Words can change the world

Five days into the historic citizens’ uprising in Egypt, dining in the home of a family in Dubai, our conversation turned to the growing mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

My host pulled out the front page of his state-run daily newspaper, pointed to its Arabic script and informed me there was no news of Egypt reported anywhere in that paper.

It should not have surprised me that critical news of what’s been hailed as an “Arab awakening” would be censored in Dubai. I did know, as the Star’s Bruce Campion-Smith reported this week, that the United Arab Emirates, though not a despotic regime, is not a democracy and thus lacks the liberties of democracy, including a fully free press.

Still, while the concept of free expression has been vitally important to me for most of my adult life, in that moment I viscerally understood the connection between freedom of information and true democracy.

Without information, people cannot act. If news is not reported it cannot have impact, cannot change the world. To control a people, dictators and despots must wield state control over what people read, what journalists report, what people say — aiming ultimately to control what people think.

Certainly that was made clear in Egypt, where the Mubarak government’s first response to the people’s protest was to shut down the Internet so Egyptians could not learn what was happening in their nation or connect with others online.

That was followed by attacks on journalists. As this Arab awakening has spread through the Middle East, so too has a clampdown on the media and free expression.

Travelling in other Middle East countries on a trip planned before the uprisings, I saw other evidence of the limits to free expression, giving me an even fuller appreciation of the rights to the fundamental freedoms of thought, belief, opinion and expression guaranteed by Canada’s Constitution.

Lunching in a Lebanese restaurant in Amman, Jordan, on the same day its ruler, King Abdullah II, fired his prime minister and cabinet and promised political and economic reforms, I sought to engage my hosts in a discussion of this news.

In response to my questions, I noticed the discomfort of everyone at the table, saw them discreetly look around the restaurant, lower their voices and answer my queries with vague generalities.

Only later, in the privacy of their home, with the BBC in the background broadcasting developments in Egypt and Jordan, did they talk more openly.

Can you imagine being truly fearful of criticizing our government in public? As Joanna Smith reported from Jordan as part of the Star’s outstanding sweeping coverage of this Arab awakening, Jordan’s constitution outlaws any criticism of the monarch or his wife and is punishable by imprisonment.

As Canadians free to express dissent, it is easy to be complacent about freedom of expression. It is hard to imagine limits to the freedom to read, to speak, to think, that too many others in the world must bear.

But, lest we grow too smug, it’s worth remembering that Canadians do face some challenges to freedom of expression. The Canadian Library Association reports an alarming rise in challenges to reading material since 2006. Efforts to shut down public debate on university campuses are increasing.

And, don’t forget, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council decided to have the Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing pulled from Canadian airwaves because of just one complaint.

Of most concern to journalists, last June’s G20 summit in Toronto will go down in our history as “a black day for free expression in Canada,” the result of police and security forces severely curtailing journalists’ freedom to report and provide citizens with information.

“How is it that our rights to free expression and association, rights that most Canadians blithely take for granted, were abrogated so easily? How did this happen?” Julie Payne, manager of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, writes in Freedom to Read 2011 magazine.

The magazine celebrates Freedom to Read Week, which begins tomorrow across Canada. Organized by the Canadian Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee, the annual event is billed as “an opportunity to defend our freedoms and protect our choices.”

As the committee notes, words and images are “the substance of free expression.” And, says Trent university professor Bryan D. Palmer in an article about censorship and dissent written for this year’s magazine: “Words and ideas are indeed challenging, often threatening, things. They can change the world.”

Those words hold such power for me. The idea that words on a page, words spoken to one another, words that connect us online, can indeed change the world is a powerful reality that the entire world has borne witness to in the shadow of Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on Feb. 18, 2011.

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