Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Freedom of speech

As a follow-up of the previous slightly messy post on web debates, today's post is about the Reporters Without Borders and their annual list of countries that violate freedom of speech online. In these countries, bloggers, online journalists and activists are harassed or imprisoned. The list is shrinking - it's size is down to 13 from 15 last year. Check out the online freedom of speech campaign site and show your support.

The list (in alphabetical order):

  • Belarus (151)
  • Burma (-)
  • China (70)
  • Cuba (66)
  • Egypt (70)
  • Iran (105)
  • North Korea (-)
  • Saudi Arabia (70)
  • Syria (93)
  • Tunisia (51)
  • Turkmenistan (142)
  • Uzbekistan (151)
  • Vietnam (111)
Egypt is the only newcomer to the list, so while other countries have improved their ways (Nepal, Maldives and Libya were removed from the list this year), others adopt questionable policies. The violations are usually either limiting access to internet, filtering content (like for example China does on a large scale, with help from Western companies interested in getting to the Chinese market without concern about human rights), or more "traditionally" threatening and/or imprisoning people because of what they have to say.

On another but related note, Transparency International published their ranking list of countries according to perceived levels of corruption. Finland, Iceland and New Zealand top their Corruption Perception Index, and are therefore the countries that people see as being the least corrupt. In the Finnish news this is usually taken as an ego massage, and passed on as the good news of the day, but without really thinking about what this means. As I've said, I'm really proud of this Finnish achievement, much more so than any medals we've amassed in the driving-cars-fast-around-a-circle-until-bored-to-death -championships.

Freedom of speech and low corruption go hand in hand, although they are different animals. Corruption can be said to be a result of lack of freedoms of expression. The numbers in brackets after the list of freedom of speech violators are the Transparency International CPI rankings. "Lack of transparency" as a concept sums it well, and transparency is provided not only by having clear policies and rule of law, but also by having journalists and bloggers around to expose those who have wronged. The best way to reduce bribes, lubrication money and gifts with strings attached is to make the risk of getting caught high enough, and the punishment public enough.

Another, even more significant factor fueling corruption is poverty. The poorest country of the world, Haiti, is at the bottom of the list, while the countries on the top of the CPI list are all very rich. If public administrators are skint and there's no money to pay proper wages for the police etc., they are likely to abuse their position of authority and supplement their income by charging extra for their services.

But, it's not that simple. Russia, where freedom of speech has recently been hit hard by concentration of media ownership, harassment and even murders of journalists, has a strong tradition of corruption as well, but has enjoyed strong economic growth for a while. Even with a boom in economy and relative stability of government, the brown envelopes still change hands often enough to merit a dubious 121th position in the rankings. The Finnish-Russia border has been dubbed as the largest economic gap in the world; it's also the largest contrast in terms of corruption - a challenge for the border routines. In China as well, the economic boom has first resulted in increase of corruption, and now they are getting measures in place to curb it, and even very high party officials have been indicted. The problem is, at the same time freedom of speech is still going downhill, as if those in power were afraid that bad press would damage the economy.

One problem is that freedom from corruption is taken for granted in most European countries, so is freedom of speech. They usually only appear in speeches and policies, mentioned when you need some really high principles to associate yourself with. Unfortunately, it's much easier to praise one's own country for doing well on these than it is to start concrete action to improve the situation in places where problems arise. Short-term economic and political gains far outweigh the moral loss of dealing with corrupt regimes. I guess someone should calculate the value for freedom of speech and clean reputation, just like Stern et al. have calculated the value of environment.

Take Belarus for example. A country twice the population of Finland, located about as far West as Finland, except for being 500 kilometers more southern. Minsk is closer to Berlin, Paris or Brussels than Helsinki. Its area is almost the same as that of the Great Britain. Yet, we know nothing of it, and most Belarusians only know of us what the Lukashenko regime tells them. A country that is at the center of Europe is a reject, backwater black hole of a country, due to totalitarian and corrupt rule, without any transparency or freedom of expression. And we've been unable to do anything about it. I think we haven't wanted to, not enough.

(Pic: thanks to Khalidah Mufleh, found it on her blog entry about freedom of speech)

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