The Freedom of Expression
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Posted 14 January 2012 - 12:29 PM
I just heard a very interesting program on the topic of Freedom of Expression in regards to the Arab Spring revolutions on BBC
T.G. Ash made some very strong points that are worth re-considering.
BBC Form TheForum - BBC World Service
This week: Freedom of Expression. How free should it be? Oxfordprof. Timothy Garton Ash tells us why we should aspire to a world with notaboos. For pianist Jonathan Biss, complete freedom is a pre-requisite for anyartistic endeavour. But Middle East Politics Professor, Fawaz Gerges, warns ofself-censorship and hidden barriers. Where are your limits? Are there somelines you simply wont cross?
The Freedom of Expression. How free shall it be?
It is a little noticed fact that the London School of Economicsdoctoral thesis that bears the name "Saif Al-Islam Alqadhafi" makesthe case for the military intervention that resulted in his capture, currentdetention, and possible death sentence at the hands of what may pass in Libyafor justice. Perhaps in his pre-trial captivity, Dr Gaddafi will have a chanceto reflect upon the words he once supposedly wrote.
"The international order," says this thesis,"has a responsibility to protect the basic rights of those citizens wholive under non-liberal governments" (such as, the reader cannot resistadding, his dad's). An academic panel not to be confused with the inquiry by Lord Woolf, whose very critical report on the LSE'slinks with Libyawas published on Wednesday has yet to pronounce on charges of plagiarism madeagainst this thesis. But whoever wrote it, it does not stop there. In theversion available online it argues for a so-called collective managementsystem, involving representatives of civil society and business as well asgovernments. And "to the extent that the mechanisms of the collectivemanagement system succeed in providing a way to give voice to the citizens ofilliberal states, then interventions can be at the invitation of theseindividuals. When the top levels of the system decide to intervene in anotherstate's affairs, it is therefore an action that has originated from the will ofthe people at the bottom-most levels."
Translated into plain English, this surely means that whenleaders of the Libyan uprising in Benghazi pointed out that Dr Gaddafi's dadwas threatening to hunt them down "alley by alley" showing "nomercy", and they asked for outside assistance, that helped justify an aircampaign called for by Nicolas Sarkozy and sanctioned by the UN. The resultingNato air strikes reportedly cost Dr Gaddafi the use of several fingers on hisright hand. They also tipped the balance in favour of anti-Gaddafi forces onthe ground, leading to the killing of his father (a French jet having just shotup his convoy) and the subsequent seizure of Saif.
Extraordinary photos taken soon after Saif's capture showed him in desertgarb, his face and hair coated with sand, as if for a theatrical portrayal ofdeath: the mask for a masque. What worlds away from the neat, western-dressedfigure who had sat in front of Professor Lord Meghnad Desai to defend his LSEthesis just a few years earlier, presumably discussing such deathless themes as"the '3x3=3' model as a system of multi-level governance" (section5.7) and "Collective management and cosmopolitan multi-levelcitizenship" (5.8).
"Yet," that thesis judiciously continues,"the difficulties involved in any decision to intervene across borders,and the dangers of 'liberal imperialism', remain, and the likelihood thatmilitary interventions could be justified, given [the] unpredictableconsequences of such action, remains low." Fair comment.
"After Libya"is a good moment to take stock of what is sometimes called liberalintervention. I've recently heard two contrasting views: one from a formerAmerican ambassador, the other from a serving British one. Peter Galbraith wasa protagonist of USintervention in former Yugoslavia,where he served as ambassador to Croatia,but has become a fierce critic of the massive, costly incompetence anddisastrous unintended consequences of US-led interventions and bunglednation-building efforts in Iraqand Afghanistan.
Yet, looking back over the 20 years since the end of thecold war, Galbraith sees four "modest successes": Kuwait(the first Gulf war), Bosnia,Kosovo and now Libya.They have, he argues, some features in common. The military action wasrelatively brief, and much of it from the air. The interventions had broadinternational and regional support. The action relied upon local partners. Theobjectives were limited.
How can Galbraith already claim Libyaas a success? Because success is defined as the achievement of that limitedobjective: reversing a current or seemingly imminent mass killing of civilians(Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya), or an armedoccupation (Kuwait).Yes, Libyatoday is no Switzerland,nor is it likely to be. If things again become really horrible there andreputable observers have already documented human rights abuses by thecountry's liberators you deal with that as it comes. "Modestsuccess" is defined also by the modesty of the goal against which it ismeasured.
