Tag Archives: freedom of speech

Venezuela and Democratic Authoritarianism

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By Victoria Noya, a Venezuelan 3rd year International Development student, currently studying abroad in East Asia.

On December 2015 many Venezuelans gained new hope and optimism for their country, as the Opposition party secured three fifths of seats at the National Assembly, the legislative branch of Venezuela’s government. This was arguably a democratic victory that countered the government’s long standing authoritarian behaviour. However, as many expected, that optimism was short-lived. The Supreme Court, which abides by every whim and fancy of the central government, would go on to prohibit the legislature from naming a handful of members of the electoral council. Nevertheless, since the Venezuelan government has been playing a hybrid regime of authoritarian action with democratic facade and discourse, it came as a huge surprise when on March 29th, under the pretence of the National Assembly’s “contempt”, the Supreme Court decided to usurp the National Assembly[1], ruling that all the National Assembly’s powers would go to the Supreme Court. This has been interpreted by many as a “self-inflicted coup d’état”[2], since what was once a political body that kept the authoritarian regime in check, would no longer continue to do so.

For about 15 years Venezuelans have been living under a de facto dictatorship. At least in the sense that all democratic activity is in some way either restricted or influenced by the government. For example, freedom of speech, a right that goes hand in hand with democracy. Although the government has never spoken against it, it just so happened that throughout the past 15 years, news agencies that are anti-Chavez have been bought up one by one, by entities with Chavista agendas. This type of corruption seeps into essentially every industry that Venezuela has left. Additionally, it is the vox populi that elections are rigged. The subtlety of the government’s totalitarianism was key to establishing Venezuela’s government as a hybrid regime, and it allowed the president and his party to legitimately remain in power. March 29th wouldn’t be the first time the Supreme Court had abused its power, but it would be the first time that their grasp for power was so blunt.

Since March 29th, many peaceful protests led by the opposition have  turned violent, an occurrence that for the past couple of years, is no longer unusual. The blunt decision sparked outrage, since Venezuelans have never actively, perhaps not even knowingly, supported the government’s authoritarianism. This is why the interpretation of “self-inflicted coup d’etat” isn’t quite accurate, it’s more like the government was being honest about what they are: an authoritarian dictatorship. Whether it be because of international or internal pressure, President Maduro later urged the Supreme Court to reverse their decision[3], which only means that the government is back to being dishonest, and that nothing is going to change in the future.

Before I go on, it is important to expand where Venezuela finds itself now. With the progression of Chavez’s presidency, so grew a new political ideology: Chavismo. This populist anti-US ideology gained much popularity among the lower classes, who were told that the government would support them and that their hardships were at the hand of the upper classes as well as US “imperialism”. This repeated discourse over more than 15 years created a social divide that had never existed before. The divide is exemplified in political elections, where Chavistas are extremely loyal to Chavez and his legacy, and society is divided by an intense hostility between die-hard Chavistas and Opposition followers. After Chavez’s death, his legacy remained. The government has targeted the passionate loyalty of Chavistas to ensure power, which means that even under Maduro, a widely unpopular president, Chavistas are unlikely to turn to the Opposition. Insanely high crime rates add to the heightened tensions and fear that has become part of Venezuelan’s daily life, to the point that all new cars being bought are bulletproof – that is, if there even are cars to sell and enough money to buy them, given that inflation is at 800%[4]. Venezuela’s chaotic wasteland of an economy depends on oil exports. The 2014 drop in oil prices had a drastic effect on the economy, but only because decades of high oil revenue with mass deprivatization and virtually no investment in industry or infrastructure, meant the country was not equipped to deal with a sudden drop in government revenue. Today, shortages and scarcity has become the norm in Venezuela: there is no food and no medicine, and prolonged water and electricity cuts are more likely than not. Protests are a regular occurrence, most often for food and medicine shortages, and most recently expressing their disappointment at the Supreme Court.

Given the state of Venezuela today, it is easy to see why the Supreme Court chose to solidify the government’s power. The government likely felt they were losing their grasp on the country due to the economic and social turmoil it faces. That being said, I fear that President Maduro’s demand that the Supreme Court reverse its decision means that any change in the social or political sphere of the country is very unlikely. Firstly, the Venezuelan people may interpret the National Assembly’s regained control as a victory, even though it is not. While the National Assembly was and is able to keep the central government in check to some extent, the Supreme Court and central government have always had more power and could play the National Assembly like a chessboard. Secondly, since it was President Maduro who publicly stated his disapproval of the Supreme Court’s actions, the “blame” is shifted from the central government to the Supreme Court, thus shedding the government in a false democratic light, and solidifying its popularity among voters. Furthermore, banning the leader of the Opposition[5], Henrique Capriles, from candidacy in the upcoming 2018 elections is the same behaviour displayed by the central government since the Opposition began gaining recognition, long before Chavez’s passing. It is with a heavy heart that I give a pessimistic prediction of Venezuela’s future, regardless of any external factor, the core problem is the central government’s reluctance to give up power no matter the cost to society.

