Free to be free? The reality of institutional constraints on freedom in the West

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Rabi' al-Awwal 09, 1433 2012-02-01

Perspectives

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Perspectives, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 12, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1433)

For a civilization and value system that places such great emphasis on “freedom”, there are still plenty of ways that dissidents can be targeted in the modern West. Freedom has been described as a “hurray word” — a word “with little substantive meaning… an empty signifier in a hegemonic language game, to which we all have to defer”, in the words of Mark Haugaard, political scientist and editor of the Journal of Power.

The contradiction between the proclaimed ideal of freedom and the practical realities of power are a constant cause of tension in modern societies, not least when people try to realise the freedom that is proclaimed as a universal right but which those in power do not actually believe in. At any given time, numerous examples of the result of this tension can be highlighted among the major issues of the day.As this issue of Crescent goes to press, for example, it has just been confirmed on January 20 that Press TV has lost its license to broadcast in the UK.

Officially, the reason is bureaucratic: the British company that held the license is not in charge of its editorial content, which is supposedly dictated from Iran, which is in breach of broadcasting regulations. In fact, it is the result of a long campaign against Press TV by local politicians, commentators and others angered by its coverage of issues such as Palestine, Iraq and Western aggression in the Muslim world.

For those willing to see them, the limits of the freedom of the press are very clear: what a paper like Crescent may get away with saying to the limited audience that seeks it out —as Press TV will still be available to those who find it on the internet — may not be broadcast daily into the homes of millions of people who would otherwise be unlikely ever to access it. But the bureaucratic justification does more than provide a convenient cover to shield the government and those who called for a ban from charges of censorship. It also saves those who supposedly oppose censorship in any form, proclaiming instead their support for total freedom of speech and the press, from having to take up the cause of a perspective they are quite happy to see suppressed.

Another case of the tension between the realities of Western power and the ideals of freedom — in this case, freedoms of speech and information — that has been much discussed recently is that of Bradley Manning, the US soldier who allegedly leaked millions of classified US military and diplomatic documents to the WikiLeaks website. The appalling treatment that Manning has been subjected to since his arrest, and the travesty of his judicial prosecution has been well documented. The point here is simply to highlight the gap between the ideals that the West proclaims and the realities that people in the West, particularly those who challenge the hegemonic discourse of its elites, face.

The issues regarding freedoms of speech, media and information raised by the Manning and WikiLeaks cases are many and complex. Wikileaks was originally perceived as an open intelligence agency for democratic societies, based on the premise that for people to take good decisions, they must have access to as much information as possible. The fact that it has been so thoroughly trashed by the establishments in western countries shows their attitude to that idea.

Equally, Manning took at face value the ideal that as a citizen and a soldier of a democratic state, he had a duty to speak up to highlight the wrongdoings of those in power and to refuse to obey orders and take part in actions that were illegal, immoral and based on lies and misinformation. His fate shows what the USA, the global champion of freedom and democracy thinks of those ideals.One thing that both these examples, and so many others like them, have in common is that the powers that be have used the law against their critics and enemies. But the laws they have used have not been of censorship or persecution of dissidents, but laws intended for completely different purposes that have been found, by design or happy coincidence, to be useful for these purposes as well.

Which brings us to another recent example of the tension between freedom and power: that of the protest by Wikipedia and other prominent websites against the proposed legislation in the US targeting illegal sharing of films and music online. The two bills proposed by members of Congress and the Senate, known as SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act) have been promoted by US media firms, supposedly concerned with protecting their copyrighted assets against illegal distribution over the internet, who have made massive donations to the politicians promoting the bills.

This is an issue that the media firms have long been pursuing through existing laws, with major websites such as TVShack and Megaupload already shut down, and overseas creators of such sites, such as Richard O’Dwyer, the British creator of TVShack, being pursued for extradition to face charges in the US. SOPA and PIPA, however, go further. The influential internet commentator Clay Shirky has characterised them as “an attempt to create a privatised form of international censorship… [that] would have a profound and chilling effect on any form of public conversation among ordinary citizens.” He points out that the legislation would target not only those profiting from online piracy but “any site that was facilitating the activities of copyright infringement”, by, for example “mentioning the existence of such sites”.

The fact that such restrictions go against the supposedly open and public ethos of the internet has brought the wrath of the online establishment down upon the legislation, with the result that they are now being rethought. The bills are unlikely, however, to be pulled altogether. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, they will be presented once again in revised form with their key elements intact, and with the same or similar potential for misuse for purposes other than their stated intentions.The political potential of such legislation is obvious.

Press TV has been pulled from broadcast in the UK on bureaucratic grounds, but is still available through the internet. It is no great leap, in view of SOPA and PIPA, to imagine that in future, it and other news sources offering dissident views could be targeted not on the grounds of censorship — which would of course be blatantly undemocratic and therefore wholly unacceptable — but simply because of accusations of offering access to copyrighted and illegally obtained materials such as, say, leaked US government documents. The potential of the internet to provide a platform for the circulation of information and perspectives that were excluded from the hegemonic discourse of the mainstream media was one of its great attractions for dissidents of all kinds, including the Islamic movement.

And it has indeed served this purpose to some extent. But the reality is that it has been far more effectively exploited by the powers that be for the projection and promotion of their own propaganda than it has by any dissident movement. The concepts of “hard” and “soft” power are well established, with hard power being the power to force people to do what you want, and soft power the ability to persuade people to do what you want. But power comes in many other forms as well. One is institutional power: the ability to manipulate and exploit the institutional infrastructures of society to serve your purposes.

The US’s wielding of its institutional power through bodies such as the UN and international economic organizations is well established; but the internet has its institutional infrastructure too, and the US is already well established as the dominant voice in that as well, even before its new attempts to extend its control by legislative measures such as SOPA and PIPA. Those fond of triumphantly trumpeting the US’s defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the problems it faces because of the current economic crises, would do well to remember that it still has plenty of other sources of power through which to defend and promote its interests, as well as to target its most dangerous enemies.

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