President Trump’s effort to suppress Steve Bannon’s book, Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House, has not included jailing or killing Bannon. That is good.
Nonetheless, the President’s suppression efforts are stark violations of our highly cherished First Amendment Freedom of Speech rights. No poll has been taken on this latest Trump action, but in August this past year, a Rasmussen national telephone and online survey found that 85% of Americans think that giving people the right to free speech is more important than making sure no one is offended by what others say. The survey found that Americans are prepared to defend that freedom even at the cost of their lives if necessary.
America, under President Trump’s latest actions of suppression, is in some ways looking like other countries. Clearly for Mr. Bannon, there are still limits here on what might be officially done to him.
Suppression can mean jail or worse
This month a Bangkok, Thai court jailed a blind woman for 18 months for violating the county’s royal insult law. Offending Thailand’s king, queen, heir or “regent” can land someone in jail for 15 years. In this instance, Nurhavati Masoh, a 23 year-old woman, posted on her Facebook page an article critical of the government, written by Giles Ungpakorn, a Tahi-British academic. Yes, you understood that correctly: a woman was jailed by simply posting an article written by another person.
Imagine suppressing not just the words — numerous organizations around the world also continue to press Thailand’s neighboring country, Laos, for information about the whereabouts or fate of a former prominent civil society leader, Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly taken in the capital, Vientiane, five years ago. Somphone’s history of speech critical of Laos was the catalyst for his disappearance.
Last month a Vietnamese court upheld a 9-year jail term for a prominent activist who had spread propaganda against the state. Blogger Tran Thi Nga, 40, was convicted in July in a sweeping government effort to crack down on criticism of the Communist government.
The U.S. embassy said it was deeply troubled by the court’s decision and offered that everyone in Vietnam should be able to express political views without fear.
The month before the Nga ruling, another Vietnamese court upheld a 10-year sentence for another prominent blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as Mother Mushroom, for publishing propaganda against the state.
Turkey has a long history of suppressing speech and opposition action. In November, a Turkish court in Ankara upheld a 25-year jail term for a lawmaker in the opposition party to the ruling regime. Enis Berberoghlu was said to be the symbol for more than 50,000 people who had been detained in wake of a failed coup in July 2016. Berberoghlu’s specific offense was giving an opposition newspaper a video purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria.
Turkey’s government suspended teachers, academics and lawyers, over 150,000 people in all, from their jobs, for voicing opposition.
Challenging Afghanistan’s government can be deadly. In 2015 a bomb exploded at the offices of Pajhwok Afghan News, the country’s largest news agency. None of the journalists there were injured, but four guests at the nearby Voice of America office were wounded. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but the agency’s director suspects that the attack took place because of claimed “reporting bias” or their reports about criminal or militia whose business interests were threatened.
Despite the Afghan government’s promise to protect the media, they nevertheless placed increased restrictions on the kind of information that can be made available to journalists, including restrictions on reporting from conflict areas. This has resulted in the prevention of reporting on the destruction of civilian homes and both civilian and military casualty numbers.
Where have we recently heard about “fake or false news?” Egyptian authorities jailed an Al Jazeera TV journalist in 2016 on charges of incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos.
Suppression can mean do not enter
In November, in Warsaw, Poland, plans were underway to ban Ukrainians voicing “anti-Polish” views from entering the country. Poland’s foreign minister said that they were launching procedures that will not allow people with extremely anti-Polish views to come to Poland. Poland is now home to almost 2 million Ukrainians who left their country after a 2014 uprising with pro-Russian rebels. Poland supports an independent Ukraine that can stand up to Russia, but apparently does not want to tolerate those who might cast a few stones against their new, if even temporary homeland.
Suppression can mean new laws
In Singapore in 2016, the government passed a law criminalizing contempt and scandalizing the judiciary. The law prohibits discussion of pending court proceedings by anyone other than the government itself.
Leslie Chew, a Singapore cartoonist: In Singapore, there is this culture of fear. Don’t speak up against the government or the government will “fix” you.
Alan Shadrake, London author: In Singapore, even if it is true, you aren’t supposed to say it.
Russian authorities routinely censor all measure of critics. In June 2015, the website of a consumer protection group that had called the Crimea an “occupied territory” was blocked.
Freedom of speech is one of the first indicators of how any society tolerates those with views contrary to its government. Be they minority views, “disfavored” views, or even views that are obnoxious or views that later prove false, how the government acts toward those speakers is an indication of how that government scores on human rights in general.
Efforts to censure are not new around the world. In America, access to information and free expression are critical components of our rights under the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is a foundation principle for us. It supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate opinions and ideas without the fear of retaliation, censorship or sanction.
As embarrassed, or maybe even as mortified as you may be Mr. President, over what Mr. Bannon says, he has the right to be heard. Suppression neither suits you nor our country Mr. President. But you have the right to tweet any reply you’d like.