Written by Matt Furlane
This past July, I had the opportunity to attend the GIC Talk by Shahed Kayes from Bangladesh. He is a writer and human rights activist currently studying for a master’s degree in human rights and democracy (GNMP) at Chonam University. In the talk, he detailed his struggles confronting authoritarianism in his country and how he risked his life for democratic freedoms. He is a reminder to both Koreans and to me, as an American, to not take democracy for granted.
In May, South Korea conducted a peaceful presidential election that was won by liberal candidate Moon Jae-in with 41 percent of the vote in a field of 13 candidates. Although there were previous protests against former president Park Geun Hye and growing political unrest in 2016, Korea’s democratic transfer of power in 2017 occurred without major incident. It was an example of a healthy democracy.
But around the world, this kind of political stability is being challenged, and democracies are increasingly being threatened by numerous enemies of freedom. For example, Venezuela is in complete disarray with a collapsing economy, domestic instability, and increased violence in the streets. Its economy and former democratic leanings have all but collapsed under the weight of the authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro. And in Hong Kong, citizens are desperately struggling against the Chinese Communist Party as it tries to suppress free speech and undermine free and fair elections with political candidates that are approved only by the government.
But surprisingly, in the United States after the 2016 election, there has been growing concern about the integrity of our own democracy, not only because of possible Russian interference but due to the even more dangerous rise of “fake news,” skewed polling, and collusion between major media outlets with undisclosed organizations both foreign and domestic. These threats have been recently exposed by former CBS investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson whose books Stonewalled and The Smear have shed light on the growing antidemocratic activities of the media, the U.S. government, and political organizations over the last eight years. These examples and many others indicate that real democracy in the modern era is by no means certain.
So what can we do to ensure freedom in the 21st century? How can we, as ordinary citizens, ensure that all are equally represented – liberal, conservative, independent, or even dissident? What can we do to preserve democracy? Personally, I believe much can be done by citizens, groups, and community organizations, but it will take a coordinated effort and a willingness to build bridges between various political groups around common issues of concern (i.e., free speech, privacy, and security). I think several actions can be taken to move people toward the goal of essential unity and preserving democratic integrity around the world.
First, because so many western media outlets are compromised (dark money, conflicts of corporate interest, use of “anonymous sources”), the rise of citizen and independent journalism has become critical to informing the public. Whether it’s using WikiLeaks, VPNs, encrypted apps, or posting on Twitter, the Internet has become the de facto lifeline for truth and justice. During his GIC talk, Kayes cited it as being very important to getting out the news about the corruption in his own country and the ability to communicate truth despite government interference. I spoke to him later, and he stated, “Facebook and email are important for organizing. And there are many bloggers, but about 18 freethinkers, bloggers, and moderate Muslims were killed within 15 months by the government (maybe in collaboration with religious extremists) between 2013 and June 2015.”
Whether it’s in southeast Asia or America, it is of utmost importance for people to communicate their ideas freely on the web and to allow the natural give-and-take of ideas that has occurred throughout history to exist without suppression by anyone. For example, in America, I escape the grip of “fake news” by watching multiple independent YouTube news outlets from different political perspectives including “liberal”-leaning outlets like Vox, Vice News, and The Rubin Report, as well as “conservative” leaning outlets like 1791L, Freedomain Radio, and even the U.K.’s Nigel Farage LBC. As popular as CNN and Fox News used to be, the reality is that more and more Americans are looking to the Internet for “real” news, and people around the world should do the same.
Secondly, we should publicly expose government suppression of free speech and support dissidents. One of the classic ways governments undermine freedom is to attack the messengers and try to discredit anyone providing a counter-narrative to propaganda. For example, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was immediately accused of sexual misconduct in order to discredit him when he leaked government information, but the accusations were never verified. After the fake charges were dropped, Assange stated, “Detained for seven years without charge while my children grew up and my name was slandered. I do not forgive or forget.” The reason Assange has survived for so long is because the U.K. newspaper, The Guardian, has stood by him and free speech advocates have seen him as a champion of independent journalism.
And in America, reporter Sharyl Attkisson had her career derailed, was hacked, and had her privacy violated by domestic intelligence organizations, yet she risked everything to publish her books and expose corruption. Because she has defenders of free speech supporting her, she has become a voice for preserving democracy in America. Who do you know that is fighting for freedom? Will you stand by them when they are slandered? Independent news outlets, citizens, and human rights groups must join together to stand up for people who are risking their jobs, families, and lives for free speech and democracy.
Lastly, a healthy democracy depends on free and accurate information. If truth and public policy are to survive the inevitable changes in attitude and turnover in government leadership, then they must be rooted in information properly sourced, collected, and analyzed. This includes access to government documents. For example, journalist Tim Shorrock was able to do honest research about the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising because he was able to gain access to 4,000 declassified U.S. government documents. By using this valuable data, he could do real research, counter any propaganda coming out of the Korean or U.S. governments, and preserve the real history for all Gwangju residents. But a healthy democracy also depends on access to polling information and “Big Data.” For example, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the public was lead to believe that Hillary was ahead by a wide margin. But if the polling data had been reported accurately, a more honest picture of a very tight political contest would have been revealed to the public. We cannot accept blindly what every poll says. Citizens must have access to the data about who, where, and how many people were polled. “Big Data” must not only be used; it must be examined carefully for accuracy and bias. Otherwise, it will only create future public and political instability.
As we approach the next decade and the world becomes even more connected than ever before, I believe it is critical for citizens all over the world to fight back against the ongoing threats to democracy and work towards political unity by protecting speech, supporting independent news sources, and defending those who would sacrifice everything to help defend democracy. If we join together, Gwangju can be part of a new “uprising,” not just for Korea but for the freedom of the world.
Matt is an English teacher from the United States. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and an associate’s degree in electronics engineering. He took up photography and journalism after he graduated and still relies heavily on a spell checker for words like “necessary” and “Mississippi.
As is always true of our Op-Ed pieces, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gwangju News, the GIC, or the Gwangju city government. — Eds.