BBC Form The Forum - BBC World Service
This week: Freedom of Expression. How free should it be? Oxford prof. Timothy Garton Ash tells us why we should aspire to a world with no taboos. For pianist Jonathan Biss, complete freedom is a pre-requisite for any artistic endeavour. But Middle East Politics Professor, Fawaz Gerges, warns of self-censorship and hidden barriers. Where are your limits? Are there some lines you simply won’t cross?
For this enlightening discussion go to:
T. G. Ash:
The Freedom of Expression. How free shall it be?
Timothy Garton Ash on the Libyan Revolution:
It is a little noticed fact that the London School of Economics doctoral thesis that bears the name "Saif Al-Islam Alqadhafi" makes the case for the military intervention that resulted in his capture, current detention, and possible death sentence at the hands of what may pass in Libya for justice. Perhaps in his pre-trial captivity, Dr Gaddafi will have a chance to reflect upon the words he once supposedly wrote.
"The international order," says this thesis, "has a responsibility to protect the basic rights of those citizens who live under non-liberal governments" (such as, the reader cannot resist adding, his dad's). An academic panel – not to be confused with the inquiry by Lord Woolf, whose very critical report on the LSE's links with Libya was published on Wednesday – has yet to pronounce on charges of plagiarism made against this thesis. But whoever wrote it, it does not stop there. In the version available online it argues for a so-called collective management system, involving representatives of civil society and business as well as governments. And "to the extent that the mechanisms of the collective management system succeed in providing a way to give voice to the citizens of illiberal states, then interventions can be at the invitation of these individuals. When the top levels of the system decide to intervene in another state's affairs, it is therefore an action that has originated from the will of the people at the bottom-most levels."
Translated into plain English, this surely means that when leaders of the Libyan uprising in Benghazi pointed out that Dr Gaddafi's dad was threatening to hunt them down "alley by alley" showing "no mercy", and they asked for outside assistance, that helped justify an air campaign called for by Nicolas Sarkozy and sanctioned by the UN. The resulting Nato air strikes reportedly cost Dr Gaddafi the use of several fingers on his right hand. They also tipped the balance in favour of anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground, leading to the killing of his father (a French jet having just shot up his convoy) and the subsequent seizure of Saif.
Extraordinary photos taken soon after Saif's capture showed him in desert garb, his face and hair coated with sand, as if for a theatrical portrayal of death: the mask for a masque. What worlds away from the neat, western-dressed figure who had sat in front of Professor Lord Meghnad Desai to defend his LSE thesis just a few years earlier, presumably discussing such deathless themes as "the '3x3=3' model as a system of multi-level governance" (section 5.7) and "Collective management and cosmopolitan multi-level citizenship" (5.8).
"Yet," that thesis judiciously continues, "the difficulties involved in any decision to intervene across borders, and the dangers of 'liberal imperialism', remain, and the likelihood that military interventions could be justified, given [the] unpredictable consequences of such action, remains low." Fair comment.
"After Libya" is a good moment to take stock of what is sometimes called liberal intervention. I've recently heard two contrasting views: one from a former American ambassador, the other from a serving British one. Peter Galbraith was a protagonist of US intervention in former Yugoslavia, where he served as ambassador to Croatia, but has become a fierce critic of the massive, costly incompetence and disastrous unintended consequences of US-led interventions and bungled nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, looking back over the 20 years since the end of the cold war, Galbraith sees four "modest successes": Kuwait (the first Gulf war), Bosnia, Kosovo and now Libya. They have, he argues, some features in common. The military action was relatively brief, and much of it from the air. The interventions had broad international and regional support. The action relied upon local partners. The objectives were limited.
How can Galbraith already claim Libya as a success? Because success is defined as the achievement of that limited objective: reversing a current or seemingly imminent mass killing of civilians (Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya), or an armed occupation (Kuwait). Yes, Libya today is no Switzerland, nor is it likely to be. If things again become really horrible there – and reputable observers have already documented human rights abuses by the country's liberators – you deal with that as it comes. "Modest success" is defined also by the modesty of the goal against which it is measured.
Sir John Jenkins, Britain's ambassador to Libya and former ambassador to Iraq, will not settle for that. He recognises all the elements that made the Libyan action different and better than that in Iraq, emphasising particularly the support from the Arab League. But he argues that the lesson often drawn from the chequered record of these interventions over two decades – namely, that "state-building is a mug's game" – is precisely the wrong one. The right lesson is that "state-building is what we have to get right". So the success of the intervention can only be claimed in the longer run, if the state it affects (or creates, in the case of Kosovo) turns out to be significantly better than it had been for some time before – and not just better than in the moment of maximum humanitarian danger. What Libya, like other Arab states, needs is "legitimate, accountable, removeable government".