Bibliography:

[1] The Economist, Venezuela leaps towards dictatorship, March 2017

[2] Luis Almagro, secretary-general of OAS, The Economist March 2017

[3] The Economist, The Venezuelan Government’s Abortive Power Grab, April 2017

[4] Reuters, CNBC, Venezuela 2016 inflation hits 800 percent, GDP shrinks 19 percent: Document, Jan 2017

[5] Ulmer and Ellsworth, Leading Venezuela Opposition figure barred from office 15 years, April 2017

PHOTO: JUAN BARRETO / AFP

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The Justice and Development Party (AKP): where Justice and Development have found new definitions

by Diana Ecaterina Borcea, a Romanian native who is also an incoming first year undergraduate at King’s College London. Diana will start pursuing a BA in War Studies this September. Her main interests in the research of international relations cover subjects like security and conflict in Eastern Europe, history of diplomacy & conflicts, military strategy and war in international order.


 

15 Jul 10:30 pm: the seizure of the key locations in Ankara (and the Bosphorus bridges) takes place

15 Jul 11:00 pm: guns are fired in Ankara and tanks start sieging close to the parliament

16 Jul 12:30 am: President Erdoğan’s call for people’s public rally is aired

16 Jul 2:30 am: the parliament is under attack and a coup members’ helicopter is shot down

16 Jul 9:30 am: the main stage of the coup is declared to be over and soldiers start surrendering

16 Jul 3:00 pm: eight coup participants fly to Greece to seek asylum.

AKP

AKP emblem

 

 

Bottom line? Over 270 people killed and almost 1500 wounded. This tragic outcome is deeply overwhelming even for a country where there have been no fewer than five major coups in the past six decades, with the latest one included. With Turkey’s bleeding stability, few days after the failed coup, questions started rising and the importance of the political leadership became a major element in understanding what really happened in Turkey. Identifying both the causes and the potential long-term consequences of the plotter’s overthrow basically means looking into the state’s leading party, which has been holding not only the majority of seats in the Parliament for thirteen years, but also the enthusiasm and support of the Turkish people.

 

Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Turkish), internationally known as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become the strongest Turkish political association in the past decade and presents itself as a conservative right-wing, democratic party, which does not resemble any components of the Islamic agenda, according to its spokesperson, Hüseyin Çelik. Holding the reins of power in Turkey since 2002, AKP, whose leader was the actual President of the Republic (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) has, however, consolidated a system leaning towards authoritarianism, facing accusations of having a secret agenda, which does not bear a resemblance to the democratic ideology at all. Moreover, the Western press and important Turkish media insiders have repeatedly underlined that Erdoğan’s party is responsible for acts against Turkish secularism and for the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under these controversial circumstances, in its thirteen years of power, AKP has faced numerous closing dates, one of which happened in 2008, when the party confronted dissolution by the Constitutional Court for violating article 86 from the Political Parties Law, because it attempted to change the secularism of the state. These tense moments did not, however, prevent AKP from tightening regulations regarding the usage of internet, abortion and alcohol consumption in 2013. The measures taken in the night between 15th of 16th of July – blocking access to social media (Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) are identical to the ones imposed in 2014, which demonstrates the authoritarian operational mode of AKP.  So, is Erdoğan’s AKP actually protecting Atatürk’s Republic and its people?

 

The answer could be heard from the voices of the thousands gathered in the Taksim Square (Istanbul), who chanted for democracy and the Republic, but not as they once did for the President. The concerns for the Turkish democracy became stronger, as it is already noted that the first major consequence of the coup is giving the government both the justification and the power to tighten its control over the state, declaring, in the process of finding and eliminating the plotters, a three-month long state of emergency. Despite the waves of Western accusations for being an Islamist-influenced party and for its anti-democratic measures, AKP still has its mass supporters, who have also made their voice heard after the coup. The President’s lasting popularity is based on genuine facts, which include Turkey’s economic revival since 2003, the religious pervasiveness of the party and the very fact that Erdoğan is a man of people. As a result, by representing a conservative, religious lower-class, the President has assured his major support, shadowing the worrying fact that immediately after the coup, his government started a massive purge of soldiers, policemen, judges, prosecutors and even teachers in order to secure the post-coup safety of his governance.