Sir John Jenkins, Britain'sambassador to Libyaand former ambassador to Iraq,will not settle for that. He recognises all the elements that made the Libyanaction different and better than that in Iraq,emphasising particularly the support from the Arab League. But he argues thatthe lesson often drawn from the chequered record of these interventions overtwo decades namely, that "state-building is a mug's game" isprecisely the wrong one. The right lesson is that "state-building is whatwe have to get right". So the success of the intervention can only beclaimed in the longer run, if the state it affects (or creates, in the case ofKosovo) turns out to be significantly better than it had been for some timebefore and not just better than in the moment of maximum humanitarian danger.What Libya,like other Arab states, needs is "legitimate, accountable, removeablegovernment".
There's no doubting the seriousness of Jenkins's concern fora region he knows very well, but Galbraith is right on the immediate point.Liberal, humanitarian interventions must be rare, exceptional responses toextreme, inhumane circumstances, and should be judged above all by theirachievement in averting or reversing the disaster.
This is pretty much what the now UN-endorsed doctrineof "responsibility toprotect" (R2P) says. This is elaborated in a series of UNdocuments and other studies notably a pathbreaking one by aCanadian-sponsored international commission. It sets a very demanding set ofconditions, starting with the presence of an extreme humanitarian crisis butincluding such criteria as right intention, proper authority, last resort andproportional means. There should also be a "reasonable prospect" thatthe suffering can be averted or halted and the consequences of inaction arelikely to be worse than those of action. I think we can already say this of Libya.If the Gaddafis had been allowed to crush the people in Benghazi,it would be worse today.
But then comes the objection often raised in America'sIraq debate,quoting the familiar sign in an antique shop: "If you break it, you ownit." To this there are two answers. First, the west didn't"break" Libyain the sense that it did break Iraq,in a war of choice not justified under the true principles of R2P. Morefundamentally: the world is not an antique shop. Countries are not porcelainfigurines to be picked up and carelessly smashed by visiting Americans.
Change the metaphor and think of it like this. You see yourneighbour's two-year-old daughter being savaged by his rottweiler. What do youdo? If you are able to, you jump over the fence and beat the dog off with astout stick, or shoot it with your gun. You may take a special interest in thelittle girl's future from then on, but she doesn't become your daughter, youdon't "own" her. No more does the west "own" Libyajust because it made a limited, justified intervention there.
WikiLeaks has altered the leaking game for good. Secretsmust be fewer, but better kept | Timothy Garton Ash
For whistleblowers, government and press, the age ofdigileaks cries out for new rules on what to hide and reveal
Suppose you know a secret that you think should be madepublic. How do you go about it? Suppose your organisation has secrets youbelieve must be guarded. What should you do? Suppose you are an editor, bloggeror activist, with the whistleblower huffing in your left ear and a governmentor company puffing in your right. Where do you draw the line?
One answer to the first question comes from Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former member of the WikiLeaks team.His OpenLeaks initiativeaims to provide an untraceable "digital dropbox" in which would-bewhistleblowers can deposit their digital troves. However, OpenLeaks would notitself select and publish material, as WikiLeaks did when it edited andtitled Collateral Murder a video taken from an American helicopter gunship in Iraq as it killed12 people, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two children.
As Domscheit-Berg explained it to me when we met earlierthis year, the leaker would decide which from a select list of media and NGOpartners he or she would like the material to go to. So, for example, anenvironmentalist whistleblower might say: "I like Greenpeace, and I trustthem to use my documents in the right spirit." Someone in the Germandefence ministry might say: "I trust Der Spiegel to publish thisresponsibly." And so on. All the editorial judgments would lie with theparticipating news organisation or NGO. OpenLeaks would be a neutral, technicaltransmission mechanism the guardian of secrecy in the cause of openness.
Domscheit-Berg is a tall, thin, intense, almost painfullyidealistic young German. Passionate about the value of freedom of information,he wishes everyone to have the chance of their "five minutes ofcourage". This, as he points out, can be all it takes to press the buttonand transfer mountains of dirt. If he wants to be really scrupulous about this,maybe he should also give them five hours of reflection afterwards, in casethey think better of it.
I shall be interested to see how OpenLeaks fares. In a phoneconversation yesterday, Domscheit-Berg told me that they hope to launch in thelate spring or early summer, probably with a modest initial slate of threemedia and three NGO partners. The technical difficulties of ensuring cast-ironanonymity for the source, especially against a powerful opponent such as the USor Chinese government, remain considerable. Even though OpenLeaks will arguethat it does not have any legal responsibility for publication, it will surelyface legal challenges. Meanwhile, leading newspapers such as the New York Timesand the Guardian are also considering setting up their own "leak here"facilities.
In whatever way this process unfolds, every government,company, university and other organisation must assume that there will be moreanonymised digital leaking or digileaks, for short. The next question istherefore to the potentially leaked-against, rather than the would-be leaker.How do you strike the balance between transparency and secrecy? Even secretservices and Swiss banks now nod towards openness. Yet I know of noorganisation in the world that is 100% transparent. Everyone has something theywant to hide and some things they can reasonably argue that they arejustified in hiding. Often the two do not exactly coincide. Witness, forexample, the hilarious spectacle of Julian Assange protesting furiously at leaks from inside WikiLeaks.
