بعد مرور عقد على الربيع العربي، لا يزال العالم العربي يناضل ليتوافق مع أعراف الديمقراطية، وحرياتها. يُظهر استطلاع عالمي جديد، يشمل لبنان ومصر وتونس، مدى التناقضات في المواقف تجاه حرية التعبير، مسلطاً الضوء على تجربة الانتقال إلى الديمقراطية، التي تكون، عادةً، تجربة مؤلمة.
وفقًا لاستطلاعٍ بعنوان «من يهتم بحرية التعبير»، الذي أُجري بتكليف من مركز جستسيا الفكري (الذي أديره)، فإن حرية التعبير قيمة يعتز بها الجميع تقريباً، في شتى أنحاء العالم. ففي الواقع، بين سكان 33 دولة، تقدِّر نسبة ضخمة تبلغ نحو 93% منهم، أهمية أن يستطيع الناس قول ما يريدون قوله، من دون رقابة. وتبلغ نسبتا دعم حقوق الإعلام في تقديم ما يراه ملائماً، واستخدام الناس الإنترنت، بلا رقابة، نحو 91% و89%.
Read the full arabic piece at رصيف 22.
Ten years after the Arab Spring, the Arab world is still grappling with how to come to terms with liberal and democratic norms and freedoms. A new global survey that includes Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia shows how attitudes towards freedom of speech are ripe with contradictions, highlighting how the transition towards democracy can often be a painful experience.
Who cares about free speech? Almost everyone according to a new global survey commissioned by Justitia (of which I am the director). In fact, across populations in 33 countries, a whopping 93% think it’s important for people to be able to say what they want without censorship. Likewise, the rights of the media to report as they see fit and of people to use the Internet without censorship are supported by 91% and 89%, respectively.
But if an overwhelming majority of respondents are enthusiastic supporters of free speech, why has this freedom been in global decline for more than a decade?
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.
The constrast between principles and practice are especially stark in the Arab world. Our survey “Who Cares about Free Speech” includes Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, three countries that all in their own way have been affected by the protest movements of the Arab Spring and the resulting political turmoil across the region.
All three nations end up near the bottom end of the Justitia Free Speech Index. Lebanon is no. 23 out of 33 countries (score: 54 out of 100), Tunisia no. 29 (score: 43) and Egypt is at the second to last position, no. 32 (score: 41). Only Pakistan ranks lower with a score of 38. (Top scorer is Norway with a score of 80).
Both Tunisia and Egypt saw the overthrow of their respective dictators in 2011, but afterwards their paths sharply divided. While Tunisia paved a way towards a more democratic system with power-sharing between multiple parties, the initial enthusiasm in Egypt over the overthrow of Mubarak vaporized in the chaos of the government of the Muslim Brotherhood and the resulting takeover by Sisi. Still, the support for freedom of speech in both countries are about the same, suggesting that many people in Tunisia still are reluctant to embrace the values of liberal democracy.
Lebanon, meanwhile, has never been a dictatorship but has seen an increase in both political unrest and mass demonstrations in recent years, while its democratic functioning has deteriorated (for example according to the Economist Democracy Index, where Lebanon has moved from 5,32 out of 10 in 2011 to only 4,16 in 2020).
In principle there is great support for the abstract value of freedom of speech in both Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt, where respectively 91, 90, and 80 percent of respondents say that people should be able to say what they want without government interference.
But the support quickly evaporates when questions are raised about controversial speech or supposedly competing values. For example, when asked whether speech offensive to the respondent’s own religion or belief should be allowed, only 27 percent of Tunisians say yes (and 28 percent of Egyptians and 38 of Lebanese). The same goes for speech supportive of homosexual relationships, which only 30 percent of Tunisians accept, while we were not even able to include the question in the survey in Egypt because of the tabooness of the subject. Meanwhile, Lebanon is more tolerant (59%) but still a lot lower than the global average of 70%.
But it is not only regarding the controversial subjects of or sexuality that the three Arab countries – and probably most of the Arab world – have deep reservations towards free speech. The survey also exposes thorough skepticism towards questions of national identity and security.
For example, only 19 percent of Tunisians would allow insults to the national flag (only Turkey and Kenya are lower at 16% and 18% respectively), while only 26% of Tunisians and 32% of Egyptians would allow the media to publish information sensitive to national security. It should be noted, however, that regarding national security, many nations that normally profess lofty free speech ideals are very skeptical: United Kingdom is at the bottom with 22%, and Israel just a nod higher at 23%. Even Sweden and Denmark (that rank numbers 2 and 3 in the overall index), score only 29% and 28% on this touchy subject. Meanwhile, Lebanon is more liberal and ranks no. 15 with 48%.
All in all, the three Arab countries in the survey – along with other muslim majority countries Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey – rank very low in the Justitia Free Speech Index. This is not surprising given the very low performance of Arab and Muslim majority nations on various measurements of democratic performance and values, such as the V-Dem index or the Economist Democracy Index.
In general, a country with low support for freedom of speech also get to experience less of it in reality, and in all three countries the survey identifies a very real hesitancy towards allowing free speech with all its sometimes unpleasant side effects.
Tunisia even seems to have a lower public support for free speech than the free speech rights the public have actual access to after moving away from dictatorship. This suggests that – for example – some parts of the population are still very conservative and want stronger limits on free speech. The opposite goes for Egypt, where the public’s low support for freedom of speech is met by even worse real free speech standards, meaning there is some room for improvement – but not much.
Are there no rays of hope for the free speech enthusiast in the survey? There is at least one. Questions regarding free speech are sensitive to the respondent’s feelings of social pressure and also to legal constraints on what is permissable. In many Arab and Muslim countries, religious offense is not only discouraged but also punishable by jail, meaning that there is a strong social and legal pressure to profess belief in certain ideas.
However, through a so-called “list experiment” using lists of several options and no way of outsiders knowing who has answered what, we have been able to ask the question in a way that eliminates at least some of the emotional and legal pressure for respondents.
The pattern is clear: When the question is asked indirectly all Arab and Muslim nations – and Russia and the UK too – appear more secular and tolerant towards speech offensive to religion. While only 38% of Lebanese will allow speech offensive to their own religion or beliefs, the number jumps by 17 percentage points to 55% if the question is asked indirectly. The same goes for Tunisia (+14) and Egypt (+12). While the changes in attitude towards religious offense are not Earth-shattering, they still point to a potential for a more tolerant culture of free speech in the Arab world.
Unfortunately another list-experiment pulls in the other direction. When asked directly about speech critical of government, respondents in all three countries are very supportive, but when the question is asked indirectly, support for criticism of government plummets in Egypt (-21 percentage points), Lebanon (-22), and Tunisia (-29). This suggests an even lower support for speech that can threaten national unity than what would first appear.
While skepticism towards speech critical of government can be understandable in precarious political situations – which applies to all three countries during the recent decade – criticism of government must be the bedrock of free speech in any democratic society.
Given that free speech is essential for democracy, freedom, and human flourishing, nurturing a more robust and tolerant culture of free speech is crucial. Perhaps, George Orwell provided the best argument for why a strong civic culture of free speech is so important:
“If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”