The World in the Absence of Freedom
Free Speech Part 3
The last two posts on the YesPhonics blog have both been about freedom of speech; first, we explored at first amendment rights in American schools, and then we dove into the contentious realm of book banning.
In this final installment of our free speech trilogy, we will take a close look at the people who live without these rights. Click to Tweet
Throughout history and across continents, people have and still do live without the basic freedoms that those of us who are more fortunate often take for granted. Some have had their rights stripped from them by changes in governmental, religious or social powers. Others have never gone a day in their lives knowing what it means to be free.
What countries are the least free, in terms of speech?
Freedom House is a U.S. government-funded but independent watchdog organization that researches, reports on, and advocates for democracy and human rights. They annually publish a report on the levels of freedom in countries across the world, and gives them an aggregate score out of 100. The higher the score, the higher the freedom the country enjoys. For a sense of scale, the United States is currently graded at 86, while Canada is at 99 and Uruguay and Australia are at 98. (Which means we’re doing okay, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.)
In 2018, Freedom House scored the following as the least free countries in the world:
Syria is the only one on this list with a negative score, with should tell us something in itself. The “president,” Bashar al-Assad, took over from his father in 2000, and runs his unitary republic as a true dictatorship. Between him and his father, the Assads have maintained control over the country for the past 47 years. Arbitrary kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and disappearances of citizens is common, and the government frequently censors websites, detains journalists and democracy/human rights activists, and imposes stiff travel bans on its citizens trying to leave.
To make matters worse, the country has suffered at the hands of numerous armed conflicts in the past decade. The Global Peace Index from the international Institute for Economics and Peace ranks the Syria dead last, making it the most violent, war-torn country in the world. Several militant terrorist groups have sprouted up in Syria and attempted to either prop up the existing regime or start their own sovereign state, including ISIS, al-Qaeda, Tahrir al-Sham, Rojava and the Syrian Opposition. With a population of about 18 million, approximately 13 million are internally displaced or war refugees, and another 470,000 are estimated to have died from the most recent conflict.
South Sudan: 2
South Sudan is a young country, having only gained their independence from Sudan in 2011. It’s fight for independence, which lasted 22 years, is Africa’s longest-running civil war, and the people are still dealing with the effects of such prolonged violence.
The former Information Minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, initially promised freedom of the press would be respected in the country when he took office in 2013. However, there aren’t many laws on the books ensuring that freedom, and the few that do exist aren’t strictly adhered to by police. Blogs and websites that are deemed defamatory toward the government are blocked without notice. Journalists for The Citizen, the country’s largest newspaper, have stated that authorities often take reporters in for questioning, and accuse them of defamation and “anti-patriotism.”
In 2014, Benjamin seemed to go back on his initial promise, and warned journalists to not report on the ongoing civil war conflict from opposition areas. If they didn’t report on the battle from the government’s controlled area, Benjamin threatened reporters could face arrest for “disseminating poison.” In 2017, British-American freelance journalist Christopher Allen was killed while reporting in one such forbidden zone. The South Sudanese government claimed he was not targeted, but rather caught in the skirmish, and said they “regretted” his death. Freedom of speech proponents are still calling for an investigation into the matter.
Eritrea and North Korea: 3
Eritrea and North Korea are tied for the infamous title of the third least free country in the world, each with a score of 3 from Freedom House. And they each earned this title for the same reason: being a “hermetic police state.” For freedom of speech rights specifically, the Press Freedom Index ranks North Korea worst in the world, with Eritrea second-worst.
Eritrea almost borders South Sudan to the southeast, and like its neighbor, it is another relatively young and volatile country. The country gained full independence in 1991, and is made up of almost a dozen old kingdoms and sultanates that eventually died out and got sucked into one conglomerate state. As a result, infighting among old powers is common.
Since it’s limited independence in 1942, Eritrea has never once held a national legislative election. Cabinet members are arrested for promoting democracy, and citizens who try to leave the country or follow an un-approved religion are thrown in prison. Military service is mandatory, and with indefinite conscription periods. According to BBC, Eritrea is the only African country to have absolutely no media outlets outside of state control, and the New York Times reported that the country has imprisoned the fourth-highest number of journalists, after Turkey, China and Egypt.
