Yesterday, Freedom House published its third annual report on Freedom on the Net (http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2012). The general conclusion is that sophistication is at hand for everyone: for citizens, who try to find more inventive ways to go around obstacles for freedom of speech in the internet, and for governments, who are as well subtly increasing their predatory presence in the virtual world. An additional element: in some countries non-state actors such as organized crime or extremist religious groups are consolidating as censors on the internet.
I cannot say that always, but at least since the French Revolution with Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s Police Minister, governments have tried to control or at least survey the political opinions and attitudes of its people in order to prevent the emergence of challengers to the established power. When talking about this kind of government task, it is easy to think of Joseph Goebbels, whose great lesson for oppressive rulers was not only to have censorship organs, but to have them systematically working to block the free flow of information, find and punish its producers, and say something to construct a new social reality (or, to speak plainly, to lie).
That is exactly what many governments around the world have been trying to do. In the Freedom House report, four global trends in addition to simply restricting access to information on the internet are identified. First, legislation. Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka require that websites register with the government for accreditation if they are publishing video or audio content (former case) or any information related to the country (latter case). Of course, legislation implies punishment and, in some cases, it has meant years-long prison terms. An extreme case occurred in Pakistan, where one person was detained and sentenced to death for sending “blasphemous” text messages.
The second trend is paid commentators and the intentional spreading of misinformation. One of the most striking issues here is that governments not only pay individual persons, but also public relations companies (as Iran, Bahrain, Russia or Malaysia are doing). Notwithstanding ethical issues, these organizations re-orient anti-government discussions in blogs towards a positive stance to the regime (even altering published posts or impersonating its authors), discredit bloggers or political elite opponents (in a sex-scandal fashion if necessary), or hack anti-government websites.
The third trend is the intensification of physical attacks against government critics. Illegal detentions and tortures in isolated custody are described in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan. But authorities are not the sole authors of violence against critics, nor detentions the only method of attack. People can get fired from their jobs, banned from international travel, expelled from universities, beaten by religious extremists, have their families harassed, or killed by the organized crime.
Finally, governments are increasing their technological capacities to intensify internet surveillance. Intelligence agencies have acquired access to details on personal communications, frequently in real time. Of course, this can easily lead to prosecution; in Belarus, Bahrain, and Ethiopia communications records have been used as evidence in interrogations or trials. Moreover, some democratic countries like the United States, the United Kingdom or Mexico have cited national security concerns to increase their surveillance capacities.
The best graded countries (0 points is the best grade, 100 is the worst): Estonia (10), USA (12), Germany (15), Australia (18), and Hungary (19). The worst graded countries: Uzbekistan (77), Syria (83), China (85), Cuba (86), and Iran (90).
As a corollary, there were two events that coincided with the day the review of freedom of speech on the internet was published. First, three Vietnamese bloggers and journalists received an average of 10-year long prison sentences for writing against their national and Chinese governments’ actions. Second, 72 years ago, in 1940, the Look magazine made the first advertisement for Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator. Governments struggle in trying to block freedom. But people always find their way.
In practically all of her work, Hannah Arendt reminds the reader that politics always retains a basic universal moral element because, in the end, it is about people. When Dr. Arendt was detained in her attempt to illegally cross the Franco-German border, it was a Nazi official who let her leave, not a mysterious instruction signed and stamped by one of his superiors, à la Kafka. It was her beloved friend Walter Benjamin who committed suicide out of fear that the Francoists who discovered the refugee camp in Spain would force him back to France, where he would meet a dire fate. After realizing that the conditions in her country during the Allied occupation made it impossible to go back, it was her mother who suffered in New York City because she could not speak English well. And they were her students and her students’ friends who were being detained and kept isolated in cells during the Civil Rights movement.
I had not seen this deep understanding of the empathic element in politics until, on occasion of her official visit to Washington, DC, I read the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture of Aug San Suu Kyi (originally awarded in 1991; lecture delivered this summer) and heard her Congressional Medal of Honor acceptance speech, ceremony which took place last Wednesday.
Now a Member of Parliament in Burma, Mrs. Suu Kyi was put under arrest in 1991 after her party, the National League for Democracy, won the elections the year before, the military government refused to leave and decided to put the challengers under control. She stayed imprisoned until November 2010, sometimes in jail, at other times under house arrest, and was liberated a couple of times just to be put back in prison because she was an icon of the opposition and, in the view of the government, attracted too much attention. During that time, her children became adults, her husband died, and she used a considerable part of her time to meditate on the six great dukha (a Buddhist concept comparable to the Western idea of suffering): “to be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love”.
