The information revolution is facing a counterrevolution. At an increasing and alarming rate, free expression is under assault, as described in two recent reports from organizations based in cities reeling from the aftermath of attacks on free expression.
The World Press Freedom Index 2015, issued by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, includes data compiled before the horrific Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks. And yet the report still states that there was a “worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from nonstate operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”
Nations such as China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea (the bottom five out of 180 nations ranked) made the list. But the index shows that beyond perennial offenders, two-thirds of countries performed worse than the previous year. Overall, violations of press freedom increased 8 percent.
These violations are more violent in some nations (or failed states), as evidenced by journalists being beheaded, among other grim fates. “It’s a very concerning trend, a new barbaric propaganda,” said Delphine Halgand, U.S. director for Reporters Without Borders. “When there are conflicts on the ground, there are information wars at the same time. This obsession to control the information, we can observe during conflict, but also during economic crises and during social crises.” And it doesn’t just happen in Syria or Somalia or similar societies, but from “the strongest democracies and from the most awful terrorist groups. There is this common obsession to control information.”
In part this is because there’s so much more information to control. The information revolution’s technological transformations have created more outlets and as a result more journalists, including everyday citizens. The threat this poses to power structures results in an attempt to silence the reporting cacophony.
And it’s not just journalists — artists are targeted, too.
That’s the conclusion of a separate report issued by Freemuse, a Copenhagen-based international organization that advocates for musicians’ and artists’ rights to freedom of expression.
Freemuse verified 237 attacks and violations against artistic freedom in 2014, up from 199 in 2013. Like the Press Freedom Index, countries like China, Russia, Turkey and Iran were among the world’s worst offenders. And the documented cases are only “the tip of the iceberg,” Magnus Ag, senior program officer at Freemuse, said from Copenhagen. There are many more instances of intimidation, pre-censorship and resulting self-censorship, as well as outright artistic bans not documented in the report.
Because free expression exposes those in power, there are several similarities between artistic and press repression, including its global nature, the type of perpetrators and its corrosive social effect.
“We see it all over the world, we see it by state and nonstate actors,” Ag said. “We see this as an increasing problem, as artists play a vital function in any democracy and any society to express things that other people might not be able to express or want to express. Artists have a role in addressing issues that can be difficult to talk about in other ways. It’s an essential part of society that these artists are able to make those expressions. If an artist is silenced, it’s not just the artist that suffers, it’s the whole society, and it’s all the citizens. You have a right to take part in cultural life.”
Before his Freemuse advocacy, Ag did similar work with the Committee to Protect Journalists. He said artists work more individually, while journalists are often (or in Europe, usually) unionized, so they often speak collectively. And journalists, by their nature and profession, document trends.
The missions are interrelated, Halgand said. Groups like Reporters Without Borders, she said, “defend freedom of information, which we believe is the most important freedom because it is the freedom for all of us to verify the existence of all other freedoms.”
Reporters Without Borders, Freemuse and similar groups have a common mission of making the world safer for freedom of expression. And both Halgand and Ag can directly attest to what happens when it isn’t.
Ag said the attacks on a free-speech seminar and a synagogue in Copenhagen triggered an “immediate fear and then a very powerful response from society saying, ‘We don’t want to be a closed society. We don’t want to be afraid. We don’t want to be bullied by these kinds of incidents. We want to stand up for freedom of expression, for democracy.’ But of course there’s also the ‘Are you going to the next freedom-of-expression event?’ ” This insidious doubt, Ag said, can lead to self-censorship. “And that’s where I see a danger to Western society in a place like Denmark.”
Millions responded similarly, saying “something beautiful in France,” Halgand said. “Charlie Hebdo was the symbol of ‘You attacked our freedom, and [we] say, ‘No.’ ”
But, Halgand lamented, since the attack, the Reporters Without Borders office in Paris is now under constant police protection, just like other media outlets.
Much more than the information revolution is at risk. A way of life is threatened. So counterrevolutionary forces cannot be allowed to win. As the French and the Danes did, people worldwide must say no to attacks on free expression.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.