The world has stopped becoming more democratic

Report from Oslo Freedom Forum 2015.

Turkey today is neither free nor unfree, said writer Mustafa Akyol at this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum. They exist in that gray area of countries that are democratic on paper, but have a weak democratic culture that makes them vulnerable to authoritarian leaders such as Turkey’s president Erdogan.

A few years ago Akyol was an optimist about Turkey. In Islam Without Extremes he wrote about a liberal tradition in Islam which he believes is particularly strong in Turkish culture. At the time he thought the ruling party AKP was starting to approach this tradition. They spoke like a moderate and democratic Islamist party. He thought they meant what they said.

Now he believes many AKP politicians were just playing along with the mood of the voters. Power reveals. The more power Erdogan has acquired, the more authoritarian and paranoid he has become. He does not know how to handle criticism. He accuses opponents of being traitors and spies for Israel, US and the freemasons. Independent media suddenly discover that they’ve been bought up by Erdogan’s friends. The government-controlled media praises Erdogan without restraint.

The struggle for power is extra bitter because the Turkish government is so powerful. There’s so much at stake. Turkey is probably not becoming another Iran, says Akyol, but possibly another Russia.

Russia’s propaganda war

The Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko said that her mother thinks she is a traitor who has been bought and paid for by Europe. She works for Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent and Putin-critical newspapers in Russia. Novaya Gazeta is a dangerous place to work – several of their journalists have been murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. But they’re not a big threat to Putin. Russians don’t read newspapers, they get their news from TV, where Kremlin is in full control.

It was on TV her mother learned that Elena is a traitor. TV also tells her that Ukrainian soldiers crucify children. Russia is said to be in the midst of a war of civilization, standing alone as the defender of the weak people of the world against the fascists. This isn’t Cold War rhetoric, it’s Second World War rhetoric.

People believe what they are told. The Soviet Union had more control over their media, but Putin has better media, believes Kostyuchenko. Putin doesn’t care about convincing foreigners. The English propaganda channel RT is just a side project. It is the internal opposition he fears and uses the media to crush.

Positive stories

There were many stories from the gray areas of democracy at this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum. Some of them had a positive slant. The Afghan media mogul Saah Mohseni talked about how pop culture on radio and television undermines religious extremism.

Lawyer Kimberley Motley uses creative legal tactics to improve justice in Afghanistan from within the legal system.

Maryam Faghihimani, the daughter of an Iranian ayatollah, used to read banned philosophy hidden away in the corner of her family’s library, then acquired higher education against her father’s will.

Saro-Airam Mendonca Sambu uses her radio program in Guinea-Bissau to promote women’s rights and oppose forced marriage.

Doctor Alaa Murabi has started a women’s movement for peace in Libya. Today women carry all the risks of war, she says, but has none of the control. It’s like sitting in the backseat of a car driving at a frightening speed while the driver assures you that everything will be fine. Libya’s politics needs women.

Vulnerable democracies

Oslo Freedom Forum is not a place for cheap optimism. Most of the speakers live in danger. The conference opened by honoring former guests who have later been killed or imprisoned. The Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab is in prison, and sent a letter to be read instead. So did the sister of the imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, Samar Badawi, who was not permitted to leave Saudi Arabia.

While last year’s conference ended on a false note with cheerful but not very helpful predictions about the coming victory of democracy, this year Larry Diamond had a more sober message: The world has stopped becoming more democratic. Growth stopped in 2006, and many countries are now headed in the wrong direction. It turns out that democracy is a difficult system to implement. New democracies are particularly vulnerable to authoritarian leaders.

It is not enough to hold elections. Young democracies must also fight corruption and lawlessness, and build a civil society with independent institutions. If they stumble, there’s always an authoritarian leader ready to exploit the chaos, and these new authoritarians are better than the old dictators at staying in power.

Comedy and free thought

Another major theme at the conference was freedom of speech. This often becomes an internal Western debate where people argue loudly over small differences of opinion, but Oslo Freedom Forum succeeded in making it global.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a Moroccan atheist who writes for Charlie Hebdo and receives death threats from Islamists, went on stage after Rayma Suprani, a Venezuelan cartoonist who was fired from her newspaper because of her regime critical caricatures, and Kambiz Hosseini, a Daily Show-inspired Iranian satirist.

They talked about how comedy and free thought offends the powerful and the humorless. It’s not “hate” that causes offense, but being challenged at all. Much of Hosseini’s humor consists of just quoting statements made by Iranian politicians. This is funny enough in itself.

In the gray areas of democracy there is no clear boundary between the West and the rest. Kenan Malik pointed out how poorly Europeans understand the concept of freedom of speech. Everyone says they’re for it, nobody dares to say otherwise, “but..” – and then comes the part that counts.

“I’m for freedom of speech, but..”

“..but in a diverse society we must be careful with what we say about each other”.

“..but speech comes with responsibility”.

It is precisely diverse societies that must learn to tolerate insults, said Malik, because friction is inevitable between people of different faiths and backgrounds. Everyone has something they’re offended by. And to say that speech comes with responsibility is both obvious and banal, but in practice, “responsible speech” becomes a tool the powerful use to protect their own power.

Malik made fun of free speech hypocrites: Muslim organizations that fight against caricatures of Muhammad one moment, then for their own right to offend homosexuals the next. Or Geert Wilders, who wants to protect his own freedom of speech but also to ban the Quran. In other words: My speech is important. Your speech is too costly. Act responsibly and shut up!

And those who want to protect Islam against the Islam haters end up preventing good internal criticism as well, he said. Muslims worldwide are trying to challenge extreme and traditional interpretations of Islam. For their sake Europe must preserve its freedom of speech.

Not much room for disagreement

The format of the Oslo Freedom Forum, with short speeches from many different countries, does not leave much room for criticism and disagreement. This gives a lot of power to the speaker. Many of the speakers are heroes – people who through personal courage bring hope and inspiration to others. But their halo remains on stage after they’ve left. Do all the speakers everyone deserve to wear it?

Last year’s most prominent guest was the Russian former ligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who became an idealist only after climbing to the top of the money pile. This year’s main guest was Viktor Yushchenko, who became president of Ukraine after the Orange Revolution in 2005. What could we have learned from his critics? I don’t know. He went on stage, spoke for a few minutes about Putin, and then we moved on to the next topic.

I’m not opposed to having politicians as guests. And the only agenda you’ll find at the OFF is an open one: Democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights.

But politicians and business leaders live in a dirtier world than grassroots activists. I don’t like that they speak unopposed.

Norway’s dark secrets

Norway’s Foreign Minister Børge Brende said a few words about democracy, which he is for. I would have liked to see Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk ask him why the Norwegian telecommunications giant Telenor last year expressed support for the junta in Thailand. We already know the answer: To make money. But what is Norway’s responsibility when a state-controlled company undermines democracy abroad?

Brende could also have met with the Gabonese activist Marc Ona Essangui. Gabon has been ruled by members of the Bongo family since 1967. Essangui accused the Norwegian state-owned oil company Statoil of helping the Bongo family plunder their country.

The only sign of disagreement at the conference came during a debate on freedom of expression. Kenan Malik said that Islamists should be permitted to demonstrate holding signs that said “behead those who insult Islam”. Mustafa Akyol thought this was naive, and that such statements could be compared with the radio broadcasts that triggered the Rwandan genocide.

This is an interesting debate. Freedom of speech is a difficult subject. Oslo Freedom Forum offers interesting and inspiring stories from the gray areas of democracy. Next time I hope they let us see more of those nuances.

[Originally published in Norwegian in Aftenposten.]