Civil society and free speech

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Zahid Hussain
Zahid Hussain

Award-winning journalist and published author

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.

Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade.  In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform, in which we ask the ‘unusual suspects’ to share their views on what reforms are necessary to make the rules-based order work for us all.

People want to live in a society where they enjoy freedom of thought and action, and can freely exercise the right to choose their government. Liberal democracies thrive on freedoms of expression and the press, complemented by the right to vote and access to justice.

Unfortunately, the past few years have seen a staggering growth in populism, virulent nationalism and authoritarian trends. The rise of authoritarian ‘strongmen’ has prompted the rollback of liberal democratic values in various parts of the world.

In many countries, majoritarianism – which seeks to assert racist, political and cultural hegemony – has reared its ugly face. The strengthening of right-wing extremist nationalism threatens not only democratic institutions but also regional security.

Freedom of expression is the principal target of authoritarianism. In fact, one of the symptoms of despotism is the creeping expansion ‘deep state’ power. By definition, ‘deep state’ refers to “organisations that are said to work secretly in order to protect particular interests and to rule a country without being elected”.

This repression is exerted either through direct censorship or other forms of pressure by security agencies

These attacks are not just about media gagging but also about enforced disappearances of those who dare to speak out. Punitive actions against the press serve as a means of suppressing pluralism in a society and impose a particular narrative. Freedom of expression has been one of the most significant triumphs of democratic movements and has helped strengthen civil society. Any move by a government or an unelected organisation to curb fundamental rights inevitably weakens the democratic process.

According to Freedom House, media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade. New forms of repression are now taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike. This suppression of press freedom is symptomatic of declining democratic space the world over.

Many nations that were once subject to long periods of totalitarian rule still see myriad fundamental freedoms curbed, including the right to expression. This repression is exerted either through direct censorship or other forms of pressure by security agencies. The weakening of democratic institutions gives non-governmental forces a greater opportunity to get more deeply involved in manipulating politics as they attempt to thwart basic rights.

More worrisome, however, is that even under democratically elected government there is now a move to stifle freedom of expression and plurality of views. The rise of right-wing populism has undermined basic freedoms in multiple democratic countries.

Only when the media is free to monitor, investigate and criticise the state’s policies and actions can good governance be established

The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack. The methods used include silencing critical media voices and strengthening plaint outlets. This is extremely toxic for a country’s political and social cohesion as a free discussion and debate on critical issues tends to increase faith in the state while suppressing free debate leads to more discontent.

Unannounced censorship of the media is a part of a wider plan. Media institutions may sometimes receive unsolicited ‘advice’ on what should or should not be telecast or printed — all in the name of ‘national interest’. In fact, the pressure can be so intense that oftentimes, even without receiving such ‘advice’, editors indulge in self-censorship in an attempt to remain on the right side of the powers that be.

Indeed, there is a need for the media to become more responsible and maintain a higher degree of professionalism in the age of fake news. Freedom of expression comes with a sense of responsibility. But curbing that freedom, whatever the pretext, does not help instil a more ethical culture. Instead, such punitive actions only sharpen polarisation and encourage non-professionalism, such as the move to create a parallel pliant media.

Journalism is the act of bringing information and unprejudiced opinion into the public domain. It provides a platform for discussion across a range of political, social and development issues. Only when the media is free to monitor, investigate and criticise the state’s policies and actions can good governance be established.

Civil society and the media should work together to make governments and states more accountable and to help bolster public support for good governance

Free, pluralistic and independent news media contributes to social, economic and political development. The job of the media is to provide credible information representing a plurality of opinions, facts and ideas. Freedom of press and freedom of expression are integral parts of a democracy. Civil society has a critical role to play in the struggle for free and independent media and in upholding liberal democratic values.

Civil society and the media should work together to make governments and states more accountable and to help bolster public support for good governance. Civil society can take initiative to build a broader coalition to counterbalance forces of authoritarianism and defend liberal democratic values.

Both civil society and the media can build a culture of tolerance and bring together communities belonging to different races and faiths. Efforts should also be made to initiate dialogue with the government on critical issues of governance. The media can and should act as a watchdog by providing accurate, balanced and timely information that is of interest to the public.

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