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The mockery of democracy

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A Ukrainian serviceman of the 82nd Separate Air Assault Brigade prepares for combat Challenger 2 tank in an undisclosed location near frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, on February 12, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Picture: Genya Savilov / AFP

By Reneva Fourie

One of the many horrific aspects of apartheid was the suppression of the freedom of expression. People were arrested for expressing progressive ideas, whether spoken, written or performed.

Books such as Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, magazines such as the African Communist, plays such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead, films such as Algeria’s Battle of Algiers and songs such as The Specials’ Nelson Mandela were among the many materials that were banned. Consequently, people were even being arrested for what they read or watched.

Living under a system that tried to shape your every thought in the most restrictive forms was unfathomably frustrating. Hence, Clause 16 of our Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of the press, to receive and impart information, and of artistic and academic articulation. This clause is deeply cherished, which is why World Press Freedom Day is highly revered and celebrated annually on May 3.

While South Africans now enjoy the ultimate freedom of expression at the national level, its global containment has unfortunately become an undeniable reality. This suppression of the freedom of expression is orchestrated by those who assert themselves as the champions of democracy, namely Western elites.

However, their whole sense of democracy, a system ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, is entirely warped. When you pare it down to basics, their primary agenda is to safeguard capitalism’s interests and impose a universal environment that propels capitalism’s success.

Recognising that social structures, including the media, are generally directed by the dominant economic mode is certainly not profound. It is broadly accepted that the communications space is strongly influenced by those who control the money.

However, the current restrictions imposed on our expressions appear unprecedented. The growing magnitude of the draconian measures that capitalism exerts on, among other things, access to and imparting of information is reaching terrifying dimensions.

The West is now well and truly making a mockery of democracy. They are legislating the ghastliest of measures to restrict the freedom of expression within their countries, such as banning Russia Today (RT) and managing the reporting on Gaza, including overlooking the assassination of journalists by the Israeli government.

Very recently, the United States passed a bill which expanded the definition of antisemitism in a manner that could curtail demonstrations as currently being witnessed on US campuses. This further codification of the suppression of the freedom of expression is merely one of the many repressive measures that they use against human rights demonstrators.

Beyond their borders, the West prevents citizens in countries on which they have imposed unilateral coercive measures from accessing the World Wide Web. They control what other countries can view on television – hence, we struggle to access RT in South Africa.

Applications on personal cell phones are remotely accessed with ‘forbidden’ sites removed in the guise of curtailing terrorism. Algorithms on search engines censor the information that can be accessed. Progressive posts on social media result in suspensions. Even artificial intelligence-based editing tools refuse to edit material that challenges capitalist interests.

The suppression of expression is directly linked to the stoking of global conflict. As the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn says, “Instead of ending arms to Israel, governments around the world are trying to silence the voices of peace”.

When the West refers to boosting the arsenal of democracy, they are not referring to how to empower their citizens better. Their arsenal of democracy literally implies massive expenditure on weapons to undermine the sovereignty of perceived different-thinking countries, such as Russia, China, and some in West Asia, South America and Africa.

The archetypal capitalist nation, the United States, is estimated to spend almost US$ 100 billion, primarily to support Ukraine, Israel and countries in the Indo-Pacific regions. France is deploying an additional 1,500 troops to Ukraine at an estimated cost of 3 billion euros. Germany and the United Kingdom are also ploughing billions into Ukraine and Israel.

Tailoring the mainstream and social media and the creative arts to suit Western interests contravenes Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The West dares not claim to be championing an open and fair society when they are leading in violating our fundamental human rights. Creating a better world begins with the right to express divergent or similar views to those who dominate political and economic power. This right should be defended at all costs.

Dr Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security