Newspapers, dedicated to openness, fight to keep secrettheir sources' identity. So do human rights organisations, arguing thatotherwise their informants might be in danger from repressive and corruptregimes. The anti-corruption movement Transparency International can't bewholly transparent. There is, if you will, a dialectic here. But there can alsobe hypocrisy: demanding of others what you are not prepared to do or have doneto yourself. (The private lives of tabloid editors spring to mind.) There is afine line between ethical dialectics and rank hypocrisy.
So what should an organisation do? I suggest two guidingprinciples. First, be open about your grounds for secrecy, transparent aboutyour non-transparency. Have clear criteria and be ready to defend them. Theyshould be able to withstand the following, somewhat paradoxical test: if thispiece of information became public, could you credibly explain why it shouldnot have become public?
Thus, for example, there is absolutely no good defence forkeeping secret the American helicopter gunship video. What it showed was atbest a terrible blunder in the fog of war, at worst a war crime. It should havebeen investigated and published. On the other hand, when it comes to thedetails of secret peace negotiations between Palestinian and Israelirepresentatives, leaked to al-Jazeera and published in the Guardian, you couldargue that there was a genuine public interest in keeping those secret. Howelse can negotiators have the confidence to explore the publicly unsayable, inthe pursuit of peace? By the time you get to foreign correspondents being takenhostage, you find newspapers themselves being active practitioners ofconcealment.
My second guiding principle is: protect less, but protect itbetter. There is a vast amount of stuff that governments and organisations keepsecret for no good reason. That was the premise behind the campaigns for morefreedom of information, now conceded by many democratic governments and ithas been proved right. Daylight was let in to dusty rooms, and the business ofgovernment did not collapse. Reading the USstate department cables inthe database that the Guardian made from the Wikileaks trove, I foundreports classified as secret that could easily have appeared as news analysispieces in a newspaper.
So: decide what you really do need to keep secret, onconsistent, defensible criteria, and then do your damnedest to keep it secret.Don't, for example, upload it to a database accessible to hundreds of thousandsof people. If following this second commandment results in a reduction in theamount of printed paper and emails in circulation, that will itself be aservice to the rainforests and everyday sanity.
But what if something radioactive still leaks out from thesmaller secret core, whether via the OpenLeaks mechanism or in other ways?Should Ms Ethical Journalist blushingly avert her eyes and hand it back unread,exclaiming "Deary me, I really shouldn't be seeing this"? The hellshe should. It is the business of government to keep its secrets. It is thebusiness of the press to find them out.
The press here used in the broadest sense, to includecitizen bloggers and activist NGOs then makes its own judgment calls aboutwhat is in the public interest and what will be unacceptably damaging. The lawsets the outer boundaries for this age-old game of hide-and-seek. The callsmade by the journalist will not be the same as those made by the minister orthe company director, or the hospital boss, or the university vice-chancellor.Each plays their part, and the result is one of democracy's most important setsof checks and balances.
Digileaks change democracy as graphite rackets changedtennis. Whether they make it better or worse will depend on the rules, theumpires and the players.
Tunisia'srevolution isn't a product of Twitter or WikiLeaks. But they do help | TimothyGarton Ash
The internet alone won't set anyone free. Between northAfrica and Belarus,we are learning just what it can and can't do
'The Kleenex Revolution"? Somehow I think not. Unless,that is, you follow Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. In a televised denunciation of the popularuprising that has deposed his friendly neighbouring dictator, he ranted:"Even you, my Tunisian brothers, you may be reading this Kleenex and emptytalk on the internet." (Kleenex is how Gaddafi refers to WikiLeaks.)"Any useless person, any liar, any drunkard, anyone under the influence,anyone high on drugs can talk on the internet, and you read what he writes andyou believe it. This is talk which is for free. Shall we become the victims ofFacebook and Kleenex and YouTube?" To which, since the speaker is anotherdictator, I devoutly hope that the answer is "Yes". Let Kleenex wipethem away, one after another, like blobs of phlegm.
But will it? What contribution do websites, social networksand mobile phones make to popular protest movements? Is there any justificationfor labelling the Tunisian events, as some have done, a "TwitterRevolution" or a "WikiLeaks Revolution"?
A remarkable young Belarussian activist-analyst, EvgenyMorozov, has just challenged the lazy assumptions behind suchpolitico-journalistic tags in a book called The Net Delusion, which went to press before theTunisian rising. The subtitle of the British edition is "How Not toLiberate the World". Morozov has fun deriding and demolishing the naivelyoptimistic visions which, particularly in the United States, seem to accompany the emergence ofevery new communications technology. (I remember an article a quarter-centuryago entitled "The fax will set you free".)
