One of the most disturbing contradictions of the modern era: As the potential for rapid communications — through individuals and between media organizations and their readers/viewers — has grown and spread exponentially, government censorship and suppression have intensified across the globe.
Thanks to recent commentary in the well-respected Economist magazine, we learn: “In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.”
Freedom House is an independent, international monitor of free speech and the key role it plays in democracies. It’s 2019 report found, among other things, that last year 25 governments imposed internet blackouts. (Today, India has shut down all communications in Kashmir, threatening not only speech but the ability of hospitals and pharmacies to care for patients.)
The Economist reported, “The most repressive regimes have become more so: among those classed as ‘not free’ by Freedom House, 28% have tightened the muzzle in the past five years; only 14% have loosened it. ‘Partly free’ countries were as likely to improve as to get worse, but ‘free’ countries regressed. Some 19% of them (16 countries) have grown less hospitable to free speech in the past five years, while only 14% have improved.
Meanwhile, China is creating sophisticated systems for policing speech in its nation — including Hong Kong, an overreach that has led to staggering protests — and is expanding similar operations to limit free speech overseas.
The United States retains a relatively high ranking in the Freedom House’s 100-point index, which includes assessments of free-speech rights, other individual freedoms, elections and various factors in democracy. But the U.S. rating has dropped to 86 from 94. (Canada has the highest ranking, 99)
Part of the decline, according to Freedom House, is attributed to actions by President Donald Trump’s predecessors: For instance, George W. Bush’s surveillance program that authorized the bulk collection of private-communication metadata and the Barack Obama administration’s zealous crackdown on press leaks.
But the Economist, which favors capitalist democracies, and Freedom House had specific warnings about America under Trump.
Whether the concerns are Trump’s efforts to label reporting as “fake news” or to incite his supporters to beat down critics, his attacks have broken presidential norms and further polarized the nation.
Trump’s embrace of leaders of nations notoriously opposed to free speech — North Korea (Freedom House score 3), Saudi Arabia (7) and Russia (20) — provides Americans with no confidence that Trump will stand up for American values abroad or at home. Those nations’ opposition takes the form of incarceration under false pretenses, torture and murder.
As we often remind readers, freedom of speech is not limited to the press. When it is infringed or choked off, democracy and we the people are in peril.
This editorial first appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.