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Self-censorship – a travelling blogger’s dilemma

July 11, 2017

Here’s a thought about blogging, or more specifically, blogging about politics in countries other than your own.

I have no problem with writing freely about my home country, the UK, about the United States with its wretched president, and about more or less any other western country that attracts my wrath or, just occasionally, my admiration.

If the contempt I pile upon Donald Trump results in an immigration official in New York or Los Angeles asking me to go to a room for a conversation that results in a swift return whence I came, that won’t be fine by me, but it won’t be the end of the world either.

It is, after all, the consequence of countries insisting on looking at your utterances, be they on a blog like this or on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, and then determining that they don’t like your attitude towards their country or their president.

Immigration screening techniques have become much more sophisticated than they were in the years immediately following 9/11, when I would often be selected for special attention at US immigration purely on the basis of a large number of Arabic visas in my passport.

In other parts of the world, practices were cruder still. I remember standing in long lines in one Middle Eastern country in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, while immigration officers took passports to a side office and did Google searches on the names of the travellers.

When I mention to friends that I no longer take for granted the ability to enter countries like the US because of what I write about Trump and other political figures, they tend to laugh. What they’re saying is that I’m pond life. My blog is read by relatively few people, so isn’t it absurdly vain of me to believe that my humble scratchings are important enough to attract the attention of  great nations?

Probably, I say, yet isn’t it also the case that much-vaunted security services such as the NSA and GCHQ dedicate themselves to searching out the obscure, the assassins and the terrorists lurking in the backwaters of the internet? How much easier is it for them to raise their eyebrows at the rantings of someone who makes no attempt to hide his political views?

Of course I don’t see myself as a threat to anyone. I just write stuff. I don’t incite riots and revolutions. I go to some lengths to avoid tarring countries and societies with the same brush that I use to criticise the behaviour of individuals.

And yet there are countries, some of which I know quite well, that would not take kindly to the kind of unflattering remarks I regularly make about politicians in the UK and the US, if those comments were directed at them. These are countries where bloggers are threatened, locked up and even stripped of their citizenship.

So herein lies a dilemma. There are parts of the world that are full of open-hearted, generous people. They also happen to have political establishments that are capable of acts of great cruelty and stupidity, for whom the primary objective in the way they govern is to preserve their pre-eminence – whatever it takes.

Is it therefore right that I should condemn those regimes in the same way as I criticise my own leaders? You would think so, even though there are plenty of journalists lining up to point out their deficiencies. But if I do, what might be the effect on people in those countries whom I’m honoured to consider friends, with whom I have regular conversations on the social media? Will they end up being tarred with my brush, damned by association with me, even if those conversations are devoid of political content?

Perhaps I’m being over-cautious. And perhaps I’m applying double standards. If I encounter regimes that offend my values, should I not call them out?

Maybe, but whereas there are millions of people who think the way I do about Donald Trump or Theresa May and can say so without fear of being rounded up, this is not the case everywhere in the world. Criticism of leaders can have consequences.

If I’m somewhat circumspect on occasions, it’s not because I’m afraid of the tap on the shoulder in immigration. It’s because I’m well aware that the more insecure a regime, the more paranoid it becomes, and the more it has the potential to create connections and intentions where none exist. Consider, after all, the lethal climates of suspicion in Stalin’s USSR, Saddam’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya. And I don’t want to be the unwitting cause of damnation by association with me.

A bigger picture is that though I’m appalled at the detention of political figures and dissident writers in China, Russia, and the Middle East, I’m also aware that such acts are a small part of pervasive political apparatuses created to keep individual rulers and oligarchies in power.

In some cases, to stop abuses of power would require those regimes to be brought down. And should that happen through internal revolution, whether or not aided and abetted by third parties, there is a danger that, as in Libya and Iraq, the suffering caused in the chaotic aftermath could be greater than that inflicted by the outgoing regimes.

Better surely to encourage evolution through reform rather than revolution, even if in some cases there’s the risk that the mildest reforms are taken as weakness and trigger some form of revolution anyway.

Perhaps I feel a little guilty that I was prepared for so many years to work in foreign countries abroad while turning a blind eye to the repugnant behavior of their governments. Was I not conniving with those regimes? And would I not be a hypocrite by saying nothing at the time and waiting until I’d left to unleash a barrage of righteous indignation in their direction?

Hypocrite or otherwise, the fifteen years I spent working abroad countries enabled me to meet many wonderful people, some of whom are still friends. Those people have given me an understanding of cultures and societies that I would not otherwise have gained. Some have benefited from their governments, others have not.

Either way, it’s been my experience that the closer you get to any society, the harder it is see it in terms of black and white, of moral absolutes.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never wanted to be a journalist or a politician.

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