Is freedom in decline? Depending on who you asked on our panel, you would have either gotten a LOUD yes or a resentful no.
On the panel were William Nee, a human rights strategy advisor at Amnesty International, Nury Vittachi, a journalist and published author, and Dr. Tom Daly, a legal consultant and expert on democracy building. The panel was moderated by Rhea Mogul, from South China Morning Post.
Resentful because “freedom” (as with most human rights principles) has often been defined through a Western lens rather than one that seeks to represent universal interests. But of course, in defence of the rest of the panel, a recent report by Freedom House claims that for the 13th year in a row, freedom around the world is in decline: “democracy is in retreat”. According to the report, over 68 countries suffered net declines in political and civil liberties. However, as one of our panellists argued, compared to no less than a century ago, today we enjoy more freedom than ever. Nuri also argued that freedom is often seen through the lens of Western liberal democracy and that we have to remember that liberal democracy is young, not the most popular kid in class and may not be the future.
East or West, there is no scenario where citizens speaking up, holding a government to account, or calling out corporate misconduct, should be killed or let alone punished. Front Line Defenders notes that a record number of activists were killed in 2018, marking the deadliest year for human and land rights defenders ever.
We at We The People strongly hold the belief that everyone and anyone should enjoy minimum standard of freedom and rights — and that across the political spectrum no one
should be persecuted for doing what is right.
Of course ensuring this level of protection requires some degree of compromise against the rise of hate speech and fake news that run counter to freedom.
While there may be differences of opinion about what constitutes a healthy form of freedom, all human rights and freedoms are relative to one and another. And although the prospect of a benevolent dictator’ running a nation can be quite attractive, every autocratic regime risks the slippery slope to totalitarianism and popular repression. As William put it, “it is a very intuitive sense to pursue freedom". And he’s right, everyone pursues freedom to some degree and everyone should be able to do so.
We all know by now that technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, digital technology makes it possible for us to access information more easily, communicate between and beyond communities, and rally fellow citizens around a cause. On the other hand, as Tom stated, in the way we use the Internet and social media in particular, we seem to be giving up a lot of our freedoms as well. If you have Amazon's Alexa in your living room, is she listening to your conversations and pillow talk (some people think Alexa is)? Do you know for sure that your WhatsApp-messages are truly private? How would you feel if you found out that WeChat is leaking your data? We mean, it is. Even if you are fine with all of this, you should at least have the freedom to know and then the freedom to do something about it.
Imagine what would happen if citizens around the world are able to connect, without government interference, without censorship or the threat of persecution. Imagine what would happen if we could keep an eye out for one another, speak up and as a borderless collective put pressure on our leaders. Sure, freedom as a Western concept of liberal democracy may not be universally applicable, but we can all agree on basic principles of human rights and freedoms (AKA activists and citizens should not be arbitrarily detained, tortured, and in some cases, even killed).
Which is why we work so hard to ensure that no one is afraid to do what is right.
Of course, this conversation is far from over. If you’ve missed our last event or want to come to our next event, check out what's happening here.