There's no doubting the seriousness of Jenkins's concern for a region he knows very well, but Galbraith is right on the immediate point. Liberal, humanitarian interventions must be rare, exceptional responses to extreme, inhumane circumstances, and should be judged above all by their achievement in averting or reversing the disaster.
This is pretty much what the now UN-endorsed doctrine of "responsibility to protect" (R2P) says. This is elaborated in a series of UN documents and other studies – notably a pathbreaking one by a Canadian-sponsored international commission. It sets a very demanding set of conditions, starting with the presence of an extreme humanitarian crisis but including such criteria as right intention, proper authority, last resort and proportional means. There should also be a "reasonable prospect" that the suffering can be averted or halted – and the consequences of inaction are likely to be worse than those of action. I think we can already say this of Libya. If the Gaddafis had been allowed to crush the people in Benghazi, it would be worse today.
But then comes the objection often raised in America's Iraq debate, quoting the familiar sign in an antique shop: "If you break it, you own it." To this there are two answers. First, the west didn't "break" Libya in the sense that it did break Iraq, in a war of choice not justified under the true principles of R2P. More fundamentally: the world is not an antique shop. Countries are not porcelain figurines to be picked up and carelessly smashed by visiting Americans.
Change the metaphor and think of it like this. You see your neighbour's two-year-old daughter being savaged by his rottweiler. What do you do? If you are able to, you jump over the fence and beat the dog off with a stout stick, or shoot it with your gun. You may take a special interest in the little girl's future from then on, but she doesn't become your daughter, you don't "own" her. No more does the west "own" Libya just because it made a limited, justified intervention there.
WikiLeaks has altered the leaking game for good. Secrets must be fewer, but better kept | Timothy Garton Ash
For whistleblowers, government and press, the age of digileaks cries out for new rules on what to hide – and reveal
Suppose you know a secret that you think should be made public. How do you go about it? Suppose your organisation has secrets you believe must be guarded. What should you do? Suppose you are an editor, blogger or activist, with the whistleblower huffing in your left ear and a government or company puffing in your right. Where do you draw the line?
One answer to the first question comes from Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former member of the WikiLeaks team. His OpenLeaks initiative aims to provide an untraceable "digital dropbox" in which would-be whistleblowers can deposit their digital troves. However, OpenLeaks would not itself select and publish material, as WikiLeaks did when it edited – and titled Collateral Murder – a video taken from an American helicopter gunship in Iraq as it killed 12 people, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two children.
As Domscheit-Berg explained it to me when we met earlier this year, the leaker would decide which from a select list of media and NGO partners he or she would like the material to go to. So, for example, an environmentalist whistleblower might say: "I like Greenpeace, and I trust them to use my documents in the right spirit." Someone in the German defence ministry might say: "I trust Der Spiegel to publish this responsibly." And so on. All the editorial judgments would lie with the participating news organisation or NGO. OpenLeaks would be a neutral, technical transmission mechanism – the guardian of secrecy in the cause of openness.
Domscheit-Berg is a tall, thin, intense, almost painfully idealistic young German. Passionate about the value of freedom of information, he wishes everyone to have the chance of their "five minutes of courage". This, as he points out, can be all it takes to press the button and transfer mountains of dirt. If he wants to be really scrupulous about this, maybe he should also give them five hours of reflection afterwards, in case they think better of it.
I shall be interested to see how OpenLeaks fares. In a phone conversation yesterday, Domscheit-Berg told me that they hope to launch in the late spring or early summer, probably with a modest initial slate of three media and three NGO partners. The technical difficulties of ensuring cast-iron anonymity for the source, especially against a powerful opponent such as the US or Chinese government, remain considerable. Even though OpenLeaks will argue that it does not have any legal responsibility for publication, it will surely face legal challenges. Meanwhile, leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the Guardian are also considering setting up their own "leak here" facilities.
In whatever way this process unfolds, every government, company, university and other organisation must assume that there will be more anonymised digital leaking – or digileaks, for short. The next question is therefore to the potentially leaked-against, rather than the would-be leaker. How do you strike the balance between transparency and secrecy? Even secret services and Swiss banks now nod towards openness. Yet I know of no organisation in the world that is 100% transparent.
Everyone has something they want to hide – and some things they can reasonably argue that they are justified in hiding. Often the two do not exactly coincide. Witness, for example, the hilarious spectacle of Julian Assange protesting furiously at leaks from inside WikiLeaks.
