The Walls of Silence

A talk at the seminar TransEuropaExpress – I Nostri Muri/Our Walls, in Rome, Casa della Letteratura Oct. 28-31, 2009

20 years ago the Berlin wall fell, which meant the end of half a century of non-freedom of the Eastern half of Europe. Since then, most of the region has re-established a democratic order and reunited with the rest of Europe. What followed the bloodless revolution of 1989 – that historian and writer Timothy Garton Ash has called “one of the best years of Europe’s history”, was a moment, even a decade, of Fukuyaman optimism, dominated by faith in the inevitable progress of liberal democracy all over the continent.

Twenty years on, amazingly enough, we see demonstrations in defense of free speech – not in the areas on the edges of Europe that are still struggling with their authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, but in the heart of “old Europe” and the cradle of our concept of the rule of law. Just weeks ago this month, Oct 3 there was a demonstration against the PM Silvio Berlusconi’s attempts to stifle media criticism. Mr. Berlusconi controls a significant part, albeit not all of, Italy’s media, but the demonstrations were provoked as his lawyers launched defamation suits against Italy’s two major newspapers, La Repubblica and L’Unità for “posing offensive questions to the prime minister” and “reporting comments by the foreign press which are harmful to the prime minister”. According to index on censorship, the media are also being tamed through TV channels’ personnel politics and pressure on advertisers to intervene in editorial decisions.

This anomaly in the heart of democratic Europe is a reminder that the freedom we enjoy in Europe after the Wall and the Curtain have come down, is not self-evident, we cannot take it for granted: unless knowingly cherished and protected, the liberties we love can glide away right under our noses without us even realizing what is actually happening.

Berlusconi’s attack on the freedom of speech of his people is just one symptom among many in the world where many new walls are being raised in the place of the ones that were torn down two decades ago. The walls of silence, surrounding uncomfortable topics, are still there in such nominally democratized but de facto still authoritarian regimes as Russia or Belarus, or wider in the world, as in Chavez’s Venezuela or the theocratic Iran. The nature of autocracies has changed: we are no longer dealing with a black-and-white ideological opposition between the free world on the one side and an absolutist ideology on the other – but the stifling of liberties and the silencing of troublesome critics still goes on, and through the means of modern communication as well as economic interactions the effects of those walls are also felt here in Europe, its Western as well as Eastern halves.

Furthermore, silence is now often imposed through some of the institutions and interactions that we regard as essential constituents of liberal democracy. Those are free trade, free movement of people and goods, and increasingly and paradoxically, the justice system that has been designed to protect our rights and liberties. Borrowing the words of the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “the free movement of moneyed, corrupt and kleptocratic authoritarianism” is a new and intriguing factor affecting press freedom today. The former Polish dissident Adam Michnik talks about “a Europe of Berlusconi-ism”: a coalition of business, politics, the media, and the mafia. Ironic as it may be, open borders help spread not only the ideals of freedom, but also the lure of authoritarianism.

New challenges – from extremism to libel tourism

One of the challenges to free speech that there already has been much discussion about is posed by the politicized Islamic movement that claims to represent a growing segment of European population – while, in fact, it effectively silences that same minority it claims to represent, preventing them from critically and playfully scrutinizing their own cultural tradition the same way that native Europeans have done with theirs for centuries. Ironically, this pressure on free expression has been growing since the Eastern parts of Europe regained their freedom: ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie was issued in 1989, the year when the Wall fell. Since that time, we have developed a habit of self-censorship in religious issues, in particular those concerning Islam, so that fatwas are no longer needed – as the British author Kenan Malik eloquently argues, they are internalized to the extent that no one dares to “offend” the fundamentalists any more. As a result, art works have been removed from exhibitions, books remained unpublished, plays withdrawn and talk shows censored. Often those silenced, either for fear of violence or just out of a misguided sense of “respect”, are people belonging to or stemming from the minorities that are claimed to be thus “protected”. A symbolic figure of an European “other” that majority Europeans could not manage to deal with is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch author and human rights activist. Her story – she was practically chased out of Europe by the Dutch after becoming the target of Muslim extremists’ death threats – speaks volumes about Europeans’ controversial relationship to the Enlightenment tradition that lies at the foundation of our democracy and that Ali so ardently defended.

But religious extremism is just one of the forces that attempt to silence us in post-Wall Europe. Right next to us to the East, Russian friends of human rights have just memorized Anna Politkovskaya on the third anniversary of her death, while there is still no trace of the killers. Stanislav Markelov, Natalya Estemirova, Zarema Sadulayeva and many more – people who work for human rights or report about their violations, have been gunned down, without the perpetrators ever being found. According to the Russian analyst Irina Pavlova mass arrests and slave camps are no longer needed if the targeted silencing of some “dangerous” people sends a clear enough message to the rest. At the same time, Russia has harassed its neighbors and tried to prevent honest research of its own past. Instead of condemning Stalin’s crimes like Germany has done with Hitler’s, Russia is rehabilitating Stalin’s name and dismissing, even trying to criminalize, as “Nazis” those who speak honestly about his legacy.

While in Russia authoritarianism relies on thuggery and propaganda to suffocate critical discussions about the country’s past and present, European courts – most conspicuously, the British ones – are being increasingly used by people who prefer libel suits to open arguments when dealing with anything they disagree with. Libel laws are used, and abused, also by foreign authoritarian leaders, theocrats and oligarchs to silence their critics: censorship and fear physical violence is replaced by money and financial pressure. According to a recent Oxford University study (quoted by columnist Nick Cohen in Standpoint magazine) defamation cases in England and Wales cost 140 times more than the European average, which helps wealthy people from Arab oil sheiks to Ukrainian businessmen to buy justice in the English libel courts. Even some scientific arguments have been taken to courts instead of peer reviewed forums. The consequence is self-censorship again, as newspapers cannot risk the financial burdens of a libel suit, even if they are telling the truth.

