According to advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, free speech is in a steady decline worldwide. Most Westerners may read this report and think that this is due to Political Correctness run amok, and places like universities are placing more and more restrictions on what you can and cannot say. However, this isn’t the case.
Most of the decline in free speech recorded happened in the Americas, with Latin American countries like Mexico becoming increasingly dangerous for reporters and journalists. An article by Vice News in February was even titled “Another Reporter Was Murdered in Veracruz, Mexico – And Journalists Are Terrified“.
Meanwhile, the region with the least amount of press freedom remains Asia, which houses five of the six least free nations on Earth (Vietnam at 175th, China at 176th, Syria at 177th, Turkmenistan at 178th and North Korea at 179th).
Ever since the appointment of Xi Jinping as Communist Party Chairman, China has seen a steep decline into authoritarianism that has not been felt since the days of Mao. Xi has expanded his hold on citizen’s speech by imprisoning those whom he deems to be undermining him, including booksellers who stocked a book critical of Xi. However, possibly the worst aspect of Xi’s increasing grasp on freedom of speech has been his development of the Social Credit Score.
The Social Credit Score is a system currently open to the Chinese public (but will be mandatory by 2020) which seeks to value citizens. It works like a Credit Score at a bank, with a higher score indicating a better person. However, it calculates this based on the actions a citizen performs. If they are active and exercise, their score goes up. If they slouch and play video games, their score goes down. This seems harmless, beneficial even, but it has a darker side. Sharing a link which applauds the Chinese government will raise a score, and discussing the government in a negative light will lower the score.
A lower score will result in a lower likelihood of getting a job or travel visa. Additionally, merely being associated with a person with a low score will bring one’s score down, effectively forcing swathes of the Chinese population to isolate their friends who are anti-government, creating social pressures on communities, effectively gamifying being a loyal citizen.
When we discuss freedom of speech and the restrictions on it, one imagines an Orwellian government patrolling its people, preventing any form of disagreement. While this might be true in places like North Korea or Eritrea, it is not how most restrictions work. The vast majority of reporters who are imprisoned or killed aren’t necessarily tackling the federal government, but are reporting on crime and corruption.
Most of the reporters killed in Mexico are believed to be harmed because of their reporting on low level government corruption and links to crime. Most nation’s restrictions aren’t codified, but unspoken. For example, take Cambodia.
Cambodia is ranked 128th out of 180 countries. Being in the lower third of the list isn’t admirable, indicating extreme restrictions. However, the newspaper Phnom Penh Post, one of the biggest in Cambodia, regularly writes articles which could be considered anti-government. It gets away with it, whereas others who commit similar acts are punished harshly. Why the discrepancy?
The Phnom Penh Post can get away with free speech because it is an English language newspaper. While it does publish in Cambodia’s native Khmer, it is targeted towards an Anglophone culture. Because of this, the government fears retribution if it were to strike against the paper, as the reporters are Western and thus have more power. It is corruption that stifles free speech, but it is also corruption which saves it.
That is just one example among many highlighting the problems with free speech. In Cambodia’s case, it manages to create a two-tier society with Westerners on the top and the native Khmer on the bottom. Of course, there is the obvious problem of free speech being a pillar of a free and just society, and infringements on it being a sign of authoritarianism. Which is what makes a Pew poll showing an average of 49% of Europeans supporting at least some restrictions on free speech all the more alarming.
The reason why I am writing this is because nowadays, free speech is in the news quite a bit. What disappoints me is that the issues discussed aren’t how to prevent a two-tier society from being formed by free speech restrictions, or how whole groups of people in a country of over 1 billion are being socially isolated by their friends for having the wrong opinion. No. What is talked about (or shouted, rather) is whether we should ban books like Huckleberry Finn due to its racist language or Looking for Alaska (the most banned book in America, 2015) because of its sexual content.
I know that the argument of “Why don’t you focus on something more important?” is fallacious, but hear me out. Ecolint is an international school, and thus should focus on international issues. Whilst we here at The Update certainly have our biases, we try to focus on global issues, like the murders of journalists in Bangladesh, the problems of remilitarization in Japan, or the global impact of 9/11 fourteen years on.
If we become more and more insular in our interests, only focusing on the problems that immediately face us where we are, we leave out far bigger problems which affect far more people across the globe. Many of these people are unable to fight for their own rights because of dangers facing them.
Whilst it might be impossible for us to solve their problems, we can at least make sure we know about them. These are people who are chafing in caves of oppression, begging for the ability to scream. The least we can do is lend them a mouth.