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Free speech is under attack, from Beijing to Istanbul Timothy Garton Ash

Source : theguardian

Wherever you look, free speech is under attack. In China, an independent-minded journalist disappears at the airport, one of many to be detained, censored and intimidated. In Egypt, an Italian student researching for his Cambridge University doctorate is found tortured and murdered, while hundreds of bloggers and activists have been detained. In Turkey, two prominent journalists are sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for publishing an important story about covert Turkish arms deliveries to Syria, while two more receive two-year sentences for reprinting cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. Since 2014 some 1,845 suits have been filed against people alleged to have “insulted” the thin-skinned Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The president’s chilling edict spills over into Germany, where the government has lamentably allowed proceedings to go forward against the comedian Jan Böhmermann, for reading out a satirical poem about the Turkish president. In Poland, well-known journalists vanish overnight from public service television, to be replaced by presenters more amenable to the now ruling Law and Justice party. Even in Britain, the Home Office interpretation of new counter-terrorism laws imperils free speech at universities. There are also real fears for the independence of the BBC, especially if the government appoints nearly half the board, as today’s white paper proposes.

For me this global pushback against free speech is especially depressing. I started working on a book about free speech some 10 years ago, and for the past five I have led a 13-language website – based at Oxford University, freespeechdebate.com – that analyses free speech issues around the world. I know personally some of the people now being persecuted, and in most places things have got steadily worse. A small but telling indicator is the growing number of contributors to the website who prefer to write under a pseudonym.

In the good old days of 2012 I was able to talk openly about our free speech project at a cafe bookshop in Beijing. Last year the same bookshop owner rather sheepishly asked me to steer off sensitive topics, even though I was talking about a book of mine officially published in China. At a conference on Chinese online media I heard an editor called Jia Jia speaking impressively about his efforts to pursue quality journalism, despite the well-known constraints. Later Jia Jia emailed me to say he had moved to Hong Kong. Yes, you guessed: he’s the journalist who disappeared as he was about to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong – and was then detained and questioned for more than a week.

Four years ago I did a public event with Egyptian bloggers, human rights activists and academics in a lecture theatre just off Tahrir Square in Cairo, where the Arab spring had blossomed just a year before. Many are now detained, silenced or in exile. A photojournalist known as Shawkan has been incarcerated for nearly three years and is due to go on trial next week, facing a possible death sentence. He ended a moving letter from prison with the words (in capitals): “KEEP SHOUTING, JOURNALISM IS NO CRIME.”

Also back in that far-distant 2012, we held a panel discussion in Istanbul, where there were still residual hopes that the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) would return to the more tolerant and pro-European form of its early years in power. The journalists and academics who talked so freely then are now facing angry crowds stirred up by AKP tweets and jibes, the closure or takeover of leading newspapers, prosecution and persecution. One of them, Can Dündar, the editor of Cumhuriyet, was threatened by a man with a gun outside the court that would condemn him to more than five years’ imprisonment. So now we find ourselves doing a panel on free speech in Turkey, not in Istanbul, but in Oxford, where the former editor of the closed-down newspaper Radikal has taken refuge.

Obviously developments in Poland are not to be equated with those in Turkey, let alone Egypt or China. But according to the Polish journalists’ union more than 140 journalists have been dismissed, forced to resign or demoted since the Law and Justice party gained power last autumn. Public service television has been renamed “national” television, and gives far more space to the government’s line. The position in Britain is better than in Poland, but the latest reforms do threaten the editorial independence of the BBC.

There are many separate causes of these regressions, but together they add up to something like an anti-liberal tide. What can we do? Pay attention. Shout loudly. Make sure free speech is secured at home. Support those defending it in far more difficult conditions abroad. My new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles For a Connected World, identifies the key battlefields and lays out a set of basic liberal principles around which we can rally, whether the threat comes from an authoritarian government, a private superpower such as Facebook, or lone internet trolls.

And where do we find the British government taking a stand? Pretty much nowhere. Told by a friend that I was writing this article, Dündar, the Turkish editor facing more than five years in prison, emailed: “During this entire saga, it has particularly attracted my attention that the British government preferred not to utter even a single word. This should be embarrassing for the government of a country that takes pride in its democracy.” I suspect his counterparts in Russia, China and Egypt feel much the same.

Last year the permanent secretary of the Foreign Office told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee that human rights is “not one of our top priorities”. Now a report by that committee delicately notes that “while the minister strongly rejected the suggestion that the FCO has deprioritised human rights, the written evidence that we received indicates that there is plainly a perception that this has occurred”.

It is time that the British government corrected this, er, perception. Those now fighting for freedom of expression around the world should perceive more support from the land of John Milton, John Stuart Mill and George Orwell.

• Timothy Garton Ash is discussing his new book with Shami Chakrabarti, Jonathan Freedland, Kenan Malik and Rowan Williams at Conway Hall, central London, on 24 May, 7:30pm

Source : theguardian

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Article posted on 07/03/2016

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