 

What is more, the Turkish leader has publicly refused to eliminate the execution of the coup plotters, stirring EU reactions, which have clearly stated that in such case, Turkey will no longer be able to adhere to the Union. This adds up to the radical constitutional package presented earlier this week, which has also caught the international focus by being denominated as “a constitutional reform package aimed at EU integration.” Following these considerations, AKP’s political strategy does not seem hard to unveil. A foreign isolationist policy combined with the massive media shutdown in Turkey might protect the government’s reputation from the objective, alarming western critique, by which the President himself has proved to be so affected (2014 media access block). Is that, in this case, a well-designed plan to cover the abuses and injustices committed with Ankara’s leadership consent?

 

The certainty illustrates that the aforementioned events are definitely not singular or non-repeatable. The deaths of hundreds of people seem to fade in comparison with Erdoğan’s policy and his party movements, which is why the aforementioned tragic bottom line might as well be a header. On the edge between authoritarianism and military dictatorship, Turkey’s faith is in the hands of the so-called “Justice” and “Development”. Regardless of the isolation-related uncertainties, the future of Ankara relies on the guidelines of the new definitions offered to these two terms, as seen and understood by Erdoğan’s long-lasting impenetrable party.

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Prevent and Safe Space: A double-edged sword?

by Daniel Porter – 2nd year WS and Philosophy, President of King’s College London Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society (KCL AHSS).

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Has anyone else noticed that if you turn Safe Space into an acronym, you get the SS? Anyway, I digress. SS was initially implemented with the intentions of preventing hate speech, or the incitement to violence, on university campuses: a noble aim. Unfortunately, it has since been transformed into a policy to prevent offensive speech: a purely subjective construct. With the new policy crumbling under the weight of its own incoherency, we have all be given a first row ticket to the fair. The UK Government’s Prevent Programme, on the other hand, has been transformed from working to “stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”, to ostracising parts of the community, and creating a larger schism “between the  ‘Muslim’ us and the British ‘other’”, as Aminul Hoque, a lecturer and author on British Islamic identity at Goldsmiths, University of London, suggests. Clearly, there is a problem to be addressed with both.

As part of the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Programme (CONTEST), Prevent was designed to work explicitly in challenging extremism in the UK. I think we can all agree that this is a good idea? It does seem, however, that this strategy is missing its mark, and serving to fuel radicalisation in targeted communities. With many feeling they would be viewed by authorities as potential terrorists if they went to mosques or joined other organised Muslim groups, Prevent has left some people “lost and disenfranchised.” This grievance narrative only serves to provide a breeding ground for radicalisation, thus highlighting that Government policy has fed the very monster it aims to destroy.

The Government’s Community Cohesion Programme (2001-onwards) seemed like a good place to start. With strong support from the ground level, it established non-stigmatising ways to address issues of extremism, segregation and racial tension between, and within, communities. It is this support from the ground level that Prevent has failed to capture, presenting itself as an imposing, and indiscriminate, body of supervision within Muslim communities. This was a doomed enterprise. The focus of the effort must come from within the community itself, as it will never work if an external body comes in, and is seen to be throwing its weight around. As the first victims of extremism are those within the community, the most effective efforts will also come from the community itself. Therefore, government policy cannot be seen as another battle to be fought, but as a cooperative endeavour, working with schools and community leaders, starting with young people, and thereby generating support from the ground level.

Unless we pretend that there is no such thing as extremism, a counter policy needs to be implemented. There are risks of radicalisation that we need to deal with, so what are the alternatives, rather than to focus in on the communities where radicalisation occurs?

SS was first implemented to counter hate speech on university campuses. It is perfectly rational to oppose speech which incites violence or hatred towards an individual. However, the practice of SS policy has degraded into an opposition of the concept of offense itself. Anyone who deigns to pay intellectual attention to this should realise its inevitable incoherence and self-contradiction. Who gets to decide what is offensive? What if someone is offended by your offence, or lack thereof?

