Gatekeepers of Information: When Democracy begins to Rot

Aaron Swartz, the American coder, hacker, and internet activist who took his own life last week after two years of – possibly political – prosecution – would have needed critical solidarity. There is no need to believe in people like him, but there is a need to see their rights, and to see the infringements on their rights. There are many of Mr. Swartz’ kind, and most of them go unnoticed. When I wrote about Deutsche Welle‘s Chinese service, and published this interview, I kept in mind that while the judicial system doesn’t always amount to justice, the main problem – probably – is general apathy.

I see a parallel between Mr. Swartz’ case, and China – and I think I can afford to point this out without being considered a CCP apologist. Obvious abuse of state power (if in a legal sense, remains to be seen, but clearly abuse in an ethical sense) leads to flaring tempers both in America and in China. It is a universal experience – most people can relate to it in one way or another. But those moments are rare.

One news agency in Germany – an agency with an official church background – published a long report, with a lot of verification in favor of the four Deutsche-Welle journalists that had been sacked. Apparently, not one single paper or broadcaster in Germany cared to air it. One regional radio station had it on their website for a limited period – they announced in advance that it was only temporarily online. I haven’t seen it anywhere else. I’m imagining how news-and-analysis people put their eggheads together and write smart articles when things like these go on in China. In a democratic country? No, never! News that is in the public interest will always see the light of day! Truth does not burn in the fire or drown in the water!

Noone seemed to demand coverage about the four sacked journalists, either. The report was apparently available to all the German press, in a common database. So there is no reason to believe that the press people were unaware of the story. Unfortunately, the newsagency didn’t put the story online. Maybe that would have helped. Maybe.

Their problem there at the press, as I interpret it: their industrial-relations and journalist issues ware a sensitive issue all over the commercial (and publicly-owned) media. Hence no interest in covering it.

As long as the big papers don’t cover a story, it won’t have happened. The traditional media are still the gate-keepers for politically relevant information. That’s where questions about the “4th estate” need to be asked. They may address many issues and flaws, but to address ones own doesn’t come easily.

There are a few “beacons” in public awareness, like Julian Assange or Bradley Manning. Their merits – and mistakes, in my view -, would need to be debated extensively, rather than simply be praised or condemned. People like them seem to serve as some post-modern kinds of Jesuses-on-the-cross. People pay their respects to them as they do to Brian, as he hangs on the cross in that great Monty-Python movie, and then go back to their routines.

That kills every issue. When “Jesus” is in charge, you don’t need to do anything. When Assange and Manning are saints, you can’t live up to their example anyway. Only a society that is prepared to look into the shades of grey, to judge, and to decide what to do, can become a more fair society.

It is right to mourn Mr. Swartz. But the main question is: how to handle the issue? It’s a question to society. To get either careerist or politicized prosecutors fired – guys who were apparently not obliged to prosecute, but did it anyway -, would be a beginning. It wouldn’t only be an achievement for those who make it into the headlines, but also for the many who go unnoticed, in their neighborhoods, and nationwide. Power needs to learn to respect the “common people”.

That’s why I maintain that the main difference between China and most Western country isn’t about human rights. It is about totalitarianism. Our press isn’t controlled centrally, but business (and, at times, political) principles control it anyway. We can speak out, provided that what we say is backed by evidence, but too many people who matter won’t speak out. That’s when things start going into the wrong direction, even in democratic countries. Democracy is nothing static. It can rot, if it isn’t defended against adversaries from within (who frequently like to present themselves as democracy’s greatest champions).

Here is another problem: networking. It’s another field where Western countries are becoming more similar to China. The law is becoming unpredictable here, given the technicalities. You can twist every paragraph – or any well-paid lawyer can – until it fits the interests of the powerful. Much will depend on your connections. Not only in China.

Still too vague? OK – let’s talk Turkey: when torture becomes something a public intellectual can advocate in a European paper without becoming a pariah in his own established network, things are going wrong.

If our fundamental rights matter as much to us as our economic prospects do, it’s time to go from mourning to action, however small. Just as meditation is a skill one needs to learn, awareness for the small, but important things one can do in the real world, can be learned, too.

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Related

» Shredding a Principle, Aug 16, 2012
» When your Employer suspects…, Feb 18, 2012

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