Free speech is held up as a basic human right by most in the western world, even though it is not the case for most people. The trial of Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste, by the Egyptian state; along with the Australian Border Force Act’s restrictions on whistleblowers from Australian detention centres, show that free speech is a right that is subject to the will of ruling elites across the globe.
It is well known that dictatorships censor journalists and activists in order to help maintain their rule, as happened recently in the high profile case of Al Jazeera journalists; Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed.
The three journalists, including Mr Greste, were arrested in late 2013 by the Egyptian Government. In July, 2014, the Egyptian State Information Service, in the face of an international outcry around human rights abuses, restated the Egyptian Government’s position on the case, saying Mr Greste had been “Holding written documents, printed matters, and records comprising propagation and advocacy for the purposes adopted by an illegal group and being prepared for access by third parties”, and “Reporting and disseminating intentionally, false information and tendentious rumors [sic]that would undermine the country’s reputation.”
“Written documents, printed materials and records” all refer to the news reports Mr Greste had been producing. The “illegal Group” is presumably the Muslim Brotherhood. “Advocacy”, at best, simply means bias (which Al Jazeera denies anyway). “Third parties” could be any media outlet. The latter quote simply says that Mr Greste was publishing views critical of the Egyptian state.
When the Egyptian Government’s own arguments are drawn out so thoroughly, it becomes clear that it has charged Mr Greste on the grounds that he published anti-government views. In other words, the trial is pretty much state censorship.
However, free speech is not just restricted by Third World dictatorships. Whistleblowers, and by extension the press, have become subject to repression in many Western nations as well.
This can be seen across the Western World, particularly following the Wikileaks scandal and the persecution of figures such as Julian Assange and Chelsey Manning. The most recent example from Australia is the Federal Government’s Border Force Act, Section 42 of which says that anyone who is, or has been, an “entrusted person” (ie. a person who has worked for the department of immigration) may not disclose “protected information” (ie. any information they obtained as a worker for the department). The Penalty outlined in the Act is two years jail.
40 such “entrusted persons” wrote an open letter against the Border Force Act, saying they “have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the health of those for whom we have a duty of care, despite the threats of imprisonment, because standing by and watching sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable”.
Since then, it has been revealed that sexual abuse of refugees is rife at the Nauru Detention Centre, and even allegations of waterboarding have been made.
When put in the context of the Australian Government’s refusal to comment on “Operational Matters” surrounding its refugee policy, and its refusal to permit journalists to access Detention Centres, it seems as though the Immigration Department has its own policy of restricting Free Speech.
Much like the Egyptian dictatorship’s need to maintain itself by restricting critical reports, the Australian immigration department needs to restrict information of its own abuses in detention centres, lest the Australian public begin to empathise with the refugees.
In both cases, the elites can understand that public criticism opens them up to potential popular opposition.
Much has been said of the role social media played as an organising tool in the Egyptian Revolution, in that it helped activists appeal to an already disaffected population. It would be expected that the Egyptian dictatorship would learn lessons from its recent history, and censor criticism as much as possible, including censoring traditional media.
Similarly, the Department of Immigration must know the danger of allowing the Australian public to fully understand (and thus, empathise with) the plight of refugees.
As recently as 2013, the controversy around Kevin Rudd’s “PNG Solution” caused a series of refugee rights demonstrations around the country. And the Department can probably remember the early days of the “Pacific Solution”, when popular support for refugee rights allowed activists to break out detainees at the Woomera Detention Centre in 2002.
These lessons have been learned not just by the Australian and Egyptian elites. They have been learnt by the elites across the world. That is why journalists and whistleblowers across the world have been subject to trial and imprisonment at the hands of liberal democratic and totalitarian states alike.
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