There is an old Swahili proverb that goes “nani atamfunga paka kengele”, which translates to “who will tie a bell to the cat”. It captures the dilemma of having a good idea or a solution to a problem, but lacking the courage or the ability to execute it because of the risk or difficulty involved.
The proverb originates from a fable where the mice devise a plan to put a bell around the neck of the cat that preys on them, so that they can hear it approaching and run away. However, none of the mice is brave enough to volunteer for the perilous task of tying the bell to the cat.
The proverb suggests that sometimes people are good at talking or planning, but not at taking action or responsibility. This proverb came to my mind as I wondered who would dare to expose the glaring flaws in the current state of democracy in the West, especially when the West itself claims to be the champion of democracy and human rights, while engaging in serious violations of the democratic principles, under various pretexts, such as national security, control of disinformation and misinformation, and so on.
We probably should set the context straight. The global landscape is currently grappling with a surge in authoritarianism, cunningly masquerading as democratic governance.
A comprehensive study by the Varieties of Democracy Institute, situated in Sweden at the University of Gothenburg, reveals a disconcerting reality: autocratic regimes now outnumber democracies, marking the first time in two decades. Disturbingly, the report underscores that our world has not witnessed such an anti-democratic surge in 35 years, with a staggering 72% of the global populace subjected to authoritarian rule.
Delving into the intricate details, the report underscores an alarming escalation from 13 to 42 countries undergoing democratic setbacks or autocratization between 2002 and 2022. However, the encroachment on fundamental freedoms extends far beyond this statistical revelation.
Even the ostensibly democratic nations are unabashedly endorsing stringent measures, manifesting in the overt regulation of media, the curbing of free speech, and the manipulation of information through censorship.
Dramatic Decline in Democratic Ideals
Upon dismantling the conventional perspectives through which we perceive democracy and authoritarianism, a dramatic decline in democratic ideals reveals itself across continents — from the Americas to Europe, Africa to Asia.
A pertinent example is Twitter Files, largely ignored by the mainstream media, echoing the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013. Snowden, a subcontractor, divulged highly classified information from the US’ National Security Agency, unraveling a web of global surveillance programs operated by the NSA and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, in collaboration with telecommunication companies and European governments. This ignited a global discourse on national security, individual privacy, and civil liberties.
The Twitter Files, a series of internal documents disclosed by then CEO Elon Musk from December 2022 to March 2023, shed light on critical issues such as content moderation, blacklisting, banning, and the censorship of dissenting voices on topics ranging from COVID-19, elections, politics to the undue influence of external organizations on the platform.
These revelations cast a stark spotlight on the erosion of democratic principles even in ostensibly mature democracies, sparking debates on social media platforms about bias, transparency, collusion and the adherence to constitutional rights, not only in the United States but also globally.
The releases, partly revealed what is happening even in the so called most matured democracy, and have prompted debate over Twitter’s (now X) bias and transparency about its policies and practices. The files also raised questions about the platform’s censorship and rights enshrined in the constitutions the world over; the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and of access to information.
The CTIL Files are a recent and explosive revelation that allegedly implicates the US and UK military contractors in devising a sweeping plan for global censorship in 2018. According to Michael Shellenberger, the CTIL Files provide crucial answers to key questions that were left unanswered by the Twitter Files and Facebook Files. Together, these documents reveal the origins of the “anti-disinformation” sector, or what some have dubbed as” the Censorship Industrial Complex”.
The whistleblower who leaked the CTIL Files exposed the details of the contemporary digital censorship initiatives, from their inception to their execution. The documents reveal the involvement of military and intelligence agencies, the collaboration with non-governmental organizations and corporate media, and the use of fake online profiles and other aggressive tactics. The perpetrators of these actions are still roaming the world, imposing sanctions on others who do the same things they do. They operate on the principle of “do as I say, not as I do”.
Who Will Resist the Authoritarian Drift?
To envision the trajectory toward an authoritarian world, let us explore some indicators including attacks on the press, restrictions on civil liberties, manipulation of elections and corruption.
These indicators resonate globally, from the United States to Europe, where not only has freedom of speech faced constraints but surveillance has escalated, with governments investing in monitoring journalists, citizens, and even allies.
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In recent decades, the UK has witnessed restrictions on liberty and freedom, France and Spain have witnessed violent suppression of protests, and globally, there has been a disturbing trend of electing leaders with authoritarian tendencies and military coups replacing civilian leadership, all transpiring as the world watches, seemingly indifferent.