Next to resisting the oppression of her government, Mrs. Kyi is quite remarkable for her speeches. On the surface, she does not articulate any discourse following a particular school of thought. Yet the idea of helping to exit isolation and suffering, and the deep gratitude that sincere and committed people help produce, permeate her words.
In its national chapter of the 2012 World Report, Human Rights Watch mentions that human rights in Burma remain in a critical situation. Political liberties are curtailed, the military try to impose order disregarding the rule of law, and inter-ethnic conflict remains a major source of instability for the country. In her acceptance lecture she mentioned that receiving the Nobel Peace prize reminded her that she was not alone, that Burma was not alone, and that people in other places of the world were not only paying attention to the suffering of the Burmese, but also helping them in one way or another. Wednesday at Congress she began thanking her friends for the assistance she had personally been an object of and, once more, for not forgetting about the Burmese. Or, at the speech given at the World Economic Forum Regional Meeting in Thailand, her first international journey after being released from arrest, she explained that commitment to the improvement of the Burmese would bring about reconciliation among previously enemy groups and improvement in living conditions.
She needed help to get out of the isolation of her confinement and the resulting suffering. Burma needed help (indeed, still needs) to get out of the isolation of the military rule and the suffering it imposed on the daily lives of the Burmese. She received it from people she did not expect to, and now she is willing to give help back. The actual President, U Thein Sein, has allowed a certain degree of liberalization by freeing some political prisoners and diminishing the control of the state over the economy. Mrs. Kyi recognizes that resentment or the desire for vengeance will take Burma nowhere. One single person issued an order to put them in motion, but the whole population, military along with civil society, the different ethnic communities and the citizens must work together to make the reforms work. Because that is what politics is all about. People living together have two options. If they fight against each other, isolation, death and even more suffering will come about. But if they help one another, perhaps things will improve. It is remarkable that such an idea gave Suu Kyi prison and the Nobel Peace Prize exactly the same year.
Yesterday, September 11th 2012, marked the 39 anniversary of the military coup d’État against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. The imposed rule had a toll of 40,018 people who were detained, tortured, kidnapped, disappeared or executed for political reasons between that day in 1973 and March 10th 1990, when its head, General Augusto Pinochet, left office. What kind of aftermath can be considered just for the organizers of this catastrophe?
As happened in other countries under this kind of regime, the Chilean military negotiated their exit of power with wide margins. According to their perspective, the attack against Allende, member of the Socialist Party and leading a coalition of other left-wing organizations, was aimed at saving the country from communism, which was leading Chile to economic chaos and food scarcity. Hence, the argument goes on, they had the right to determine the conditions under which they will give power back to the civilian, ensuring that the risk to “extremist” positions would be kept neutralized. They would exercise this prerogative, for example, by holding veto power over practically every policy decision taken by the new civilian government, appointing 9 of 47 Senators or leaving untouched the structure, or leaving intact the functioning and members of the Police (a major support in repressing the opposition) and the Supreme Courts (to avoid strict or any kind of prosecution against the military for abuses during the regime). As well, according to the new Constitution they wrote, General Pinochet would be named lifetime Senator and would keep his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Army for an indefinite period of time. Even more, as Arturo Valenzuela and Pamela Constable elaborate in an article written around the time when the new democratic government was inaugurated, a serious challenge President Patricio Aylwin had to meet was to maintain good inherited levels of economic growth and stability, but with debt renegotiations coming and a possible drop in copper prices (Chile’s main export), along to responding to the demands of unions, parties and other organizations that had been neglected for more than 15 years.
Evidently, this exit seemed just for Pinochet and his government aides. In 1997 he resigned his political offices and expected to live the rest of his days in tranquility. His colleagues faced similar futures.
But, somewhat unexpectedly, the General was detained in 1998 in England. This action was the result of an energetic process to claim justice for the victims of the dictatorship, with the help of the Progressive Association of Prosecutors (UPF, Unión Progresista de Fiscales), an organization dedicated to improve the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Spain. Relatives and lawyers of affected Spanish during the military rules filed a case in their own Court against the leaders of the Argentinean and Chilean Military Juntas. The Spanish Court said it did not have competence to deal with crimes committed outside the national territory, even more if some kind of amnesty laws applied, as happened with the South American deposed military top officials. However, after a two-year legal battle orchestrated by Judges Baltasar Garzón and Manuel García-Castellón, which included the expansion of the claims to include non-Spanish citizens and a new reference to the universal jurisdiction principle in cases of gross human rights violations, the Spanish Court accepted to process the file.
