Criticism, Yes; Suppression, No

When it comes to the proper, indeed–for liberty, essential relationship of citizens, watchdog groups, academia, and the media with government officials, the rule must be: “Criticism: yes; suppression: no.”

Liberty rests on the right to express opinions. Citizens, politicians, media are free to criticize. Indeed, when it comes to the behavior of politicians, the prime responsibility of the media is to criticize. The first weapon of a dictator is repression of the media, for even before the Strong Arm of the Law can be twisted by a dictator into a weapon against the people, the aspiring dictator must shape public opinion. And that is precisely why suppression of the media by politicians is the worst threat to our freedom, with the suppression of the voicing of political opinions by citizens a close second.

Anyway, is there anything more pathetic than a dictator who threatens citizens for “failing to show respect,” for hurting his feelings?

So, criticism: yes; suppression: no. Any politician who feels he or she has been misrepresented is, under our system of government, more than welcome to explain his or her behavior; indeed, we demand explanation. All are free to express opinions. [Making incorrect factual statements is a distinct issue; this discussion concerns the expression of opinions.] A citizen may criticize any official; a professional media representative is obligated to do so. Investigating malfeasance by officials is the primary duty of the media because trusting officials to be transparent both puts those officials in an intolerable position of moral hazard and effectively compels them to violate the 5th Amendment.

One caveat is important: a distinction needs to be made between freedom of speech of individuals representing themselves simply as citizens and freedom of speech of individuals representing and thus employing the power or prestige of an institution. If it is irresponsible (and punishable in court) for a citizen to yell fire in a crowded theater, it is all the more irresponsible for a policeman to do so. If it is irresponsible and perhaps criminally punishable for a citizen to make racist remarks or tell a lie, it is all the more reprehensible for a government official to do so. Acceptance of a position of power in a democracy confers the duty to behave responsibly. The more powerful an official, the greater the need for media exposure of that official’s behavior. By the same token, the more powerful an official, the more judiciously should an official choose his or her words. The standard of acceptable speech should be far stricter for a powerful official, capable by mere words of provoking hate crimes or inflaming the mob into demanding a war of aggression or frightening an adversary into launching a war, than for the average citizen.

Politicians unwilling to tolerate criticism should find alternative employment. A politician who responds to criticism with threats or insults directed at the individual (rather than explanations for the public) opens himself or herself to the perfectly logical charge that something is being shoved under the carpet. Putin’s arrest of demonstrators voicing their opposition to him and Erdogan’s immediate repression of Kurdish media outlets in reaction to the Kurdish party’s electoral victory may be the two most blatant current examples of this time-worn pattern signaling the rise of a dictator, but every citizen of every country, no matter how “free” or “democratic” or “stable,” must stand constantly on guard against politicians who attack freedom of expression. The one thing no emperor can tolerate is being told he is not wearing any clothes.


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