Observations on comparative priority-setting

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Oliver Jinks

03 May 2012

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As an international, or at the very least inter-European individual I have experienced societies quite distant from each other on a hypothetical spectrum of freedom of expression and information. Fortunately, I grew up in Austria, which, despite its other problems, enjoys an incredibly free press (it places 5th/179 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index(PFI) ) and media platform (Blatant racism on political posters? Sure!), so I only experienced censorship when my creative homework exercises crossed a few lines, which didn’t feel like censorship at the time, given all we were learning about Austria’s experiences under Hitler. 
 
Through studying modern history in high school and moving on to related modules in my undergraduate and graduate studies I got more of a grasp of what forms censorship really takes. Now, I see it everywhere, and the oxymora, paradoxes and hypocrisies just keep piling up. Just last month I came across a story in the Guardian (see paragraphs 9-10) about a ‘branding police’ and other restrictions for the upcoming games, no, er, events, hmm, physical exercise related happenings coming this summer, er, season following spring. My local pubs won’t be able to advertise that they have a TV and will happily be showing the, erm, movement-related occurrences. Indeed pubs that somehow are allowed this incredible privilege will have this branding police inspect the building and cover up logos to brands that aren’t paying their wages, even the undersides of our toilets. Disturbing thought, democracies acting in this way for the sponsors’ interests. 
 
Meanwhile most of what I come across our Western youth using their freedoms for can be summarised as: inane exclamations about trivialities, warping written language to the point legitimate cause can be declared for accusing them of crimes against humanity, and a growing number of voices ignorant to the humour behind their “first world problems” (“I don’t have the newest iPad” “I wish I had an Asian boyfriend”). I say most, because there are dedicated people with opinions and information worth listening to here and there. 
 
I brought that up to contrast with my experience in Azerbaijan (rank 162/179 on the PFI) two years ago. The government was denying and downplaying attacks on and imprisonments, harassments and intimidations of journalists and other media actors on a daily basis. In recent weeks, leading up to the Eurovision song contest, we have covered more such news. And yet one of the biggest sources of inspiration I ever drew (apart from my then office colleagues) was near the heart of the capital, in a friendly pub/bar just two blocks off a main road. Here I met and befriended a growing group of young people, who, tired and upset with what was happening in their country were becoming part of and partially leading the growth of nation-wide social media activity, in the forms social and political critiques and information-sharing via blogs as well as the usual Facebook and Twitter. They discarded the option of anonymity, despite the risks, and focussed on broadening their audience, and more importantly, their membership, a growing group of motivated individuals that fight for transparency, accountability and justice. Several of the ones I had the pleasure of getting to know now work in newspapers in neighbouring countries. The most effective one is still running the IRFS.
 
While considered somewhat “backward” by some Western people, this country’s (and ones with similar circumstances, as now Egypt, Libya, Tunisia etc) ‘true’ population has a lot to show the West about what really matters and what a society should want to be like, enabling and inclusive, not serving petty agendas.

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