When a forum on free speech faces realities of censorship

Coming into an event to talk about freedom of speech, sponsored by a ‘citadel of free speech,’ one might expect to have an open and honest conversation about..free speech.

But in reality, fear of persecution for panelists or their families is sometimes too strong a factor in how open people want to be.

Each month I moderate a free discussion on global affairs at a local pub, The Happy Dog. The event is sponsored by The City Club of Cleveland and a cadre of other globally-minded organizations in Northeast Ohio. We’ve talked about the refugee crisis and the future of Angela Merkel, we’ve talked about the origins of ISIS, we’ve even talked about foreign policy challenges for President Donald Trump and showed up on C-SPAN.

But our conversation in April 2017 on free speech and censorship in Turkey did not show up on C-SPAN, Facebook Live, or anywhere else.

Our panelists included a former Turkish judge, and a former Turkish official fired in a consolidation of support by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who were to talk about realities in Turkey. What was Turkey like before the coup attempt, before the crackdown on journalists and protesters, before now? Why does it seem Turkey at one point was headed toward the constitutional liberalism of Europe, and even partnership with the E.U., but now seems clearly authoritarian? What is the reality for individuals who don’t agree with Erdoğan, and what does that mean for their security?

The panelists agreed to speak at the event, but demurred at the conversation being recorded, or their names or images publicized. They feared retribution against their families and friends back in Turkey. They feared that speaking openly in a forum on free speech in a Cleveland pub would bring harm and persecution back home.

We had our conversation, and those present could enjoy it, but we agreed not to share details of the event as much and as freely as normal.

In my reporting about Egypt a year after the initial uprising that led to the fall of Mubarak I faced many people with the same worry that I saw in the panelists in Cleveland. Two tables of Egyptian expats in Zurich requested anonymity when we talked about the future of their country. A man at a Coptic church near Zurich initially agreed to speak to me on the record, but later wanted his name shielded because he had openly said in the interview he worried for his family…which in turn could attract something to worry about. (I agreed to shield his last name after-the-fact.)

And all around the world there is genuine persecution, including imprisonment and death, for the exercising of freedom of expression. But that direct and brutal imposition of censorship is compounded by the fear that causes people to self-censor out of a sense of self-preservation.

This is a reality of the internet that must not be forgotten, that a simple web search of a name might bring attention to someone speaking thousands of miles from a regime looking to suppress an opposition.

Journalists like me are at their core agents of free speech. Ideally, journalists work to promote and share the perspectives and realities of all segments of society. But it’s also sometimes a balance of protecting sources, protecting individuals, while letting the greater public know what’s going-on. I’m not a proponent of excessively allowing anonymity, and indeed think it should be used sparingly.

But sometimes granting that anonymity allows more information about the bigger reality to come through.

One of the panelists shared the work of Advocates of Silenced Turkey. Find them on Twitter: https://twitter.com/silencedturkey 

“…as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.” – Thomas Jefferson