WASHINGTON, January 7, 2018: As many Americans already know, one of the primary sources for Michael Wolf’s controversial new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was Trump’s outspoken – and now banished – former White House advisor Steve Bannon. While this decidedly anti-Trump book was roundly denounced by the President, Trump’s efforts to suppress its publication have not included jailing or killing Bannon. That is good. Attempts at suppressing free speech are not.
The President’s efforts at suppressing free speech are stark violations of our highly cherished First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech. No poll has been taken thus far on this latest Trump action. But in August of 2017, a Rasmussen national telephone and online survey found that 85% of Americans think that giving people the right to free speech is more important than making sure no one is offended by what others say. The same survey found that Americans are prepared to defend that freedom even at the cost of their lives if necessary.
America, under President Trump’s latest attempts at suppression, is in some ways resembling other countries. Clearly for Mr. Bannon, however, there are still limits here on what might be officially done to him.
Suppressing free speech can include jail or worse
This month, a Bangkok, Thai court jailed a blind woman for 18 months for violating the county’s royal insult law. Offending Thailand’s king, queen, heir or “regent” can land someone in jail for 15 years. In this instance, Nurhavati Masoh, a 23 year-old woman, posted on her Facebook page an article critical of the government, written by Giles Ungpakorn, a Thai-British academic. Yes, you understood that correctly: a woman was jailed by simply posting an article written by another person.
Imagine suppressing not just an individual’s words. For example, numerous organizations around the world also continue to press Thailand’s neighboring country, Laos, for information about the fate or whereabouts of Sombath Somphone, a former prominent civil society leader, in that country. Somphone was forcibly taken in the capital, Vientiane, the Laotian capital, five years ago. His history of speech critical of Laos was likely the catalyst for his disappearance.
Last month a Vietnamese court upheld a 9-year jail term for a prominent activist who had spread propaganda against the state. Blogger Tran Thi Nga, 40, was convicted last July in a sweeping government effort to crack down on criticism of Vietnamn’s Communist government. The U.S. embassy said it was deeply troubled by the Vietnamese court’s decision and offered that everyone in Vietnam should be able to express political views without fear.
The month before the Nga ruling, a different Vietnamese court upheld a 10-year sentence for another prominent blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as Mother Mushroom, for publishing propaganda against the state.
Turkey has a long history of suppressing speech and opposition action. In November, a Turkish court in Ankara upheld a 25-year jail term for a lawmaker in the opposition party to the ruling regime. Enis Berberoghlu was said to be the symbol for more than 50,000 people who had been detained in wake of a failed coup against Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in July 2016. Berberoghlu’s specific offense was giving an opposition newspaper a video purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria.
Turkey’s government has also suspended teachers, academics and lawyers, over 150,000 people in all, from their jobs, for voicing opposition.
Challenging Afghanistan’s government can be deadly. In 2015 a bomb exploded at the offices of Pajhwok Afghan News, the country’s largest news agency. None of the journalists inside were injured, but four guests at the nearby Voice of America office were wounded. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack. But the agency’s director suspects that the attack took place because of claimed “reporting bias” or for their published reports about criminal or militia whose business interests were threatened.
Despite the Afghan government’s promise to protect the media, they nevertheless have placed increased restrictions on the kind of information that can be made available to journalists, including restrictions on reporting from conflict areas. This has resulted in the prevention of reporting on the destruction of civilian homes and both civilian and military casualty numbers.
Fake news? Or suppressing free speech?
Where have we recently heard about “fake or false news?” In 2016, Egyptian authorities jailed an Al Jazeera TV journalist on charges of incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos.
Suppressing free speech can mean “Do Not Enter.”
In Warsaw, Poland, this past November, plans were underway to ban Ukrainians voicing “anti-Polish” views from entering the country. Poland’s foreign minister said that they were launching procedures that will not allow people with extremely anti-Polish views to come to Poland. Poland is now home to almost 2 million Ukrainians who left their country after a 2014 uprising with pro-Russian rebels. Poland supports an independent Ukraine that can stand up to Russia. But apparently, the Polish government does not want to tolerate those who might cast a few stones against their new, if even temporary, homeland.
Suppressing free speech can mean new laws
In Singapore in 2016, the government passed a law criminalizing contempt and scandalizing the judiciary. The law prohibits discussion of pending court proceedings by anyone other than the government itself.
Leslie Chew, a Singapore cartoonist: “In Singapore, there is this culture of fear. Don’t speak up against the government or the government will ‘fix’ you. ”
Alan Shadrake, London author: “In Singapore, even if it is true, you aren’t supposed to say it.”
Russian authorities routinely censor all manner of critics. In June 2015, the website of a consumer protection group that had called the Crimea an “occupied territory” was blocked.
Efforts to censor and censure are not new around the world are not exactly new. That is why freedom of speech is one of the first indicators of how any society tolerates those with views contrary to its government. Be they minority views, “disfavored” views, or even views that are obnoxious or views that later prove false, the way the government acts toward those speakers is an indication of how that government scores on human rights in general.
In America, access to information and free expression are critical components of our rights under the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is a foundation principle for us. It supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship or sanction.
As embarrassed, or maybe even as mortified over what Mr. Bannon says as you may be, Mr. President, he has the right to be heard. Suppression neither suits you nor our country, Mr. President. But you have the right to tweet any reply you’d like.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 703-761-4343, via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.
Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. The website for this business is brand new and Mr. Samakow will be most appreciative of any and all comments. www.thebusinessanswer.com.