In a world in which 71 journalists were killed on the job last year, the expulsion of one ink-stained wretch by Russia might seem a small matter.
But the sustained effort of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin to control what is written, said or thought about the regime is a revealing moment in a broad struggle for power in a rapidly changing world.
We live in an era of counterrevolution. For nearly three decades, the globalization of dissent, instant information and political self-empowerment helped overturn scores of dictatorships.
But like the European monarchies of the early 19th century, the surviving autocrats are fighting back, often using scorched-earth tactics.
In Damascus, Cairo, Ankara, Moscow and elsewhere, backlash against personal freedom dominates, though in different forms.
The expulsion of Radio Liberty’s David Satter on Tuesday came a month after Putin put an end to the RIA Novosti news agency and its stubborn efforts to achieve a degree of editorial independence from the Kremlin.
That, too, was something Putin would not tolerate.
That is bad news for freedom of information in Russia. But it is also bad news for the regime. Trying to erect an intellectual prison around its population helped doom the Soviet Union. Barring and arresting journalists are acts of desperation that illuminate the erosion of authoritarian rule rather than its strength.
That judgment is informed by experience: I was banned by the apartheid regime of South Africa (twice), by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, by Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, by both the shah’s government (informally) and the ayatollahs (explicitly) in Iran, and for a long time by China in the wake of my reporting and commentary from Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Fear of a journalistic version of recent events does not connote a happy future.
Punishing the messenger — that is, denying visas to visiting scribes — is wasting a dictatorial tool in a wired, interconnected world.
Dissidents increasingly speak out digitally, and professional and citizen journalists can upload video footage of atrocities as they occur. Challenged regimes increasingly turn to brute force to control or eradicate dissident thought and expression.
In Syria last year, 10 professional journalists and 35 citizen journalists died while working. At least 200 professional journalists are known to be imprisoned in China, Iran, Turkey, Eritrea, Syria and other countries. In Vietnam alone, 34 bloggers are in jail for expressing opinions. Kidnappings of journalists — 87 last year — are also rising.
These numbers come from Reporters Without Borders, which advocates for the freedom of information and thought around the world. (Full disclosure: I sit on the U.S. board of the organization.)
In a sign of the changing times, the group recently added classes about Internet security to enable bloggers and other journalists to protect sources and material online.
But there is also great and welcome continuity in the struggle against censorship and authoritarian rule. It is provided by the dissident, the person or people who insist, even at great personal sacrifice, on speaking out for universal human rights and against the abuse of power and privilege by corrupt rulers.
Dissidents tend to be passionate, determined, self-aware and unshakably certain their beliefs will prevail, as I was reminded this last week when I attended a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington to honor the 25th anniversary of the Andrei Sakharov prize, which is awarded annually by the European Parliament.
The spirit of Sakharov, the great Russian nuclear physicist whose challenge to Soviet misrule helped bury it, certainly seemed to animate China’s Wei Jingsheng, who received the prize in 1996, Nigeria’s Hauwa Ibrahim (2005) and Cuba’s Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of the late Oswaldo Paya (2002). They voiced absolute confidence today’s counterrevolutionary assault on the freedom of thought would fail.
Later, at a dinner discussion, Wei was asked about President Barack Obama’s studied omission of human rights as a “core interest” of U.S. policy in the Middle East from a speech in September at the United Nations.
The author of the 1978 democracy manifesto that brought him 18 years in Chinese jails elegantly but forcefully noted past U.S. presidents expressed to him “remorse that they were not able to do more to promote human rights in China. Now it appears there is a change.”
Wei also pointed out when U.S. leaders were most insistently engaged in seeking protection for dissidents and human rights, his captors eased the brutal treatment inflicted on him and others.
That alone is reason to put human rights back at the core of U.S. interests.
Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Washington Post. His email address is jimhoaglandwashpost.com.