Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union have so many opponents of free expression quickly fallen from executive power.
Countries like Tunisia and Libya weren’t just unwelcoming to journalists; these countries were routinely listed as among the worst places on earth for those looking to report the truth. Merely alluding to Gaddafi’s brutality could leave a journalist with a bulleted skull and dumped in one of the despot’s mass graves. Few countries controlled and punished online dissent like Tunisia under Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was a symbol of a lifetime of repression and the West’s acceptance of it. Together, these three regimes assaulted free expression for nearly 100 years.
Nostalgia is a temptress who sometimes persuades us that our once-good world is racing for hell, but in terms of free speech, things are looking up. Reasons for this vary. It’s easy for Chinese officials to torch the offices of a newspaper, while it’s more difficult to maintain an Internet firewall. More than the availability of mobile and digital technologies, though, the eagerness of the repressed to defy their tormentors is freeing speech in many dark places. In Syria, despite curbside executions of thousands of demonstrators, dissent cannot be contained.
I don’t want to discount the real global dangers for dissenters that groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders list, for the perils are real. But freedom of speech throughout the world is expanding. Sure, liberties in some countries recede while elsewhere they advance. Myanmar is apparently relaxing its choke on some political speech, while media independence in Russia continues to degenerate. Life for Liberia’s journalists has drastically improved in recent years, while now Bahrain’s nervous dictatorship more vigilantly crushes criticism.
By and large, though, free speech is eroding dictators’ privileged silence. Even apart from the tyrants who were ousted in 2011 and the global protests currently in vogue, the world’s opponents of free speech are on the defensive. The world’s population will surpass 7 billion in a matter of days, and many of those billions haven’t used a computer. (Yet.) China, whose firewall is already porous, will in the coming years have to contend with tens of millions more hackers and saboteurs throughout the world targeting its insularity.
I’m not declaring victory. Dictatorships will exist long into the future, and many journalists in places like Mexico, Pakistan and Russia currently live in outright hell. But the capacity of autocrats to control their country’s conversation is slipping, and with it slides the longevity of their fiat.
There are no assurances that countries like Egypt and Libya won’t languish in sectarianism or military rule, or even that their environs for journalists will get any better. Libya “[doesn’t] have a credible institution in the entire country,” American University in Cairo President Lisa Anderson told The New York Times following reports of Gaddafi’s execution. A functioning, monitorial press does not exist in Libya. In Egypt, sectarian acrimony between some Muslims and Christians has the potential to frustrate and delay protection of civil liberties.
Still, it’s not unreasonable to expect that, whatever regimes may come, journalists in these countries will be able to do more accountability reporting. Gaddafi was Libya’s Maximilien Robespierre, and in his forty-two year terror executed thousands of dissenters who breathed the softest apprehension of the megalomaniac. In the latter years of his reign, Mubarak’s regime arrested on average more than a blogger every single day, according to figures provided by Reporters Without Borders (the regime incarcerated over 500 bloggers in 2008 alone). When regimes this vile are dumped in their rightful resting place, it usually gets easier to voice disagreement.
More broadly, though, free speech throughout the world is bulking up while its opponents weaken. Two thousand eleven in particular provided very real, bloody evidence of this, but the larger news is that the voices of the world’s dissenters are getting louder and harder to confront. The world’s repressed are audibly putting their enemies on notice.