Newspapers, dedicated to openness, fight to keep secret their sources' identity. So do human rights organisations, arguing that otherwise their informants might be in danger from repressive and corrupt regimes. The anti-corruption movement Transparency International can't be wholly transparent. There is, if you will, a dialectic here. But there can also be hypocrisy: demanding of others what you are not prepared to do or have done to yourself. (The private lives of tabloid editors spring to mind.) There is a fine line between ethical dialectics and rank hypocrisy.
So what should an organisation do? I suggest two guiding principles. First, be open about your grounds for secrecy, transparent about your non-transparency. Have clear criteria and be ready to defend them. They should be able to withstand the following, somewhat paradoxical test: if this piece of information became public, could you credibly explain why it should not have become public?
Thus, for example, there is absolutely no good defence for keeping secret the American helicopter gunship video. What it showed was at best a terrible blunder in the fog of war, at worst a war crime. It should have been investigated and published. On the other hand, when it comes to the details of secret peace negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli representatives, leaked to al-Jazeera and published in the Guardian, you could argue that there was a genuine public interest in keeping those secret. How else can negotiators have the confidence to explore the publicly unsayable, in the pursuit of peace? By the time you get to foreign correspondents being taken hostage, you find newspapers themselves being active practitioners of concealment.
My second guiding principle is: protect less, but protect it better. There is a vast amount of stuff that governments and organisations keep secret for no good reason. That was the premise behind the campaigns for more freedom of information, now conceded by many democratic governments – and it has been proved right. Daylight was let in to dusty rooms, and the business of government did not collapse. Reading the US state department cables in the database that the Guardian made from the Wikileaks trove, I found reports classified as secret that could easily have appeared as news analysis pieces in a newspaper.
So: decide what you really do need to keep secret, on consistent, defensible criteria, and then do your damnedest to keep it secret. Don't, for example, upload it to a database accessible to hundreds of thousands of people. If following this second commandment results in a reduction in the amount of printed paper and emails in circulation, that will itself be a service to the rainforests and everyday sanity.
But what if something radioactive still leaks out from the smaller secret core, whether via the OpenLeaks mechanism or in other ways? Should Ms Ethical Journalist blushingly avert her eyes and hand it back unread, exclaiming "Deary me, I really shouldn't be seeing this"? The hell she should. It is the business of government to keep its secrets. It is the business of the press to find them out.
The press – here used in the broadest sense, to include citizen bloggers and activist NGOs – then makes its own judgment calls about what is in the public interest and what will be unacceptably damaging. The law sets the outer boundaries for this age-old game of hide-and-seek. The calls made by the journalist will not be the same as those made by the minister – or the company director, or the hospital boss, or the university vice-chancellor. Each plays their part, and the result is one of democracy's most important sets of checks and balances.
Digileaks change democracy as graphite rackets changed tennis. Whether they make it better or worse will depend on the rules, the umpires and the players.
Tunisia's revolution isn't a product of Twitter or WikiLeaks. But they do help | Timothy Garton Ash
The internet alone won't set anyone free. Between north Africa and Belarus, we are learning just what it can and can't do
'The Kleenex Revolution"? Somehow I think not. Unless, that is, you follow Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. In a televised denunciation of the popular uprising that has deposed his friendly neighbouring dictator, he ranted: "Even you, my Tunisian brothers, you may be reading this Kleenex and empty talk on the internet." (Kleenex is how Gaddafi refers to WikiLeaks.) "Any useless person, any liar, any drunkard, anyone under the influence, anyone high on drugs can talk on the internet, and you read what he writes and you believe it. This is talk which is for free. Shall we become the victims of Facebook and Kleenex and YouTube?" To which, since the speaker is another dictator, I devoutly hope that the answer is "Yes". Let Kleenex wipe them away, one after another, like blobs of phlegm.
But will it? What contribution do websites, social networks and mobile phones make to popular protest movements? Is there any justification for labelling the Tunisian events, as some have done, a "Twitter Revolution" or a "WikiLeaks Revolution"?
A remarkable young Belarussian activist-analyst, Evgeny Morozov, has just challenged the lazy assumptions behind such politico-journalistic tags in a book called The Net Delusion, which went to press before the Tunisian rising. The subtitle of the British edition is "How Not to Liberate the World". Morozov has fun deriding and demolishing the naively optimistic visions which, particularly in the United States, seem to accompany the emergence of every new communications technology. (I remember an article a quarter-century ago entitled "The fax will set you free".)
