Last winter Elaph.com, the Arab world’s most popular online newspaper, argued that upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia demonstrated the people’s ability to break “the fear barrier,” and observers across the world held their breaths in hope that ordinary people’s hunger for liberty – and willingness to take risks for it – would introduce a new age of freedom across the Middle East. If people had a say in their political lives and a stake in their economic future, perhaps there would be a chance for real freedom, real progress, even peace with Israel.
But the months that have followed the dramatic downfall of the dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia have been bloody, frustrating, and tragic for dissidents and journalists the world over.
Certainly, the demise of these two dictatorships is a positive development. For the first time in decades, millions of Egyptians and Tunisians who braved the threats of beatings, bullets, and worse won a greater degree of security, personal freedom, hope, and dignity than they have had in many decades. But while proponents of freedom and human rights should be heartened by the demise of these authoritarian regimes, we should also realize this will be a long, hard war and those dramatic developments were but early battles.
Efforts to bring down the dictatorships of Bashar Assad in Syria and Moamar Gaddafi in Libya – the latter with the help of a multi-national military coalition – have met with fierce and overwhelming brutality on the part of these authoritarian rulers. Ironically, it seems that the worst of the world’s rulers, having witnessed the power of popular resistance and of the media, old and new, to catalyze it, are clamping down more severely than ever.
In essence, it seems the worst regimes have descended further into depravity and repression. “As more people seek to claim their rights, we are seeing an even fiercer response on the part of repressive regimes like Syria and Libya,” said Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, a New York-based independent watchdog organization that advocates for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
Hence, perhaps, reports of unthinkable brutality such as that of the alleged torture and murder of a 13-year-old Syrian boy, Hamza al-Khatib, that emerged last week. His story has become a rallying cry for Syrians, much like that of pro-democracy demonstrator Neda Agha Soltan, who was shot to death by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, became for Iranians. We cannot know how many people have allegedly been tortured by the Assad regime because, despite smuggled video like the one that displays this child’s cigarette-burned and mutilated corpse, the Syrian government exercises near total control of media. But as a female Syrian human rights activist told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night in a rare audio broadcast from inside Syria, torture – including even the torture of children – on the part of the Assad regime has been whispered about in Syria for decades but has not been widely publicized because of restrictions on media and communication that new media have challenged.
The Assad regime’s escalating brutality is, in a sense, predictable. Last month, a Syrian-American who grew up in Syria told this reporter the regime would likely “crack down” harder than ever on pro-democracy protestors and “they might be successful, because there is no foreign media involved and no images can get out.”
Press censorship and human rights abuse go hand in hand. The less press freedom and access to information exist within a society, the more likely a regime will be to abuse its power. In turn, the more abusive the regime, the less tolerant of press and free flow of information it will become. This dynamic is mutually reinforcing.
“The modus operandi of these regimes is to operate in the shadows; that’s what they thrive on,” Walker told The Jewish Standard.
Nor are regimes known to be extreme human rights abusers the only ones repressing the media. Wednesday’s New York Times reported that the Egyptian military is already summoning for “questioning” journalists and bloggers critical of its rule in the interim preceding elections.
Even in the United States, where we are blessed to exercise our political, economic, and spiritual freedom without fear, it can be hard to retain faith in the power of democratic movements’ freedom to change the world. But the fact that there exist in the world people who continue to stand up for their rights and take huge risks to do so obligates us to care and to support them.
“Reform-minded forces need to have the support of the democratic world, especially at a time when the most repressive and illiberal forces are seeking to impose their will,” said Walker. “These battles for rights are going to take a considerable amount of time – it will require great patience and commitment to ensure we get the best possible outcomes under very difficult circumstances.”
Walker directs readers to www.freedomhouse.org for more information.