The PEN Pod: On the Arrest of Raman Pratasevich and Free Speech on Social Media
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” This week, we discuss the recent hijacking of a Ryanair flight that resulted in the arrest of dissident Raman Pratasevich, what happens when laws regarding social media start to clash with human rights laws, and the consequences of firing reporters over public comments. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 15:20 mark).
On the Arrest of Raman Pratasevich
“This disturbing trend of reaching across borders to nab people that regimes see as a threat—this most recent attack on Raman Pratasevich is just a new escalation of that tactic. . . . It’s a state-sponsored hijacking—that’s what the CEO of Ryanair called it. A new demonstration of how far these governments are willing to go and the spectacles they’re prepared to create. It’s obviously about silencing one journalist and holding him in custody. . . . It also sends a message to everybody else who is in exile who thought they had successfully fled to freedom in the West and perhaps started a new life that they’re never really safe.”
On Digital Sovereignty and the Idea of an Open Internet
“The social media companies have always said, ‘We adhere to the national jurisdictions in which we operate.’ In fairness, they have to, because if they don’t, they’ll be shut down. But the problem arises when that national law is in contravention with international human rights law presets and/or the companies’ own professed commitments to, for example, freedom of expression. That’s what we’re seeing here, where the Russian government is pushing the bounds of its law and becoming more insistent about controlling online content in ways that certainly contravene international law, but are legally justified within a Russian legal framework, at least arguably so.
“And so, for the companies, where is that line? Do they resist this, under penalty of being kicked out of the country? Which itself is admittedly a loss to free expression; we’ve talked to people in these countries and they will say that even within the constraints of government censorship, it’s still better to have access to Twitter or Facebook or Google, so the specter of their being kicked out of the country entirely is not appealing—obviously not from a commercial perspective, but also from an expressive perspective. And yet the further the Russian government goes, the more these platforms become a shadow version of a government-controlled media outlet, where some perspectives are banned and others are elevatored and amplified, and that becomes profoundly distorting.”
On Media Personnel Decisions and Free Speech
“When a media organization gives into pressure, that pressure can be intense. That enforces this idea that they need to be policing speech, and that when someone comes to them and makes a stink about something someone said, that can lead to a direct path of discipline and termination. For news commentators, for journalists, and for all of us—to live in a world where if someone objects to what we say they can stomp their feet and get their employer to fire us—it is constricting.”