How Free Are We?
issue 249 - November 1993
How FREE are we?
Is there more liberty in the world today
than there was ten years ago?
Glasnost and the lifting of censorship in the former Eastern bloc means that around 370 million people now have access to previously forbidden books, magazines, films and music and can enjoy artistic and political self-expression.
Western news media – mainly owned by a handful of individuals and corporations – have worldwide penetration and can now determine what is ‘news’ and how it is reported. One of the largest US networks, NBC, is owned by defence contractors General Electric, while another, CBS, has close links with the arms trade. In opposing the Westernization of global culture, Muslim fundamentalists are prepared to take censorship to violent extremes.
Identity along the lines of ethnic group or religion is no longer repressed as a matter of course in the former communist countries. Such allegiances are recognized and more tolerant attitudes have led to a religious revival.
Ethnic chauvinism has exploded in Europe with appalling consequences in several republics including Georgia, Azerbaijan and the former Yugoslavia; 200,000 have died and two million been displaced as a result of ethnic violence in Bosnia alone.
The opening up of borders within Europe has led to far greater freedom for Europeans – especially those from the East. Hundreds of thousands have migrated in search of a better life elsewhere, with around 500,000 migrating each year from the former Soviet Union.
The number of refugees in the world has more than doubled in the past 10 years. There are now 18 million refugees and 20 million displaced people, forced to flee their homes because of war, famine, poverty and environmental damage. The worst affected are people living in Africa, south-west Asia and the Middle East.
Peace looks more likely in the Middle East, following the Israeli/Palestinian accord brokered in Norway. Apartheid is being dismantled in South Africa and the 80-per-cent black population is gradually becoming enfranchised. In many parts of the world women’s access to education and their share of the labour market have grown. In some European countries children have gained significant legal rights, including protection against corporal punishment.
Racist violence is growing in Europe. Women have been the first to suffer from the global economic recession as they work longer hours in marginal jobs and are paid less than men. Street children are at greater risk than ever, especially in Brazil and Guatemala, where they have become a target for police death squads. Child pornography and prostitution is on the rise.
Many countries have moved from either dictatorship or one-party state systems to a multi-party parliamentary system with elections. In the past 10 years this has happened in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, the Philippines, Zambia, Mozambique, and the former Soviet states.
Many Third World countries that have followed the Western democratic route have become more dependent on Western aid and been forced to adopt IMF policies. Political cynicism has replaced opposition in countries like Pakistan, Kenya and Peru where democracies are sham or elections are rigged and human-rights abuses are rife.
Economic liberalization in China, India, Vietnam and the former Eastern bloc means that hundreds of thousands of people can now do business, can be commercially creative and can develop new trade links and foreign investment opportunities.
The gap between rich and poor is widening in countries such as China, India and Mexico as their governments pursue economic liberalization or free-trade agreements with the rich world. Employment and health care suffer, unions are de-recognized and globalization provides multinationals with cheap, flexible workers.
Illustration : PETER FIRMIN