Those who doubt that this is occurring have perhaps not been paying attention. An anti-IS fighter is barred from giving a talk at his old university of UCL, based on the notion that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” The heights of incoherent relativism are truly surreal, smacking of the 15 year old who during one his school debates thinks he has had an epiphany (you can almost smell the BO). An activist for secularism (which one should note is both freedom from and of religion) and women’s rights, particularly in societies where patriarhal structures make the West pale in comparison, is barred from the University of Warwick on the grounds she could cause offence. The sheepish and somewhat shameful retreat by the SU which ensued, was a rather clear sign that in their reasons for barring her, they really had no idea what they were talking about. Again, who decides what constitutes offence? People are rather eager to state that they can define it for themselves, but are far more reluctant to nominate or accept another to do so for them. Apologies for the cliché, but who watches the watchmen?

A society’s openness is always measured by its acceptance of, and engagement with, heresy. There is a great deal of prescience in Schopenhauer’s observation that: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Freedom of speech is first of all freedom of speech for the person in the minority, or challenging the views of the mainstream. There are things which deeply offend each of us to the depths of our being, but a society where that is not possible, where your ideas and beliefs cannot be challenged, is not a society worthy of the name.

One should not confuse this endorsement of freedom of speech, with the view that one should not challenge views or ideologies. One can only combat pernicious ideologies with other ideas. Indeed, the very reason we support freedom of speech and thought is so that this can occur. A successful prevent policy should allow people to think for themselves, while engaging with the views and ideas others. It is difficult because ideas are powerful, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. This is based on positive engagement, which requires a free flow of ideas, and by extension, speech. By contrast, current SS policy is ever more an exercise in negation. When dealing with ideas, this will naturally lead to a negation of freedom of speech, as we have seen. With university a place of intellectual meditation and development, these values can never be expected to flourish if we are not allowed to think, or speak for ourselves. More distressing than a policy which merely restricts what you can, and cannot, say; current SS restricts what you can, and cannot, hear.

It seems clear, therefore, that the continued implementation of Prevent and SS in their current form is only going to fuel radicalisation, and silence those who wish to fight it, respectively. It is a double edged sword which will only serve to inflict deeper wounds if we hold on for much longer.

“With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged.” – Captain Picard

Sources:

http://www.studentrights.org.uk/article/2321/ex_student_who_fought_against_islamic_state_banned_from_ucl_update_uclu_reverse_decision_

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-counter-terrorism/2010-to-2015-government-policy-counter-terrorism#appendix-2-prevent

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31756755

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/are-we-failing-to-prevent-extremism-amongst-british-young-people/

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The political prize of the privileged: Zionism on student campuses and freedom of speech

Alberto Torres is a 3rd Year BSc Political Economy student, co-president of KCL Action Palestine and Social Science and Public Policy School representative at the Student’s Union. He is also a political campaigner and a libertarian socialist.

Every now and then, a speaker or event that speaks on behalf or tramples on the oppression of marginalised communities, is shut down or experiences an attempted shut down by students in a UK university (usually BME, white lefties, women and LGBT+). This is usually followed by “moral panic” in the media and in outcries from privileged sections of the student body portraying disaffected students as irrational and extreme. “Freedom of speech”, is seen as the sacrosanct moral emblem with which to judge and to (ironically) attempt to stifle student’s right to organise politically and protest.

Unfortunately, the background and true facts behind no platforming and protest are frequently distorted and overblown, which is ironically what divides and polarises the student community. One such example is the alleged banning of the song blurred lines from student spaces across universities in 2013 (a song that many believe promotes rape culture), which raised considerable controversy and condemnation from liberal and reactionary sections of the student body. In reality, it was discussion and democratic decisions made by students in student unions that resulted in the decision to stop playing the song at union bars and clubs. “Banning” is an inaccurate description, for it implies students were forbidden from listening or playing the song themselves. Yet, it is the term that keeps circulating today.
Students using the freedom of speech emblem to protest such events are often as ideological and biased as the people they try to argue against. Though there is nothing wrong with bias (in fact I believe we should all recognise and have an ideology of some sort), there is a certain irony in the way more privileged and reactionary student groups use this ‘emblem of honour’ in some situations and not others. An irony whereby the exaggeration and hyperbole they create ends up contributing to the division and polarisation they so much critique.

 

Though every event has its own particularities, the occurrence of dissent, no-platforming and protest often raises questions and criticisms of the misunderstood policy of “Safe Space”, and especially over freedom of speech. In LSE for example, students recently set up a society whose sole purpose is “to bring free speech back to their university”.

