Roar writer Rory Orwell argues for freedom of the press against a global trend of repressing journalists.
Attacks on the press are attacks on democracy. So said the critics of Extinction Rebellion’s bamboozling the distribution of British newspapers in the early hours of a Saturday morning, as police officers tried to let the trucks drive out. This unimpressive stunt made net zero direct contribution to de-funding polluting industries and building smarter alternatives, other than perhaps reminding the public of the urgent need to do so.
Soon after, the ongoing case of Julian Assange began at the Old Bailey. If the publication of leaks is punished, that can induce a precedent for hiding abuses of power.
Rebuking ideas is a type of tyranny. “Cancel culture” arises from an aversion to alienation and controversy by those who envisage a fashionable blob (or mob?) of intolerance, and then aspire to project themselves as its heroic victims. When politically privileged commentators in democracies debate the extent of freedom of speech itself, it is not without naivety or irony.
However, the inspiration for this article was the story of an egregious miscarriage of justice, representative of genuine repression. Journalist Azimzhan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, reported on the lawlessness of law enforcement in south Kyrgyzstan. The police arrested him during a period of inter-ethnic conflict in 2010, on charges of inciting violence. Behind bars, he exclaimed: “I swear by the Koran! I swear by my kids! It’s not my fault, it’s not there where the incident happened!”
He had numerous alibi witnesses. The prosecution relied on a seemingly fabricated police account. The pre-gone conclusion was political: life imprisonment. The government gaslighted, claiming the judiciary was independent. Yet Askarov became a scapegoat. Ten years later, this July, still in prison, he died of pneumonia.
The Legatum Institute reports a recent trend towards both censorship and physical repression. In any case, there is a pattern of institutionally neurotic “authorities”, or their accomplices, preying on those who do not conform to the outward deference demanded. Ukrainian investigative journalist Mykhailo Tkach found his car burnt; Belarussian media were fined and censored; Montenegrin editors-in-chief were jailed; the Morrocan government hacked the computer of Omar Radi.
Amidst an “erosion” in press freedom, Malaysian police found documentary-makers in violation of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Act, whilst a Myanmar news editor appeals a jail sentence for an article which caused “fear and alarm“.
As Beijing and Canberra provoke and retaliate, it is notable that the human cost is paid by journalists and scholars caught in the middle. After activists, the first targets in the quashing of Hong Kong protests are journalists. All these examples are from 2020 alone.
The historical Western “democrasphere” takes press freedom for granted because there is nothing, other than threats, to protect journalists from. Britain is lucky to have its history of liberal discussion in coffee-houses and the House of Commons. Yet even the most traditionally epitomised of constitutions doesn’t guarantee full press freedom in the moment of an event, on the ground.
The de facto Soviet-style show trial of Azimzhan Askarov shows that press freedom is inextricably linked to due legal process, or lack thereof. In practice, what determines press freedoms are the dark decisions of the powerful made behind closed doors, combined with the political culture. What can scrutinise and change this but journalism itself?
The internet is analogous to a new printing press. Its platforms provide universal freedom to publish in the short term, but not freedom from arbitrary punishment in retrospect. When press freedom is under threat, it is conceptualised as a sort of precious gem being slowly chipped away at. Yet the reality is that for a good number of editors and writers around the world, exercising the human right to share information is both a historical novelty and a daily risk. These truth-tellers may well ask themselves: is it really worth it?
Just as democracy dies in darkness, journalism is immortal – in theory. In the 19th century play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, the eponymous Cardinal remarks: “the pen is mightier than the sword”. This aphorism is, at first encounter, profound, but upon reflection, bullshit. Of course the might of the state is effective at quelling dissent. (Just ask Erdoğan. Well not literally. that might not be wise, judging by Wikipedia.)
Ultimately, though, any such repression is temporary: the keyboard cannot be defeated. Journalism kindles the flame of any human civilisation. It is the first hope and last bulwark against the corruption which all too often stops it.