To illustrate the rise of authoritarianism in the West, consider these disturbing examples:
- UK Government’s Secret Files on Critics: According to a recent investigation by The Guardian, 15 government departments in the UK have been monitoring social media to compile “secret files” on individuals and groups that are critical of their policies or actions. These files contain personal information, such as political views, religious beliefs, family background, and health records, and are used to block or disrupt the critics from public speaking engagements, media appearances, or access to public funds. The government has defended this practice as a legitimate way of managing “reputational risk”, but critics have denounced it as a violation of privacy and freedom of expression, and a sign of a “creeping authoritarianism” in the UK.
- UK Arrests for Social Media Posts: The UK has also been contemplating harsher penalties for offensive or abusive social media comments, which could result in up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine. The government has argued that this measure is necessary to combat online hate speech, harassment, and extremism, and to protect vulnerable groups from harm. However, some civil liberties groups and legal experts have warned that this measure could have a chilling effect on free speech, and could be used to silence dissenting or unpopular opinions.
- France’s Global Security Bill: In France, the parliament has passed a controversial bill on global security, which includes a provision that criminalizes the dissemination of images of law enforcement officers with the intent to harm their physical or psychological integrity. The bill has sparked widespread protests and criticism from journalists, human rights defenders, and international organizations, who argue that it could endanger the right to inform and be informed, and hamper the oversight of police misconduct and abuse.
- Nigel Farage’s Bank Account Closure: Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and a prominent Brexit campaigner, claimed that his bank accounts were closed on political grounds. He said that the bank cited his “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views” and his ties to controversial politicians such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as reasons for the closure. He also said that he was designated as a politically exposed person (PEP), which is a category of customers who are subject to enhanced scrutiny by banks due to their potential involvement in corruption or money laundering. Farage accused the bank of discriminating against him because of his political opinions, and of being part of a “globalist elite” that is trying to silence him. The bank, however, denied any political motivation behind its decision, and said that it was based on a routine review of its customer base and risk profile.
- The Cancel Culture Phenomenon: Another example of the rise of authoritarianism in the West is the phenomenon of “cancel culture”, which refers to the practice of withdrawing support from or boycotting public figures or entities that are perceived to have done or said something objectionable or offensive. This practice can take various forms, such as online shaming, social media bans, petitions, protests, or boycotts. Some of the victims of cancel culture include celebrities, such as Russel Brand, who the UK parliament wrote a letter to Rumbe to strip him of revenue, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, who was accused of transphobia for her views on gender identity; Kevin Hart, the comedian and actor, who was forced to step down as the host of the Oscars for his past ‘homophobic’ jokes; and Gina Carano, the actress and former mixed martial artist, who was fired from the Star Wars series The Mandalorian for her controversial social media posts.
However, cancel culture can also affect ordinary citizens, such as students, teachers, workers, or business owners, who can face academic or professional consequences, or even legal actions, for expressing their opinions or beliefs on certain contentious issues.
Some of the supporters of cancel culture argue that it is a form of social justice and accountability, and that it helps to challenge the dominant narratives and power structures in society. However, some of the critics of cancel culture contend that it is a form of censorship and intolerance, and that it stifles the diversity of thought and expression that is essential for a healthy democracy.
These examples, which are not isolated incidents, but rather part of a global trend, not coming from Africa, Asia, or South America where we would normally hear from, serve as a stark reminder of the threats confronting democracy in the West and the world over.
While the evidence of the authoritarian turn is clear and alarming, the response from the public and the media is often weak or indifferent. We tend to run media campaigns and social media hashtags for a short while, and then go back to our normal lives, ignoring the reality that over 6 billion people in the world are already living under autocratic regimes or some Orwellian form of government system.
And more are likely to follow, unless we wake up and take action. Who will tie a bell to the cat? Who will stand up for democracy and human rights in the West? Who will resist the authoritarian drift and defend the values and principles that we cherish? The answer is: we all should. Because if we don’t, we may soon find ourselves in a world where freedom is a rare and precious commodity, and where dissent is a dangerous and punishable act.
Kennedy Mmari is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Serengeti Bytes, a Dar es Salaam-based communications, public relations and digital media agency. He’s available at firstname.lastname@example.org and on X as @KennedyMmari. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at email@example.com.