 

If there’s a hypocritical and politically charged term, it is freedom of speech. One of the most common misconceptions around this term is that freedom of speech equals the right to a platform. But that you may have the freedom to be racist and not go to jail does not result you have an automatic entitlement to get on a public platform and promote racism. Words are powerful and have consequences. In a world of structural racism, sexism, and inequality, discriminatory views and ideas about migrants, women, and other minorities often leads to abuse and even deaths. It is important to recognise that our decisions to air someone else’s views, as innocuous as it may seem, have political implications. We should be working to critique and challenge systems of domination, not to perpetrate them.

 

As an example, when the leader of the quasi-fascist British National Party was invited to BBC’s question time (whose policies include a white only membership and returning descendants of migrants to their countries of origin), it saw a historic 3,000 increase in membership in one night despite the apparent ‘ridicule’ the party leader endured by the panel. Similarly, racists like the US republican candidate Donald Trump, who claims Mexico should have been invaded by the United States, has gone to lead the polls as a favourite contender for the Republican Party after substantial media coverage (and we have unintentionally played a part sharing and disseminating his message). For the typical white liberal student these people may be laughing material to be reproduced and invited to debates, but for oppressed peoples giving platform to these views often costs lives.

True freedom of speech does not exist even in the most liberal societies. Holocaust denial is illegal in 184 countries and even student unions such as LSESU and KCLSU have a no-platform policy for Holocaust revisionists and deniers. Any form of hate speech that may incite violence is usually also forbidden. Yet, the genocide of more than one hundred million indigenous Americans is celebrated through events such as “Christopher Colombous day” and “Thanksgiving day”, and denying the Nakbah (ongoing Palestinian ethnic cleansing since 1948) is a very common salient feature of liberal Zionists brought to universities by advocates of Israeli apartheid. Even for the most blindly ideological, it should be explicit that “freedom of speech” is a term filled with double standards.
Recently, an event at King’s College London with war criminal and former head of the Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Service) Ami Ayalon was protested by disaffected students and non-students, a majority of which came on their own account (For more information about the speaker and KCL Action Palestine account of events). The protest sparkled controversy and hyperbole, and with the help of Zionist groups it reached the BBC, the Daily Mail, and even newspapers in Israel and the UK parliament (with considerable distortion and event fabrication). Claims that freedom of speech is under threat in academia and allegations that students felt intimidated and unsafe on campus have reached many ears and both the union and the university have been taking concerted action to address the later. At the same time, the student’s union trustee board vetoed a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution in support of Palestine two years ago, and an academic conference on “International Law and the State of Israel” in Southampton university last year was cancelled due to pressure of Zionist groups and the Israeli embassy. It would seem “freedom of speech” is not a moral virtue to be used without distinction, but a weapon of the privileged to be used when it advances their agendas.

 

Regarding the later, not one dared to consider how a Palestinian student (or someone of Palestinian origin) may have felt about someone who presided over the torture of their own people being platformed. Neither, that pro-Palestine students in campus may feel intimidated and demoralised after a myriad of hate messages, inflammatory attacks by right wing politicians, and relentless demonization by the media. KCLSU Safe Space policy is about providing inclusive spaces that are free from intimidation and harassment for all students. In fact, one of the provisions in KCLSU Safe Space policy is that in given situations KCLSU will “ensure a balance of opinions at any academic discussion or debate”. Even legitimate protest and unwarranted disruption could be potentially avoided in many of these events should Safe Space be actually implemented according to the nature of events.
The incident at KCL and the regular use of the rhetoric of “freedom of speech” to counter protest and dissent is part of an ideological defense to justify existing racism and privilege. From the racist publications of Charlie Hebdo to attacking the cancellation an Oxford debate where two white males intended to publically debate women’s reproductive rights, defending Zionists’ right to bring apartheid apologists and war criminals to student campuses, and attacking LSE’s decision to ban a rugby team propagating rape culture and homophobia this tactic keeps being reproduced over and over and over again. Meanwhile, “freedom of speech” is side-lined by these same groups when students are criminalised and silenced for (for example) questioning the legitimacy of Israel, or for platforming human rights defender and former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg under the PREVENT government strategy.

 

If “freedom of speech” holds such inconsistent meaning, perhaps we as students should utilise terms with real moral value: social justice, equality, and anti-capitalism. As explained, it seems freedom of speech is an emblem worn to give our political agendas moral superiority when we can, when we want, and when we have the power to do so. A political prize for the privileged that can be taken off and hidden when it doesn’t promote our interests.

 

 

 

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