The peak of the absurdity of the libel rumba comes, however, from Russia where Stalin’s grandson Jevgeni Dzhugashvili attempted to sue the newspaper Novaja Gazeta for allegedly “defaming the memory” of his grandfather. Luckily, the court did not take on the case, although there is still a possibility of appeal. As it is, libel laws do not protect the dead, but in this time of unending ways of taking offense, everything seems possible.

From ideology to business

As business interests intertwine with a political will of authoritarian leaders to silence their criticcs, advertisers and large corporations join the ranks of the new wall-builders. A sad recent example comes from a well-known Western publisher: the September issue of the Conde Nast magazine GQ carried a story on Russia’s secret service, but in fear of losing its Russian advertisers, Conde Nast refused to print the article in Russian or even promote the English version. Likewise, some Western technology companies have been reported to cooperate with authoritarian regimes, helping them control their citizens or to limit their access to information by offering programs that monitor and filter information traffic.

As President Ilves has emphasized in more than one of his recent speeches, during the Cold war we did not realize that free-market capitalism could be combined with political authoritarianism, and that indeed with the collapse of the clear ideological divisions, the merging of (Western) business interests and authoritarian political goals happens more easily than it did when the Wall was still there. While journalists in Russia are “eliminated” without even the need for bogus trials that used to be staged in the SU, the threshold for Western politicians and businessmen to cooperate with authoritarian states or state-owned companies in ways that compromise our traditional democratic values are much lower now than in the times of stiff ideological oppositions. Those compromises reach areas like energy and security policy and international relations; but they are also reflected in the way Western courts and businesses participate in the silencing of internal as well as external critics of authoritarian regimes and powerful persons within them.

The fact that the walls of silence can be erected without the help of traditional barbed-wire-areas and interrogation cells is a reminder that the freedom that our part of the world won back 20 years ago is fragile, it is easily put on sale, measured against competing values, like realpolitik, friendships, economic gain or particular conceptions of security. In 1989 and thereafter, not all leaders of the democratic world unconditionally supported the liberation of Eastern Europe: Finland’s president Mauno Koivisto declared in 1991 that he did not wish Estonia to become independent; and historians reveal that the Prime Minister of UK Margaret Thatcher was initially not enthusiastic about the idea of a unified Germany and president George Bush’s administration did not hope for a “too radical” revolution in the region. Even now realpolitik has not disappeared, it just changes forms; love of freedom is not an automatic instinct for all.

Hopeful signs

On the bright side, we see also signs that there is a will to preserve the openness we’ve got used to after the Wall fell. At the UN, a disputed resolution about the “defamation of religions” that would have, in effect, banned critique of religion, is being revised. Even the libel courts have made some decisions in favor of the defendants. Italians react actively to Mr. Berlusconi’s attempts to silence his critics and friends of free speech all over the world protest against the brutal silencing of journalists and activists in Russia. The European Parliament awarded its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the Russian civil rights defense organization Memorial this year, thus supporting their important work and sending a message to Moscow that the EU has not forgotten its values. So we cannot quite talk about the walls of silence rising without us even noticing it – just about warning signs that even in democracies, their non-existence is not self-evident.

It is also a positive sign, highly significant regarding Europe’s capacity to value its freedom, that Herta Müller, a writer who has documented life in totalitarian Romania, won the Nobel prize in literature this year. Müller’s description of her own experience with Ceausescu’s secret police, the Securitate, is a grim reminder of how people could be intimidated, threatened and pressurized in Europe not so long ago. Sadly, according to Müller, the nature of the former Securitate has not changed as much as one would expect in a country that now is a EU member state. Furthermore, the “softer” techniques that authoritarian powers use to isolate and compromise “unwanted” people, such as organized slander and propaganda (as opposed to killing, intimidation and torture) are being used in many places even now. Not everyone is happy about the outcomes of the 1989 revolutions and thus, propaganda efforts have been made to collectively label the people of the independent Baltic states “Fascists”, in accordance with the Kremlin’s new guidelines of history interpretation. Targeted slander campaigns have been organized against particular individuals who speak out in favor of freedom and democracy in the region.

In times of endless information flow, it is hard to make a distinction between truth and untruth, serious discussions can be buried under an overwhelming wall of noise. The blogosphere works like a live discussion in which everyone speaks at the same time: the result may be a general noise in which it is hard to actually hear anyone. While the rich and powerful can protect themselves from the public scrutiny of their actions by threatening writers with libel suits, libel against “little people” thrives in the virtual world. We who grew up in the Soviet Union, with its propagandistic, unfree press, learned to take all public messages with a grain of salt, to read between the lines to seek the true story behind every slogan and to look for alternative sources to gain more truthful info if possible. In the Internet era, we need those skeptical capacities again – not because there is not enough information available, but because there is so much that we need better judgment than ever to make a distinction between meaningful talk and meaningless babble.

Those of us with the experience of massive public lying may be even better equipped to do this than those who grew up in freedom and were used to trusting the information that they had at their disposal. What we all need, to keep the walls of silence from rising to intolerable heights, is a critical mind, and an ability and will to value the freedom we have.

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