Weeks after the decision of the Spanish Court, a rumor began spreading: Pinochet had traveled from Chile to the United Kingdom for medical reasons. Immediately, Judge Garzón issued an international arrest warrant and extradition request specifically against Gen. Pinochet for his participation in Operation Condor, a joint action between Argentina and Chile against regime opponents. Now, justice for the victims of the dictatorship seemed close.
However, the desire to hold a trial against Pinochet, the most visible, but certainly not the only, actor of the Chilean military dictatorship did not materialize. After some months in the UK, Pinochet managed to return to the UK. Even then, and for the following years, the lawyers of the former dictator incessantly called to international immunity laws in order to dismiss the accusations against him. They even managed to keep Pinochet home, arguing an unstable health condition which impeded him to submit to detention facilities where defendants await a definition of their status. Pinochet died on December 2006, without having set foot in jail or in a Court Room.
In occasion of this 91st birthday, some months before his death, he made perhaps the only commentary about his actions as head of the military government in Chile after leaving office:
“Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbor no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all. I take political responsibility for everything that was done.”
I seriously doubt that the victims had rancor in mind when they were thinking of abuses committed against them or their families. They wanted justice, and for this time Pinochet did not meet it. Historically, they tried.
In 2011, a unique phenomenon emerged in China: “Independent Candidates”, which brought numerous debates among scholars and ordinary people. As they actively participate in various levels of elections, increased violence against them and barriers set to block them from getting involved have called people to ask: is it legal to be an Independent Candidate?
Many cases in the last few years have demonstrated the challenges Independent Candidates face along their journey to be elected. The first barrier they have to overcome is being confirmed as a “Deputy Candidate.” In the Constitution of China, every adult citizen, without being deprived of political rights is entitled to vote and to be elected. It has been set in the Election Law that an individual who is not nominated by any organization or work unit, but still wants to become a candidate, must collect at least 10 signatures from voters from the same constituency to get nominated. In order to become a legal Deputy Candidate, they have to be further confirmed by the election committee. However, it is not as clear and simple in local practice. Rules and decrees can incredibly complicate the process to obtain official recognition. Some constituencies release the registration date at the last minute; some require the candidate to be a Party member. In some extreme cases, to prevent them from participating in the election, local authorities simply label them as inciting subversion of the state’s political power and limited their freedom from the very beginning. Even recognized as Deputy Candidate, their campaigns were often harassed or forbidden.
Scholars and Independent Candidates argue that those local authorities are violating the Constitution. However, through the whole process from registration to campaign, to the Election Day, Election Law doesn’t provide much content to support either Independent Candidates or the behavior of local authorities we have just mentioned. It instead leaves huge room for both to interpret the law in their own ways.
In China, many things should be understood through “national conditions” (国情). Part of it is the will from the top. People therefore have to guess, rather than learn from the legal book, to draw the line between legal and illegal. In this case, the signals for Independent Candidates are really mixed. Different organizations and different high officials give explanations that often conflict with each other.
In June of 2011, it was clarified by the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee that “There is no such a thing as an ‘independent candidate’, as it’s not recognized by law.” Its person in charge stressed that according to the law “one should be first nominated as Deputy Candidate and then confirmed as official Deputy Candidate in due legal procedure.” Then the China Central Television (CCTV) and other major news agencies covered the news, which brought about a debate over whether “independent candidate” is just a wrong term to use or illegal in its nature. The Legislative Affairs Commission’s clarification is ironically vague, as it doesn’t state individuals are banned to actively become a Deputy Candidate, in contrast to the traditional path of organizational nomination. However, it apparently implies their unsupportive attitude, representing a stance from the top. On social media, Netizens criticize that the tricky wording statement is designed to scare people, but doesn’t dare to directly violate the Constitution. However, it certainly projects its impact to the local level. Such an interpretation becomes an excuse for local authorities to block Independent Candidates from participating in elections.
Adding to that, Wu Ying’ai, the Minister of Justice pushed this stance forward. In a law book edited by Wu, called Q&A of PRC’s National and Local People’s Congress Representative Election at Each Level, which gave a specific explanation and suggestion— for Deputy Candidate planning to campaign on his/her own, relevant organizations should persuade them not to or stop their campaign activities. It further argues that it could facilitate the work of introducing candidates to voters being carried out in an orderly and more organized manner, which is therefore in the interest of developing the extensiveness of democracy and ensuring the voters’ well-ordered election participation.
Nonetheless, other signals appear to color the picture, which is more encouraging but also makes the whole issue more confusing.
