Read our op-ed in venezuealian El Pitazo.
Is Venezuela the most pro free speech country in the world? From looking at international rankings of political freedom and press freedom, one would not think so. The country is ranked “Not Free” by the organization Freedom House (an abysmal 14 points out of 100), and in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 report, Venezuela ranks 148 out of 180 countries. A new survey, however, casts new light on the subjective support for free speech among Venezuelans. And it is enormous.
When asked if Venezuelans support the right of people to say what they want without government censorship, 99 percent – in practice all – agree. So too when asked if media should be able to report the news and people should be able to use the internet without censorship (99 and 98 percent respectively).
These numbers are the highest among all 33 nations in a new global survey called “Who Cares about Free Speech” that has been commissioned by the human rights think tank Justitia (of which I am the director). It should be pointed out, however, that support for the abstract value of free speech is very high across the globe since a median of 94 percent in all 33 countries think that people should be able to say what they want without censorship.
There is a caveat, however. If an overwhelming majority of respondents are enthusiastic supporters of free speech, why has this freedom been in global decline – and declined in Venezuela too – for more than a decade? Is it only a question of government crack downs or are there deeper cultural contradictions at work?
To answer this seeming paradox, we need to ask not merely whether but how sincerely people support free speech. Once people are forced to measure their support in the abstract for free speech against trade-offs and (supposedly) competing values, the near universal support plummets. It seems many people cherish the right to speak freely for themselves but attach less value to the opinions of others that clash with their own values.
Across all 33 countries, only 43% support the legal protection of statements offensive to minorities, while 39% are willing to allow statements offensive to their own religion. Tolerance for permitting statements supportive of same sex-relationships varies from near universal support in Denmark (91%), Sweden (91%) and Venezuela (86%), to less than a third in Pakistan (27%). 72% of Danes and Americans are willing to tolerate insults to their national flags, compared to only 16% and 18% in Turkey and Kenya, respectively. For Venezuela, the number is somewhere in the middle with 46%.
Furthermore, people in Venezuela are also somewhat lukewarm regarding free speech when asked about utterances offensive to minority groups (68%) and religion (74%). Then again, these reservations regarding controversial speech apply to most countries, and Venezuela is also here among the most supportive of free speech in the whole survey. The same goes when asked whether Venezuela should allow media to report on sensitive issues related to national security (78 percent say yes), issues that could destabilize the economy (79 percent say yes), or sensitive issues that could make it more difficult to handle an epidemic (89 percent will tolerate this).
But free speech is a sensitive topic, and people tend to answer questions in a manner viewed favorably by their peers. To tease out such “social-desirability bias” and reveal true preferences, we implemented a so-called list experiment in the survey. It allows respondents to answer the questions in a more indirect way, which gives them extra confidence that no one can identify their individual answers.
When comparing direct and indirect answers to the question of government criticism it seems that dissent is resented by many. Among the countries with the largest discrepancies, we find India, France, Tunisia, Russia, and Japan. In France, the difference is a staggering -30%, exceeded only slightly by India (-32%). The apparent intolerance of dissent in two large democracies is a worrying sign. Especially since President Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have adopted measures ranging from illiberal in France to authoritarian in India, to counter threats from enemies of the state, real and imagined.
For Venezuela there is also a staggering drop of 28 percent from the record-breaking 96 percent to a more average 68 percent. This result suggests that many people in Venezuela care less about free speech or even oppose it than they express when asked directly. This is not unusual but worth keeping in mind – and it is the reason why Venezuela despite dramatic support for the principles of free speech eventually end up in 7th place in the Justitia Free Speech Index (Norway is no. 1).
Still, the impressive result from the survey bodes well for the future of free speech in Venezuela. It seems that although the political situation has worsened in recent years, putting Venezuela on par with Russia, Egypt, and Turkey when it comes to political freedom, this deterioration has not happened with the approval of the Venezuelan people – even if the government claims to represent just that. This might also be the reason why Venezuelans are the world’s most skeptical about letting the government oversee the regulation of online social media. Only 1 percent think that the government should be able to censor what people write on social media such as Facebook or Twitter.
In fact, among all 33 countries Venezuela seems to be one of the surveyed nations wanting free speech the most and getting it the least. Or stated in economic terms, there is in Venezuela the largest discrepancy in the whole survey between the demand for free speech and the actual supply of free speech.
Simón Bolívar once wrote: “El derecho de expresar sus pensamientos y opiniones de palabra, por escrito, o de cualquier otro modo, es el primero y más inestimable don de la naturaleza.” It seems that the people of Venezuela still live up to those ideals. The government, however, despite calling its movement Bolivarian, d