• Citizens live in fear
    July 07,2014

    Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that seems to express the sentiments of the more reactionary segments of the American political community: “I love America, but I fear its government.”

    That message begs for a response, such as “What other country’s government would you prefer?”

    Granted, a seemingly dysfunctional Congress and an ugly stalemate between the White House and Capitol Hill may justify some degree of fear among even the most reasonable people, but it does not seem unreasonable to assume that those who would stick such a slogan on their cars might actually prefer no government at all.

    When measured by its effectiveness and especially by the freedoms they grant their citizens, there’s not much of a government in Iraq right now, nor in several Central American countries where violence and crime have triggered a massive migration of youngsters to the United States.

    North Korea, anyone?

    Actually, the part of the world where the concept of “government” seems most abused right now may be Africa. Sudan and South Sudan are virtually lawless; Nigeria can’t seem to rein in the brutal Boko Haram terrorists and protect its Christians from Muslim extremists.

    And Nigeria’s embattled president warned his nation’s press to toe the government’s line.

    “Journalists should carry out their duties in the spirit of patriots who have equal stakes in the peaceful development of the country,” said President Goodluck Jonathan in a speech in May. “They should be less adversarial and more supportive of the government.”

    In amending its Terrorism Prevention Act last year, Nigeria formally criminalized legitimate news-gathering activities for journalists attending a meeting of Boko Haram or even simply receiving information from the group. The price of engaging in such routine journalistic behavior? A maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

    In Swaziland, a veteran editor and a newspaper columnist were denied bail over a contempt-of-court charge based on articles that criticized the behavior of the kingdom’s chief justice. Thus, criticism of the judiciary was turned into a crime.

    And think about Egypt, where jailing journalists has drawn so much attention throughout the world.

    Just last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, addressed the outrageous prison sentences Egypt’s judiciary handed several journalists after they dared to report on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

    “It is not a crime to criticize the authorities or to interview people who hold unpopular views,” Pillay declared, but the government in Cairo probably wasn’t listening.

    The biggest name in modern African political history, the late Nelson Mandela, once declared that a free press was the only thing that “can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen.”

    Mandela’s own government faced sharp criticism in the South African press, but he tolerated it and thus set an example for all other African political leaders. Unfortunately, his model has not been widely embraced.

    In fact, the present South African president, Jacob Zuma, not long ago publicly called for “patriotic reporting” and created a Ministry of Communications.

    “Improved communication and marketing will promote an informed citizenry and also assist the country to promote investments, economic growth and job creation,” Zuma explained.

    His government responded to press reports of public corruption and waste (among other criticisms) with legislation that called for harsh penalties for leaking and publishing state information.

    Those are the kinds of government any responsible citizen should fear.

    Ours has its problems and some reforms may be desirable, but our basic freedoms remain secure.

    In this country, there’s no danger that bumper stickers will lead to prison.

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