On the 13th of June 2011, an article published on the newspaper Study Time held by the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China(CPC) argues against the Legislative Affairs Commission. As expressed in the article, a citizen’s legal right to be “nominated” should be safeguarded in practice is amply emphasized. To soften the tone, it did criticize the use of the term “independent candidate” as not appropriate, since it implies other candidates are not independent. Wang Changjiang, a professor from the same school, also joined this camp by expressing that government should face the trend of public participation into politics and start building its democracy. He argues that within the Party, many people’s mentality remains unchanged : the emerging of Independent Candidates must be the result of the penetration of western opposition power. Nonetheless, they failed to notice that with the progress of the economy, people’s awareness of the link between their daily life and politics as well as individual rights have been promoted enormously, especially in the era of social media.
Regarding the motivation to become Independent Candidates, some top governors obviously have acknowledged both possibilities. Yu Zhengcheng, CPC party chief in Shanghai, made a speech in Shanghai Jiao Tong University and classified Independent Candidates into four categories:
- Sincerely wish to monitor the work of CPC and government. They should be supported;
- Sincerely wish to monitor the work of CPC and government, but by extreme means. Also should be supported;
- Seek the limelight and want to be recognized. Not a big deal;
- Want to topple China’s current system/institutions and push China to follow western political institutions.
He, however, didn’t really provide direct suggestions for dealing with the last category. But it is clear, referring to the context of speech, that China doesn’t welcome such Independent Candidates and is very defensive to prevent political “Westernization.” Looking at the first two categories, Yu promises a much larger space for ordinary people’s active participation in elections, compared to the Legislative Affairs Commission and the Ministry of Justice. In fact, many Independent Candidates made it clear that their purpose is calling for public awareness of individual’s rights. Some of their campaigns focus on informing people about the current legal system and potential space to safeguard rights and interests based on current law. For those, they accept and even have faith in the current political system and want to use the means permitted by the system to improve the society. What is not clear is how to draw the line between the so-called sincerity and opposition. This is a great gray zone that can be arbitrarily judged by individual’s “political will” rather than by behavior, which could easily be forged into a weapon whenever local authorities feel threatened by this monitoring tool.
The government certainly has been aware of the threat of an emerging competing group and correspondingly made some progresses to advance its own capacity as well as the procedure of election. In the past, most voters have not even heard of their Deputy Candidates, yet still have to vote among strange names. To respond to that, in 2009 the central government issued an announcement, clearly stating that if the condition is permitted, the village election committee (though much different from People’s Congress Election) should organize candidates to meet voters, to introduce their plan of rural governance and commitments and to answer the questions concerning local villagers. However, it forbids soliciting votes privately by either the candidate or his/her proxy. In the last version of the Election Law, small changes on wording are worth noting: it stresses the Election Committee should organize candidates to meet voters by changing the word “can” to “should”. Yet, it added “upon the request from voters” following the sentence, which allows flexible interpretation from local authority to get around the rule. In general, it is still a positive sign to encourage the involvement of ordinary people.
Despite individuals being entitled to contest in elections, the extremely vague law doesn’t promise the right to campaign. This challenge is becoming the second most likely barrier for Independent Candidates to be elected. Local authorities create their own decrees and limitations on the details of the election. Some activists may survive in the process of being confirmed officially as Deputy Candidates, but they may face being silenced after that- not allowed to give speeches to their audience or show posters containing their background information or governance plan. Their freedom might also be limited by the local security forces, sometimes for few days, sometimes for years. Usually individual candidates find nowhere to file their complaints.
Given the mixed signs above, it is also wrong to assume the space for Independent Candidates are equally small across the whole country. Some places are performing much more hopefully than others. For example, in Yunnan and Zhejiang Provinces, local elections are more open to Independent Candidates and even officially support their participation and campaigns. While in Jiangxi and Shaanxi, the local governments are nervous about this emerging phenomenon and always arrange “talks” with individual candidates.
All in all the issue of “Independent Candidates” is not a matter of being recognized as appropriate officially, it is just a title referring to the kind of people who individually have the will to represent voters who are supported by more than 10 voters. The debate should not go beyond the issue of legal language, because it is clear that the right to be elected is written in the law. However, the official response is more of a reflection of attitudes from the top Party leaders which certainly matters more than the language itself. It is reasonable for local leaders to fear being monitored and ousted from their positions which could bring them and their family intangible and tangible benefits; it is also reasonable for the top of the Party to feel anxious that opening this door could lead to further and deeper political reform which they would easily lose control over. On the other hand, some argue that allowing Independent Candidates to contest is a great channel to lift a bomb of social discontent. It raises a question: Can the Party create a new balance to satisfy ordinary people’s desire to have real representation in political decisions as their socioeconomic interests are diverging, while at the same time keep maintaining the privilege power for elites. At this stage, I feel most Chinese tend to believe Beijing is capable enough of managing that balance, though it is tough.
