Nationalism and anti-terrorism laws: a subtle tool for silencing

Enemy of the state: dystopia and reality

In the society George Orwell constructs in his book 1984, Emmanuel Goldstein is depicted by the Party as the principal enemy of the state. Throughout the book, the Party constantly triggers sentiments of fear and hatred towards Goldstein within the population.

But what exactly is an enemy of the state? Is there such a thing outside 1984’s fictional dystopian world? In reality, an enemy of the state is defined as someone who acts against the society he lives in – for example a national traitor. This definition might be  legitimate in some cases, yet, in some other ones (not too distant from Orwell’s use of it) authoritarian regimes use this categorization, claiming that this is necessary to maintain national security. Orwell himself was inspired by the way in which Stalin described social or political dissidents.

Beyond fiction and history, Rachel Jolley, director of the Index on Censorship, warns us that today “nationalism can be framed in a way to prevent journalists and the public from talking about controversial stories”. Indeed, nationalism is currently being used to silence journalists in many countries – among which Turkey, Yemen, Maldives, Iraq, Mexico, Ethiopia – through the introduction of antiterrorism laws that target journalists. At this point we might be confused, wondering how terrorism relates to journalists and censorship.

In a nutshell, here is what happens: an authoritarian establishment provides its version of the truth and claims its decisions are based on the best understanding of the nation’s needs. In such a scenario, any dissenting voice is framed in the enemy of the nation discourse. In this logic, anyone who goes against what is best for the people, is their enemy. A terrorist.

Two cases of nationalism as a censorship tool: Turkey and Yemen

Marta Ottaviani, Italian reporter from Turkey, claims that her state is “already beyond censorship, because there are no oppositional newspapers left. The situation is very serious”. Currently,  149 Turkish journalists are convicted, 144 of them are convicted as ‘terrorists’. Even more than that, Turkish approved media are building and reinforcing national identity as ethnic and religious identity with negative sentiments towards the European Union. Ottaviani highlights that using nationalism to trigger hatred has two main consequences for journalists: Firstly, it undermines the public perception of the reporters and it produces one approved ‘truth’ that falsifies the reality. Secondly, people don’t want to speak to journalists anymore. They simply don’t trust them. “It is getting more and more difficult to get interviews. People are suspicious and scared”.

Also Laura Silvia Battaglia explains that in Yemen, where she worked as a reporter, every citizen or journalist who talks against politicians – especially with clear supportive evidence – is considered a terrorist. In case the establishment can’t make any claims about journalistic misconduct, the government either acts through physical threats, kidnapping, torture, or alternatively uses nationalism as a tool for more subtle silencing.

What we can do about this

Journalists who belong to safer environments: If they become aware of some issues happening elsewhere, they could bring them to light within society. It would be important that they feel encouraged in campaigning for their less privileged colleagues. Even more than that, there is an increasing need of journalists making arguments to the public about why journalism is important and why journalists should be better protected.

Journalists who are victim of such forms of silencing: It would be vital to stick together – when one is battling alone, there are more chances to give in to the fear and a process of self-censoring begins. They can also appeal to some international organisations such as the International News Safety Institute.

All of us: Every time that we hear or read that some journalists are considered ‘enemies of the public’, let’s take a moment and step back. Instead of believing in this expression directly, let’s make it trigger an alarm bell in our minds. This could make us check our information in more depth, meaning to go beyond the headlines, training ourselves at distinguishing propaganda from proper information. Ringing these alarm bells will make us more independent citizens. And it will help us to protect the freedom that we sometimes take for granted.

Silvia Lazzaris

These informations were gathered during panel discussions run at the International Journalism Festival 2017, Perugia.

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