He shows that claims for the contribution of Twitter and Facebook to Iran's green movement were exaggerated. These new technologies can also be used by dictators to watch, entrap and persecute their opponents. Above all, he insists that the internet does not suspend the usual workings of power politics. It is politics that decides whether the dictator will be toppled, as in Tunisia, or the bloggers beaten and locked up, as in Morozov's native Belarus.
His challenge is salutary but, like most revisionists, Morozov exaggerates in the opposite direction. Tunisia offers a timely corrective to his corrective. For it seems that here the internet did play a significant role in spreading news of the suicide which sparked the protests, and then in multiplying those protests. An estimated 18% of the Tunisian population is on Facebook, and the dictator neglected to block it in time.
Among the educated young who came out in force, we can be sure that the level of online (and mobile phone) participation was higher. The scholar Noureddine Miladi quotes an estimate that half the Tunisian television audience watches satellite TV, and he notes: "Al-Jazeera heavily relied on referencing Facebook pages and YouTube in reporting the raw events." So professional satellite TV fed off online citizen journalism.
Moreover, these media leap frontiers. A leading British scholar of the Maghreb showed me his Facebook page, which has many of his Maghrebian former students as Facebook friends. Several of the Moroccans had turned their Facebook icons to the Tunisian flag, or a Tunisia-Morocco love-heart, to show their enthusiasm for the first people-power toppling of an Arab dictator in more than 45 years. That's a tiny group, to be sure – but elites matter, in opposition movements as in everything else.
Before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's fall, his regime had struck back against the netizens, mounting "phishing" attacks on Gmail and Facebook accounts, harvesting passwords and email lists of presumed opponents, and then arresting prominent bloggers such as Slim Amamou. This reinforces Morozov's point that the internet is a double-edged sword: yet it is also a back-handed tribute to the importance of these new media. As I write, the formerly imprisoned Amamou has become a member of a new, interim coalition government.
Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow, but thus far the Tunisian rising has been a hugely heartening development – especially because it was an authentic, homegrown, largely spontaneous movement, with little active support from western powers.
(Sometimes quite the reverse: France was, until the very last minute, offering its security expertise to keep Tunisia's Louis XVI in power. For shame, Madame Liberté, for shame.)
The transformed information and communications technologies of our time played a role in enabling this rising to succeed. They did not cause it, but they helped. Specialists argue that Tunisia, with its small, relatively homogenous, urban, educated population, and (for now) moderate, peaceful, largely exiled Islamists, can become a beacon of change in the Maghreb. If things go well, the internet and satellite TV will spread that news across the Arab world.
So yes, the internet furnishes weapons for the oppressors as well as the oppressed – but not, as Morozov seems to imply, in equal measure. On balance it offers more weapons to the oppressed. I think Hillary Clinton is therefore right to identify global information freedom in general, and internet freedom in particular, as one of the defining opportunities of our time. But there are also dangers here, which Morozov usefully points out.
If the struggle for internet freedom is too closely identified with US foreign policy, and in turn with US companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter – which in personnel terms are beginning to have something of a "revolving door" relationship with the US government – this can end up damaging the purpose it is meant to serve. Authoritarian regimes everywhere will redouble their efforts to censor and monitor those American platforms that, not accidentally, among the best and most open we have. Instead, these regimes will promote their own, more restricted native alternatives, such as Baidu in China.
The US government as a whole is also deeply inconsistent in its approach to internet freedom. It berates China and Iran for covert monitoring of opponents while doing the same itself against those it defines as threats to national security. It lauds global information freedom while denouncing WikiLeaks as, in Clinton's extraordinary words, "a threat to the international community".
Again, Tunisia is instructive. Talk of a "WikiLeaks revolution" is as absurd as that of a "Twitter revolution", but WikiLeaks revelations about what the US knew of the Ben Ali regime's rampant corruption did contribute something to the pot of misery boiling over. There was even a special website to disseminate and discuss the Tunisia-related US cables (tunileaks.org). Obviously, Tunisians did not need WikiLeaks to tell them that their presidential family was a goon-protected self-enrichment cartel; but having detailed chapter and verse, with the authority of the US state department, and seeing how much the publicly regime-friendly American superpower privately disliked it, and knowing that other Tunisians must know that too, since the American reports were there online for all to see – all this surely had an impact.
So if Clinton wishes to argue, as I believe she legitimately can, that the American-pioneered infrastructure of global information exchange has contributed to the fragile rebirth of freedom in Tunisia, then she should really put in a word of appreciation for WikiLeaks – or for Kleenex, if you prefer the Gaddafi version. But do not hold your breath.