Reform, itself a rather nebulous concept, is sometimes difficult to define in the context of political behavior. It begs the questions, “Reform in what area, for whom, and to what social, political, or economic end?” Many African countries for years, under pressure from international donors, have adopted policy rhetoric infused with promises of western-style “reform” in all the areas one might expect: democratic pluralism, economic liberalization, anti-corruption, institutional development, constitutional protections for human rights, and so on.
Actual progress beyond rhetoric has been slow. But not always for lack of effort from major donors and other international actors. Conditions are often placed on large aid packages that flow to governments in developing countries. The logic is that these conditional packages can be used as both a positive and negative incentive, prompting governments to embark on recommended changes in policy, while also deterring them from more destructive and parochial uses of power due to the explicit threat of losing international funds — which often account for large portions of a developing country’s budget. Predictably, many of these governments — run by powerful elites who may stand to lose under a system of vibrant pluralism and broadly distributed economic growth — nod politely and give credence to the value of reform, but do little else to codify or fundamentally institutionalize real change.
A possible exception may be Malawi. New President Joyce Banda, southern Africa’s first female head of state who rose to power last April after the sudden death of former President Bingu wa Mutharika, has used her brief three months in office to shake up Malawian politics. Some of her actions have been largely symbolic – selling a controversial private jet purchased by her predecessor only two years earlier, to name one example — but others have been more substantive. For better or for worse, she is initiating an austerity campaign throughout the country, headlined by a 40 percent devaluation of the Malawian Kwacha that has since created a minor spike in inflation. But Ms. Banda appears willing to accept the immediate domestic consequences of this campaign in the hope that it will create a more solid economic foundation for growth and also repair relations with donors that were nearly severed in recent years.
Yet Ms. Banda’s surprising behavior isn’t confined to economic policy. In a dramatic break with both her Malawian predecessor and the leadership of the Africa Union, she refused to grant Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir entrance into Malawi for the July AU Summit her government was hosting, on account of his outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Sudan. Withstanding tremendous pressure from the AU, Sudan, and other countries in the region, Ms. Banda eventually refused to host the summit with Mr. Bashir in attendance, forcing organizers to move the entire event to Ethiopia.
It was quite a remarkable stance for a small country, particularly in a region of much larger countries that have repeatedly avoided or sought to obfuscate their obligations to the ICC, and to human rights more generally. Ms. Banda is likely to incur significant consequences for her uncompromising position, primarily in the form of political or economic alienation by the AU when it negotiates new policies to govern regional trade and commerce.
What is equally clear, however, is that international donors are taking notice of Ms. Banda’s streak of independent and, by their view, necessary political behavior. The Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) recently released a $350 million package it had suspended in 2011 after accusing Malawi’s previous president of malfeasance and poor governance. The MCC’s initial freeze was also in response to Sudanese President Bashir’s attendance at a conference in Malawi’s capitol, Lilongwe, last fall. In another significant event, Ms. Banda’s administration released a reconfigured annual budget proposal that built upon the direction set by their previous currency devaluation, prompting the International Monetary Fund to sign off on a $157 million aid agreement.
Movement toward reform, in the areas of human rights and economic policy, can indeed be seen in the recent behavior of Malawi’s government. And the carrot provided by large aid packages, compounded, of course, by Malawi’s own desperate need for economic growth, appears to be the primary motivator behind these changes.
I wrote last week that we should not wait for, nor expect, enlightened leaders to bring altruism into systems otherwise dominated by corruption, identity politics, and the narrow interests of elites. Though Ms. Banda appears determined to challenge this notion, far be it from me to declare her behavior as anything close to altruistic. Time will tell how effective her policies will be, as well as the degree to which she can generate a broader political movement in favor of her approach. But it does seem clear that she, more than her predecessor and many other African leaders, is displaying the courage and foresight to make tough, painful choices at the possible expense of her own domestic favorability. Austerity is likely to hurt many Malawians in the short-run, and her face-off with the more powerful AU may enrage many Malawi politicians who see little political gain in return for possible alienation. Further still, there is no guarantee that international aid will propel Malawi’s economy forward in a sustainable way, since much of its impact will depend upon the incentives of existing institutions and political actors.
Yet years from now, assuming Ms. Banda continues on her current path, Malawi may be an interesting case study to assess the ultimate impact of a leader that goes against powerful regional forces, as well as institutionalized interests, to enact reforms and collect the corresponding aid that those reforms release.
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