How to support dissidents

Organisations and initiatives like Reporters Without Borders and Global Voices Advocacy are doing excellent work promoting freedom of expression and helping the cause of journalists and citizens who are persecuted (as are the bigger and more well-known Amnesty, Human Rights Watch etc).

Supporting dissidents may be more important than ever – because it is more dangerous than ever to speak out against repressive regimes. German editor Joachim Widmann makes this point in an essay published this week (in Norwegian), one year after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow (disclosure: I commissioned the article as editor of the Norwegian magazine Vox Publica. Die Zeit Online has published the original German text.) Widmann compares the situation for dissidents during the Cold War and today. People like Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov and Robert Havemann could count on the media and citizens in the West for support and continous attention. The media knew how to portray the dissidents as brave heroes for freedom. The public supported them by buying their books. The news from the West crept back behind the iron curtain and made it difficult for the Communist authorities to silence the critics.

But today, the fronts aren’t so well defined. There is no clash of consistent ideologies. Stories about dissidents drown in the noise of
the millions of voices on the Internet. It simply isn’t possible for the media to create the same kind of attention for and interest around the dissidents anymore, Widmann argues.

I hope he is wrong in this conclusion, but I’m not sure. It is probably too early to interpret the events in Burma over the past weeks in this context. On the one hand, there was a massive surge in interest and sympathy for the Burmese people in countries around the world. Here, the traditional media and “citizen media” seemed for a few days to cooperate perfectly in creating a heroic narrative. But can the mass public’s interest be sustained for more than a few intense days? And what about the dark side of the Internet – the possibility for authorities to track what citizens do and then hunt them down afterwards?

“We neglected to tell Politkovskaya’s story loudly and clearly and to bring it into the consciousness of the global public. In the end she was alone,” Widmann writes. We owe it to her to do more for those brave dissidents still alive. To identify methods that work in the post-Cold War, post-Old Media age is our common responsibility.

(Originally published on the Why democracy website.)

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