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2014: The Graveyard of Fevered Hopes?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The year that is ending in two weeks has exhibited two sobering characteristics. First, it has been marked by apocalyptic violence (the massacre of school children in Peshawar, Pakistan being the latest outrage). Second, it has been marked by pressures on communication freedom, and the relentless squeezing of civic spaces. The violence we all know about; for it seems to be kicking off everywhere. But the causes are legion; the politics in each case is bewilderingly complex. So, we’ll leave these alone and hope for the best. But we might usefully reflect, as the year closes, on what is happening with national public spheres and the emerging global public sphere.

There is a narrative of hope and freedom about the global communication context. That narrative celebrates the mobile wave and the astounding spread of information and communication technologies. It talks about how wonderful all this is for voice, for enlightenment, for freedom. Look, we are told, see all those cool young kids with their fancy gadgets, social media skills, and their ability to launch collective action eruptions, even revolutions! See how admirable and hopeful all this is, we are told. And, yes, events have often backed up the fevered hopes and dreams, even this year. Yet, as the year ends, the overwhelming sense one gets is that dark and powerful forces are counterattacking. They are certainly not on the ropes. Let’s look at the particulars:

  • This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that ‘220 journalists are in jail around the world in 2014, the second highest number since CPJ began taking the annual census in 1990.’
  • According to Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Barometer, in 2014, 66 journalists have been killed; 19 Netizens and citizen journalists have been killed; 178 journalists have been imprisoned; and 178 netizens have been imprisoned.
  • In another report, Enemies of the Internet 2014, Reporters Without Borders details growing censorship and surveillance on the Internet, supposedly the worldwide abode of freedom. The report shows the worst offenders and how they work, the role of big business in inventing the tools of unfreedom that governments buy and use; how internet service providers often facilitate both surveillance and censorship, and the stunning growth of draconian, freedom-killing legislation around the world.
  • In Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Under Fire, Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmache, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offer this bleak assessment: ‘After seeing its reach increase for decades, international support for democracy and human rights faces a serious challenge: more and more governments are erecting legal and logistical barriers to democracy and human rights programs, publicly vilifying international aid groups and their local partners, and harassing such groups or expelling them altogether. Despite the significant implications of the pushback, the roots and full scope of the phenomenon remain poorly understood and responses to it are often weak.’ They add that the ‘pushback is global’, ‘the trend is lasting’ and that ‘the response is inadequate’.
What seems to be happening is that after being taken by surprise initially – by the power of the new technologies of communication, for instance – the dark and formidable forces in different contexts have remobilized. They are curtailing access to information by citizens with renewed vigor. They are making it more difficult for citizens to organize. They are closing their countries to those who can empower their citizens. And they are acquiring technologies that can deepen both censorship and surveillance. Above all, they are employing millions of people in these tasks.

This alarming trend reminds me of the three features of the Iron Law of Oligarchy that the political economist, Daron Acemoglu, wrote about in a 2010 paper:
  • The persistence of power and elites;
  • The persistence of bad rulers; and
  • The persistence of bad rules.
Those who would deny freedom, boy, they are persistent! As we close this tough year out, there is only one thing to do. Those who are pushing for freedom, those who desire open societies and transparent governance, and those who want to open civic space and are determined to bring all citizens into informed conversations about public affairs, well, they too must persist. And insist. And never give up.

They must be as stubborn as the Bengali Tiger.

Here is hoping for better prospects in 2015.

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Photography by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

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