He shows that claims for the contribution of Twitter andFacebook to Iran'sgreen movement were exaggerated. These new technologies can also be used bydictators to watch, entrap and persecute their opponents. Above all, he insiststhat the internet does not suspend the usual workings of power politics. It ispolitics that decides whether the dictator will be toppled, as in Tunisia,or the bloggers beaten and locked up, as in Morozov's native Belarus.
His challenge is salutary but, like most revisionists,Morozov exaggerates in the opposite direction. Tunisiaoffers a timely corrective to his corrective. For it seems that here theinternet did play a significant role in spreading news of the suicide whichsparked the protests, and then in multiplying those protests. An estimated 18%of the Tunisian population is on Facebook, and the dictator neglected to blockit in time.
Along the educated young who came out in force, we can besure that the level of online (and mobile phone) participation was higher. Thescholar Noureddine Miladi quotes an estimate thathalf the Tunisian television audience watches satellite TV, and he notes:"Al-Jazeera heavily relied on referencing Facebook pages and YouTube inreporting the raw events." So professional satellite TV fed off onlinecitizen journalism.
Moreover, these media leap frontiers. A leading Britishscholar of the Maghreb showed me his Facebook page,which has many of his Maghrebian former students as Facebook friends. Severalof the Moroccans had turned their Facebook icons to the Tunisian flag, or aTunisia-Morocco love-heart, to show their enthusiasm for the first people-powertoppling of an Arab dictator in more than 45 years. That's a tiny group, to besure but elites matter, in opposition movements as in everything else.
Before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's fall, his regime had struckback against the netizens, mounting "phishing" attacks on Gmail andFacebook accounts, harvesting passwords and email lists of presumed opponents,and then arresting prominent bloggers such as Slim Amamou. This reinforcesMorozov's point that the internet is a double-edged sword: yet it is also aback-handed tribute to the importance of these new media. As I write, theformerly imprisoned Amamou has become a member of a new, interim coalition government.
Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow, but thus far theTunisian rising has been a hugely heartening development especially becauseit was an authentic, homegrown, largely spontaneous movement, with littleactive support from western powers.
(Sometimes quite the reverse: Francewas, until the very last minute, offering its security expertise to keep Tunisia'sLouis XVI in power. For shame, Madame Libertι, for shame.)
The transformed information and communications technologiesof our time played a role in enabling this rising to succeed. They did notcause it, but they helped. Specialists argue that Tunisia,with its small, relatively homogenous, urban, educated population, and (fornow) moderate, peaceful, largely exiled Islamists, can become a beacon ofchange in the Maghreb. If things go well, the internetand satellite TV will spread that news across the Arab world.
So yes, the internet furnishes weapons for the oppressors aswell as the oppressed but not, as Morozov seems to imply, in equal measure.On balance it offers more weapons to the oppressed. I think Hillary Clinton istherefore right to identify global information freedom in general, and internetfreedom in particular, as one of the defining opportunities of our time. Butthere are also dangers here, which Morozov usefully points out.
If the struggle for internet freedom is too closelyidentified with US foreign policy, and in turn with US companies such asGoogle, Facebook and Twitter which in personnel terms are beginning to havesomething of a "revolving door" relationship with the US government this can end up damaging the purpose it is meant to serve. Authoritarianregimes everywhere will redouble their efforts to censor and monitor thoseAmerican platforms that, not accidentally, among the best and most open wehave. Instead, these regimes will promote their own, more restricted nativealternatives, such as Baidu in China.
The USgovernment as a whole is also deeply inconsistent in its approach to internetfreedom. It berates Chinaand Iran forcovert monitoring of opponents while doing the same itself against those itdefines as threats to national security. It lauds global information freedomwhile denouncing WikiLeaks as, in Clinton'sextraordinary words, "a threat to the international community".
Again, Tunisiais instructive. Talk of a "WikiLeaks revolution" is as absurd as thatof a "Twitter revolution", but WikiLeaks revelations about what theUS knew of the Ben Ali regime's rampant corruption did contribute something tothe pot of misery boiling over. There was even a special website to disseminateand discuss the Tunisia-related US cables (tunileaks.org). Obviously, Tunisians did not need WikiLeaks totell them that their presidential family was a goon-protected self-enrichmentcartel; but having detailed chapter and verse, with the authority of the USstate department, and seeing how much the publicly regime-friendly Americansuperpower privately disliked it, and knowing that other Tunisians must knowthat too, since the American reports were there online for all to see allthis surely had an impact.
So if Clinton wishes to argue, as I believe she legitimatelycan, that the American-pioneered infrastructure of global information exchangehas contributed to the fragile rebirth of freedom in Tunisia, then she shouldreally put in a word of appreciation for WikiLeaks or for Kleenex, if youprefer the Gaddafi version. But do not hold your breath.
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