The Open Net Initiative lists more than forty countries that use Internet filtering software to block information from their people and, again, the offending nations are not temples of calm: Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Vietnam, North Korea. Repressing speech can generate security for a certain period of time, but such situations often erupt. “For periods of time there can be suppression,” said Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin at a recent lecture in Cairo, “but the odds are against its enduring success. I would not bet on the enduring capacities of the censors.”
It may seem that a country like China has managed to improve living standards while suppressing political speech, but “China has not yet found a way to solve the problem of demands for political participation that tend to accompany rising per capita income,” wrote scholar Joseph Nye, and one day it must. Repression buys only temporary security. And in terms of economic security, “any country that wants to participate fully in the economic life of the planet today must open itself to what to some regimes must feel is dangerously free expression,” wrote former Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller.
Some nations are seeming exceptions. Oman and Singapore, for example, have suppressed speech, enjoyed development, and experienced very little unrest. Even Oman, though, has experienced large political demonstrations this year, as well as violent riots. “Nondemocratic countries like Oman,” Robert Kaplan wrote in his book Monsoon, “often evince efficiency when things are going well, but when problems arise in such systems the population, especially if it is young, can become quite restive.” And Singaporeans will likely demand more of a political say when the country’s avuncular founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and his politically crowned progeny pass from power, and the regime will likely be less able to sue critics for libel loosely defined.
Other nations, like Tunisia and Egypt, at times feigned so much stability that they attracted millions of tourists per year. “The absurd dictatorship gives such an illusion of stability that the place is often a holiday destination,” wrote Paul Theroux in The New York Times. Lebanon’s soft power and its ability to attract tourists and investors, however, have more to do with its perceived openness and its tireless optimism than any illusory sense of security.
In 2009, as the financial crisis ravaged global markets, investors around the world flooded Beirut’s banks with deposits, Vali Nasr wrote in Forces of Fortune, due to the fact that Lebanese banks largely operated outside the then-toxic markets of New York and London as well as the perception that Lebanon’s economic system is relatively transparent and open. This was a country whose main civilian airport was bombed by Israel in 2006—not a typical draw for jet-setting investors. Still, Middle East Report has maintained that Lebanon has the freest financial markets of any state in the region.
While Lebanon has non-sham national elections, it is its other “[f]unctioning institutions—rather than mere elections—[that] are critical, particularly in complex societies,” Kaplan wrote. The openness of its functioning institutions, especially its press, is why Lebanon is not a failed state.
The press system in Lebanon is certainly not among the world’s freest, so let’s not compare it to Sweden. Lebanese political leaders often enjoy special protections from journalistic gnashing, and reporters occasionally have unjust and punitive libel judgments brought against them for simply doing their job.
And when repressive regimes are forced by their people to open up, there can be chaos, sure. When uprisings occur in “states [with] different ethnic, tribal, sectarian and political orientation and [have] a loose coalition of Western and Arab states with mixed motives trying to figure out how to help them,” wrote Thomas Friedman, “well, folks, you’re going to end up with some very strange-looking policy animals” for a time. But an open press is a long-term sustaining force. Kaplan argued that India opening up decades ago to “civilian rule, unsatisfactory as it was, allowed for [its] gradual emergence as a stabilizing, regional behemoth.”