus was originated in a lab or from a wet market in Wuhan in China or brought to China by a hostile nation. It is alleged that the absence of free information flow and China’s crackdown on whistleblowers contributed to the uncontrollable spread of the disease and delayed an early global response.
By yesterday, 1.98 million people worldwide have died due to the pandemic and 92.3 million have been afflicted. Yet, freedom of expression is still being denied, suppressed and abused by governments and ruling party politicians, though they make use of it to come to power.
In an absolute watertight dictatorship, politics is clandestine and exists only in the minds of those who harbour ambitions to oust the dictator or are wishing his death to establish themselves in the seat of power. In this secretive game of throne, replete with betrayals and backstabbing, there is little space for freedom of expression. The one who speaks out, does so only at the expense of drawing upon himself the wrath of the dictator or severe punishment. With fear psychosis growing, none will have the courage to speak out and tell the dictator that he is committing crime after crime against democracy.
With evil thriving in the silence of democracy’s devout believers, dictators may feel they are well ensconced in the seats of power. They will not realize, however, that dictatorships only lead to the destruction of the moral fabric of the nation, apart from causing economic and social ruination. World history is full of examples of how the mighty have fallen and faced shameful ends after people’s power revolutions.
"To prevent democracies being turned into democratic dictatorships or dictatorial democracies, people need to be vigilant, since eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"
While politics is aimed at capturing, retaining, protecting and enhancing power, only in a democratic setup, can a political campaign be carried out to capture power. For any political campaign to be effective, freedom of speech is sine qua non. The more the people enjoy the freedom to express themselves, the better the health of the democracy and the higher the quality of representatives they will be electing.
However, democracy’s weaknesses allow depraved rulers to desecrate the democratic space and suppress the freedom of expression. This is because they feel if there is unhindered free speech, they will not be able to remain in power. In some countries, politicians abuse the freedom of expression by surreptitiously or outlandishly introducing fake news with the help of the pliant media. This is not freedom of speech. Rather, it is a charlatan’s freedom to deceive people. Instead of abusing the freedom of speech, a democracy worth its salt must protect it. It is a responsibility.
In the United States, former President George W. Bush marketed lie after lie to get the public support for the invasion of Iraq. Sadly, even the mainstream media, perhaps out of blind patriotism, parroted these lies and did not carry out fact checks. The outgoing president, Donald Trump, who lacked the decency to concede defeat and allow the peaceful transfer of power, is a fake news factory though he accuses the media that criticize him of publishing fake news. In a July 2020 report, the Washington Post said that Trump had made more than 20,000 false claims since he assumed office in January 2017. This worked out to an average of 20 lies a day. Trump stands out as a dishonest politician who made use of free speech and democratic institutions to come to power. The low point of his fake news campaign was the January 6 assault by his supporters on Capitol Hill.
In weaker democracies, Trump-like demagogues bring in laws or use intimidation to suppress free speech and undermine democratic institutions.
To prevent democracies being turned into democratic dictatorships or dictatorial democracies, people need to be vigilant, since eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. They need to raise their voices at the first sign of an attempt to suppress free speech. For, it is through free speech that any rot in the government can be pointed out, misdeeds corrected and democracy preserved. But many journalists have been killed or imprisoned by the enemies of free speech.
Last year, according to UNESCO, a journalist was killed every four days in the line of duty – 57 journalists in total. In Sri Lanka, too, many journalists have been killed for expressing views fearlessly. Rarely does an investigation into the death of a journalist end in prosecution. Many have been imprisoned, too, with laws being given draconian interpretations.
Western democracies, too, have blood on their hands and have suppressed free speech. During its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military bombed the offices of Al-Jazeera in Kabul and Baghdad. This was seen as a side war against free speech. Part of this side war is the West’s persecution of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder. His extradition is sought by the US where he faces espionage charges. Assange is a fanatic believer in free speech. His website WikiLeaks published documents which states would not want their citizens to know. Assange believed that governments need to be transparent and the people have the right to know what the governments do on their behalf. Obviously, his absolutism clashed with the view that free speech needs to be curtailed on public security grounds.
Brave journalism is not a crime, yet Assange is being punished in a high security British jail without being given bail for practising journalism and having the determination to expose dirty deals of powerful nations. Not only Assange, whistleblowers who supplied classified material to WikiLeaks and other media groups were also hunted down and punished.
Chelsea Manning, a US army soldier turned whistleblower, leaked to WikiLeaks files that exposed the US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together with selected media partners, WikiLeaks published them as Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diaries. Manning was arrested and imprisoned. WikiLeaks also published leaked diplomatic cables from US embassies. Among other revelations, the cables showed the links some powerful states had with terror groups.
Another high profile whistleblower, Central Intelligence Agency’s data analyst Edward Snowden, who exposed the mass surveillance programmes carried out by the US together with its allies, fled the US and found asylum in Russia. Snowden defended his leaks as an effort “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
If only WikiLeaks had been allowed to carry on with its journalistic duty, and whistleblowers had legal and the United Nations’ protection, the world would have been a better place with dishonest politicians being named and shamed. If there had been absolute free speech, There would have been at least some amount of morality in politics and governments would have been more transparent and accountable. We would also have known as to the origin of the COVID-19 virus.