Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

New 'democracies' failing if speech isn't free

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
August 22, 2012 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says when Russian authorities decided to throw the book at three punk-rock performers from the provocatively named group Pussy Riot, the issue was always democracy or, rather, lack of it..
Frida Ghitis says when Russian authorities decided to throw the book at three punk-rock performers from the provocatively named group Pussy Riot, the issue was always democracy or, rather, lack of it..
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Russia, Egypt, other "populist" states show faltering democracy in stifled speech
  • She says Pussy Riot sentence and jailing of Putin critics are recent examples
  • She says Ecuador, Venezuela, Egypt use laws, intimidation to "coercively pre-empt" criticism
  • Ghitis: Democracy real only if it allows the powerful flow of ideas; without that, it's a mirage

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- How free are you to say what you think and what you believe? How free are you to hear the views of others, of those who challenge widely held beliefs or dare to criticize the powerful?

Upon the answer to that question lies the essence and the soul of democracy.

That's why today we have more conclusive evidence that democracy is faltering in Russia and why we see alarming signs that the revolution in Egypt may lead not toward, but away from, the democratic path.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

It's also why we have reason to feel encouraged about the prospects for change in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and why we know that, despite populist claims, democracy in places such as Iran, Venezuela and Ecuador -- the country that offered asylum to WikiLeaks' Julian Assange -- is either dead, dying or suffering a serious illness.

And it's why we know that China has not a shred of democratic rule.

When Russian authorities decided to throw the book at three punk-rock performers from the provocatively named group Pussy Riot, the issue was always democracy or, rather, lack of it.

Prosecutors charged the three -- Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova -- with hooliganism and religious incitement after they staged their iconoclastic show earlier this year in Moscow. The three burst onto the altar of the city's Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, wearing their trademark face covers and brightly colored balaclavas, and spent 40 seconds chanting their song "Mother of God, Cast Putin Out," which later became part of their YouTube hit "Punk Prayer."

The performance was meant to shock. But, more than anything, it was an act of protest. Like others in Russia, they were taking on the increasingly authoritative rule of President Vladimir Putin. And, in this case, they wanted to draw attention, they said, to the church's growing role in politics.

Normally, the disruptive show would have received a fine, charges of disturbing the peace or disrupting a religious service. But in today's Russia, you cannot take on the president without serious consequences.

The women of Pussy Riot gained notoriety partly for the name of their group and their colorful antics. But their case is only the most highly publicized of a number of terrible abuses of the law against critics of the president.

Alexei Navalny, one of the most popular of Putin's detractors, has been charged with embezzlement on what many people believe are trumped up charges. Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky remains in a Siberian prison, where he has been since 2005 after daring to challenge Putin's authority. Countless Russian journalists have died mysterious deaths, as have anti-corruption crusaders, such as Sergei Magnitsky. Opposition leader Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, has come under physical attack

Attacking the opposition, imprisoning one's critics is one way to tighten one's hold on power. But there is no better way to maintain the perception of democracy than by controlling what the people -- the voters -- are allowed to hear and read and think.

That's why restricting freedom of expression, especially media freedoms, is the favorite sport of authoritarian governments that want to preserve the appearance of democratic legitimacy.

Winning an election could confer democratic legitimacy. But what happens when the opposition doesn't have access to the media? What happens when journalists are not free to criticize the government?

That's when democracy dies, even if it lives in a zombie state, with leaders elected by voters with access only to views in support of the regime or where the president's critics are smeared, ridiculed and maligned, as happens in far too many places.

In Egypt, which has its first elected president, there is evidence of a move to stifle criticism and bring a single point of view to the public.

When the newspaper Al-Dustour ran a list of accusations against the Muslim Brotherhood, from whose ranks President Mohamed Morsy rose, authorities removed every issue from the stands. The paper's editor, Islam Afifi, is one of several journalists charged with insulting the president. Afifi says the Brotherhood wants to "silence any opposition to their policies."

The Upper House, dominated by Islamist legislators, just hand-picked 50 newspaper editors for state-owned publications. Morsy named a Brotherhood activist, Salah Abdel Maksoud, as information minister, adding to fears among many journalists that Islamists will gain control of the media.

In Ecuador, the country whose democratically elected president has embraced WikiLeak's Assange, a self-described champion of freedom of expression, journalists say President Rafael Correa has launched a campaign of fear and intimidation to stifle criticism.

Ecuador's mind-boggling media law prohibits reports and even editorials that "have a bearing, in favor of or against a specific candidate, proposal, option, electoral preference or political thesis."

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls it "coerced pre-emption" and says it adds to a program of smear campaigns and defamation laws aimed at producing self-censorship.

Self-censorship, of course, is the ultimate desired result. When the government doesn't have to imprison or harass its critics anymore because no one dares criticize it, then democracy is only skin deep, no matter how free elections appear.

Then, few dare to criticize the government, and voters are exposed to glowing reviews of their leader's prowess and wisdom. It's easy to win elections that way.

Ecuador is following the model put in place by Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez imposed the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, complete with multimillion dollar fines and shutting down of outlets that run afoul of the government.

To keep a patina of democratic freedom, some opposition is allowed to function, but the playing field is sharply tilted.

Those tactics are much more subtle than Iran's, where the government has thrown scores of journalists in prison.

The regime has not only imprisoned and tortured journalists, it has also shut down newspapers, blocked websites and jammed satellite signals. The government now says it plans to stop using the Internet by 2013 because it is "untrustworthy."

Sadly, restrictions on freedom of expression, one of the most fundamental of all human rights, are much more widespread than most people realize. According to Freedom House, a human rights advocacy group, only 14.5% of the world's people live in places with true media freedom.

The encouraging news in all of this is that the efforts of authoritarian regimes to silence their critics highlight the power of words, the power of free expression and the importance even they place on having democratic legitimacy.

That remains a powerful incentive for advocates of democracy to keep up their fight.

If they lose the battle to pry open the flow of ideas, they will lose the struggle for democracy, because even when a president is elected, if the people are not free to criticize him and his policies, then democracy is a mirage -- and so is freedom.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT