Joel Hirst: The Free Expression Problems of Authoritarian Regimes

June 1, 2012 12:09 pm0 commentsViews:

Five years ago this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took RCTV off the air, Venezuela’s oldest and most important television channel, seizing its infrastructure, equipment and frequency.  I was there when this happened. From my perch I watched as the unarmed marchers protesting this attack on independent media and free expression – many of them women, children and the elderly – were beaten by police with batons, choked by tear gas, and arrested in droves.

Chavez’s objection to the channel was not to its famous “novelas” (soap-operas), which are an important part of the life of Venezuelans, especially the poor.  The act was elicited by the president’s hatred for programs like journalist (now National Assembly Deputy) Miguel Angel Rodrigez’s “The Interview,” whose content was critical of the government.  In Venezuela, as in other authoritarian regimes, the only voice the government wants to hear is its own.

In point of fact, in representative democracies there should be no monolithic voice of government.   Occasionally, when a spokesperson of an office or agency at the service of the people wishes to deliver a public interest announcement, they can, like any other citizen, use the mechanisms of the news media and a free internet.  Authoritarian regimes that do not see their role as representing their people but instead controlling them violate this principle, and then go further.  They believe not only that their monolithic governments should have their own voice but also that theirs should be the only voice.  Dissenting ideas, critical opinions, and the truth are dubbed treason and dealt with harshly.

In Venezuela, the Chavez regime has co-opted or seized dozens of television and radio stations.  In Ecuador President Correa has unleashed an assault on the press which included multimillion dollar fines for one opinion piece he considered defamatory  (international pressure eventually led Correa to issue a pardon).  In China, powerful internet filters are used to limit the people’s access to certain information; and in Russia bloggers are jailed.  In Cuba, the installation of a highly touted $80 million fiber optic cable linking the island with Venezuela did not improve connectivity for the Cuban people, proving once again that the totalitarian regime is keeping its people in the dark intentionally.

Freedom of information, speech and communication is one of democracy’s most prized possessions.  It is first in line in the U.S. Bill of Rights and is defended unwaveringly by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It is only through the robust debate of ideas that citizens are engaged, governments are held to account, and solutions to common problems are found.  As Marcel Granier, President of RCTV, has said in a video interview for the Freedom Collection, “[we must] find ways to reestablish democracy and pluralism and respect for other people’s lives and opinions in Venezuela.”   This can only be done through a free, fearless, and introspective media that is respected by a democratic government.

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