Sunday, November 1, 2015

Bloggers in authoritarian countries face both legal and physical threats, with the possibility of exportation

CNN has published several pieces recently about the dangers that bloggers face in authoritarian parts of the world, whether the “rule of law” is respected or not.

The most important piece seems to be an older one by Bob Dietz from April 1, 2015, link here.

In several countries, ranging from China to Malaysia even to Singapore (which, however authoritarian as Zakaria has pointed out, is more progressive in many areas) writers have been prosecuted or fined by the legal system for making criticisms of government or corporate operations that would be normal speech in western countries.  Several independent films have been made about the problems in China.

And in many other countries, most of them influenced by radical Islam, bloggers have been physically attacked (with the worst cases recently in Bangladesh as well as ISIS areas).  And some reports have a few writers in western countries being on so-far-unpublished “hit lists”.

This recalls the “fatwa” in the past against Salman Rushdie, even when he was living in Britain.  It also recalls the Hebdo shootings and the cartoon controversy, even in the US (with Pamela Geller and previously Molly Norris).

A western person would turn the question around.  If a government (or religious figure) cannot tolerate the presence of critical speech, doesn’t that give credibility to the speaker and spread the speaker’s message (possibly posthumously)?

In western societies, that is largely true.  Writers with unwelcome (or morally offensive, by current standards) content are often largely ignored and don’t become targets or controversial.

In non-democratic societies, there are usually fewer visible amateur speakers on the Internet (as there would have been none in print).  So those speakers that do show up may be more noticed, which could give political or religious leaders more reason to feel the possibility of loss of power or control.  Authoritarian leaders (especially those connected to fundamentalist religious ideas) may be less “rational” in terms of western standards of reasonable behavior and react to unwelcome speech with paranoia in a way that mental health people would call schizotypal.  But authoritarian systems also make more of the idea of personal “right-sizing” and discipline as a critical part of making their societies “stable” (and of course they often abuse this idea).  It does not matter, in this view, if the speaker’s content has real value;  the speaker has no right to a voice anyway until he (or she – often in a patriarchal context) comports with the social structure imposed from above.

This sort of thinking does sometimes affect speakers in the west.  The idea that one, if standing out and being noticed, could bring harm not only upon himself but upon other family members or those connected to the person, is something that an enemy overseas could try to exploit, even if this has happened very little so far.  Even in my own situation, with the eldercare situation I had for a number of years, I started feeling conscious of this idea, however remote, after 9/11, even though I had never really considered it in the 1990s when I wrote my first book.

The New York Times has a related story on the execution of a 17-year-old in Saudi Arabia for participation in protests and then beheading and "crucifixion".  There was even an online petition about this.

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