North Korea is infamous for its human rights violations against its own citizens, so much that many people would’ve guessed it to be first on the list. Any aspect of a person’s daily life may be subject to government control or supervision. All employment is managed by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). WPK is the only ruling party, and all politicians are required to belong to it.
Robert Collins, a 37-year U.S. Army veteran who served in Korea for 35 years who now devotes his work to highlighting human rights violations in the country, uncovered official government documents and first-hand refugee testimony explaining how North Korean citizens are ranked in a “Songbun” status system according to how loyal to the government they and their relatives are. One’s songbun status can affect whether or not one go to a good school or job, or receives adequate housing, healthcare and food.
Amnesty International reports several instances of citizens being arbitrarily arrested, detained, deported, imprisoned or tortured based on suspicions of criticism, doubts or disloyalty to the government. Satellite images suggest that the country operates at least six large political prisons.
North Korean defector Sungju Lee was arrested with his parents because his father was heard saying there “was no hope” in North Korea. In an interview for NPR in June of this year, Lee told the story of his eventual escape. His father left for China in an attempt to find food, and didn’t return. His mother then did the same thing, and also hasn’t been heard from since. As a young boy on his own, Lee joined a gang of homeless boys. They lived in a train station, and police officers would pay them in bread to move dead bodies on and off train cars. Then, in 1999, it turned out that his father was in South Korea, and had paid the equivalent of $25,000 to have a broker “buy” his son back and take him to South Korea for a reunion. Lee concluded the interview by saying that Kim Jong Un “doesn’t love his people. He love his power. His interest is in maintaining his power forever.”
What effect does a lack of freedom have on education?
It’s difficult to find any academic studies done on these countries because they’re simply too dangerous for foreign researchers to visit, and the academics within those countries risk their lives if they say anything negative about the government. Still, can glean some information on the education levels of each country by rough statistical estimates and what we see in the news.
First, we can look at literacy rates for citizens above age 15. Syria’s is 86.3% for men and 73.6% for women (this rate is self-reported by the Syrian government, so it’s hard to know if it is true). Women often complete less schooling than men, as they are expected to become mothers and raise families shortly after they hit puberty.
South Sudan has one of the worst literacy rates in the world, with UNESCO reporting that 70% of the adult population is unable to read or write. Many classes are held in open-air “classrooms” without desks, writing implements and very few books or visual resources, and most schools only teach up to the primary level. Girls and children living in rural areas are highly unreached, and are likely to not attend school at all.
Eritrea is actually doing well, with about 67.8% population literate. This is a major improvement from 2002, when it was 52%. The government’s Ministry of Education claimed they intend to build a university in every province (currently, they have two, and several smaller colleges and technical schools). UNICEF has provided the country several grants to strengthen their educational infrastructure.
North Korea’s literacy rate is self-reported at 100%. All education is state-sponsored and controlled, with schools varying widely in quality. Students with high levels of athletic or musical talent are honored at elite showcases, while average and below-average children are often tucked into the shadows. The North Korean government is very fond of advertising classrooms and homes with computers running on their version of Windows, Res Star OS. Some students are highly trained and recruited into hacking groups to spy on citizens and perform cyber-attacks on the government’s enemies, while others may be completely computer illiterate. French photographer Eric Lafforgue visited the secretive state a half-dozen times, claiming he was a tourist, before eventually being banned for publishing too many disagreeable photos of its citizens; one of his most infamous shows a woman pretending to type on her home computer without electricity. Schools also focus heavily on “social education,” where students are taught about their proper role in their families, society and government.
Students can have the most advanced reading and writing skills of their generation, but none of that matters if they can only read government propaganda, or only write messages approved by the government. A child with an empty belly can’t focus on his studies. You can build all the new universities, museums and libraries you want, but it won’t stop your people dying from civil war and torture at the hands of police. You can have a team of brilliant violin child prodigies, but if your students with disabilities are ignored, the education system has failed. Freedom and equality is the only environment in which the human mind can truly prosper.
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photo credit: verchmarco Malereien aus Kreide auf dem Boden einer Fussgängerzone – Länderflaggen via photopin (license)