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Democracies Confront Their Own Growing Censorship Tendencies

  • Arch Puddington
  • Christopher Walker

An activist protests censorship in Ukraine. (file photo)

An activist protests censorship in Ukraine. (file photo)

The murders of journalists in Russia, the jailing of bloggers in China, and the crackdown on the media in Iran regularly remind us that freedom of expression is under duress, even in an era of expanding global communications.

However, considerably less attention has been paid to a new, more insidious threat to this fundamental human right. It involves campaigns by a variety of actors — from foreign governments and business moguls to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — to discourage journalists, scholars, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others from speaking out or publishing material on certain subjects.

This creeping censorship is manifesting itself in venues including the United Nations, the judicial systems of established democracies, and elsewhere. Often, the objective is to place restrictions on what people can say or publish about Islam. But the offensive is also being carried forward by others, including oligarchs in the former Soviet Union.

Targeting Democracies

The focus of the free-speech debate has traditionally been on societies where freedom was lacking. What really sets apart this contemporary strain of censorship, however, is that it is increasingly focused on restricting information and opinion in Europe, North America, and other bastions of free expression. Today, standards in democracies are the target.

Consider the following developments of the past few years:

-- Two units of the UN system, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, passed resolutions that call for restrictions on what people can say or write about religions, especially Islam. The principal targets of the resolutions were clearly the democracies of Europe rather than autocracies where both free speech and religious liberty are already heavily constrained.

-- The American author of a book on terrorist financing was successfully sued for libel in a British court, even though her book was effectively unavailable on the British market.

-- The Chinese authorities -- in addition to their recent offensive against the Nobel committee -- have exerted pressure on book fairs, film festivals, and academic gatherings to squelch discussion of its treatment of minority groups, censorship of the media and artistic works, and other human rights issues in venues outside its borders. Australia, Germany, Taiwan, and the United States have been among the targets.

-- The Index on Censorship, a leading voice for free expression, was forced to jettison a study on the phenomenon of "libel tourism" after a subject of the study threatened to cripple the publication financially through legal action.

Steady Erosion

The new threats to free expression are not occurring in a vacuum. Over the past decade, the impressive gains that accompanied the end of the Cold War have experienced steady and worrying erosion.

“Freedom of the Press,” Freedom House’s annual survey of media independence, has identified a number of factors that have contributed to this global decline, including increased levels of violence and physical harassment directed at journalists by both government and nonstate actors; restrictive new laws; and consolidation of domestic media sectors by authoritarian governments.

This measure surely qualifies as an Orwellian inversion, whereby an entity established to defend free speech is given responsibility for policing its alleged excesses.
One dimension of this problem is libel tourism. To get around America’s strong First Amendment protections, plaintiffs have been suing both British and U.S. writers in London, where defamation standards essentially assume that offending speech is false and the author must prove the contrary to fend off the suit. As a result, British law has been turned into a weapon to silence free speech. In the Internet age, libel tourism can be used to enforce censorship on a global level.

Britain has therefore become the destination of choice for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, Saudi bankers, and others interested in muzzling free inquiry. And libel tourism has become lucrative business for firms such as Schillings and Carter-Ruck, which are counted among London’s most feared defamation firms.

Chilling Effect

The enormous cost of litigation (in the tens of thousands of dollars) exerts a deep chilling effect on open debate. Economically strapped publications and NGOs, unable to afford such costs and defend themselves, often wave a white flag. Self-censorship becomes the preferred course.

It is thus especially important that the United States has taken a stand against libel tourism by enacting the Speech Act, a measure that will make it more difficult to enforce libel judgments against U.S. journalists or scholars handed down in foreign courts.

Those who seek to export censorship from authoritarian to democratic settings have been emboldened by a trend toward capitulation in the democratic media. "The Washington Post” is the latest in a lengthening list of publications that have withdrawn cartoons, some thoroughly innocuous, with Islamic themes. Likewise, Conde Nast not only decided against publishing an article in “GQ” on Vladimir Putin’s rise in its Russian edition, but removed the piece, which had been published in its U.S. edition, from its website and refused to publicize it.

Last March, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that essentially called for the universal embrace of antiblasphemy laws prescribing penalties for those who criticize particular religions. Such laws exist in a number of countries, including some European democracies, but they are more widespread and far more likely to be enforced in Muslim societies.

The resolution, sponsored principally by Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, is the latest iteration of a document that has been circulating at the United Nations, with minor changes, for several years. In a related move, the OIC has pushed through the adoption of a measure that instructs the council’s rapporteur on freedom of expression to include in his reports “abuses of the right of freedom of expression” — in other words, criticism of Muslims or Islam. This measure surely qualifies as an Orwellian inversion, whereby an entity established to defend free speech is given responsibility for policing its alleged excesses.

Sophisticated Authoritarianism

In pursuing its antiblasphemy objectives, the OIC has remained unified despite the geographical diversity and political differences of its members. But it could not achieve majorities in international forums without the support of the world’s authoritarians: Pakistan’s cosponsors in the Human Rights Council were Belarus and Venezuela, both of whose governments have earned reputations as adversaries of free speech and press freedom.

The growth of transnational censorship reflects the sophistication of modern authoritarianism. Those who want to create intellectual “no-go areas” sometimes use violence to encourage self-censorship, as in the cartoon wars. They can raise the specter of diplomatic pushback, a technique favored by China, or seek to achieve restrictive measures in supranational bodies, such as the UN. Or they can take advantage of the legal systems of free societies, as with libel tourism.

The stakes for established democracies in the battle to limit free expression are dwarfed by the risks for those who already live under the authoritarian thumb. But if democratic societies choose to tolerate the threats to freedom where it currently prevails, they will forfeit the moral right to demand freedom where it is systematically denied.

Arch Puddington is director of research and Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. This article is adapted from a longer essay published in “World Affairs: A Journal of Ideas and Debate.” The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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