Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Tale of Two Presidents - Putin versus Obama

In the American mainstream media fact and fiction frequently diverge, leading to established narratives that bear little relationship to what is actually happening. The recent events in Paris have most often been described as free speech colliding with religious extremism but the reality is that existing French hate crime legislation means that the country has only very limited freedom of expression. In France you can be arrested and imprisoned or fined heavily just for saying something that the government considers to be unacceptable even if you do nothing at all beyond that.

In the United States there has been a virtual media evisceration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is consistently demonized as an autocratic along the lines of the country’s former Czarist rulers and it is frequently claimed that he is an ex-KGB thug and bully who seeks to muzzle the democracy in his country, to include the press and all independent political forces. He is also invariably depicted as the agent provocateur in the recent upheaval involving Ukraine.

But are the claims about Putin true or are they just the kind of pablum that is convenient to feed to a mass American audience that is essentially blissfully ignorant about what is going on in the world? With that possibility in mind, it would be useful to compare the record of the Russian president with that of our own President Barack Obama. Such an examination might well include their respective interactions in areas that most people would consider part and parcel of the essential liberties pertaining to a democratic society. They should include freedom of the press, ability to associate and organize political parties that oppose the one in power, government accountability, freedom of speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment. The respective governments should also be judged on whether their interactions with other nations are proportionate and serve actual national interests or not.

Press freedom is tricky. The United States has a notionally free press but it is in reality largely controlled by special and corporate interests that are not prepared to challenge the government in any serious way. It is currently ranked 46 th in the world by Reporters Without Borders freedom index, just in front of Haiti.

The Obama Administration has initiated twice as many prosecutions for violation of the Espionage Act as all previous administrations combined. The ongoing six year long pursuit of the sources of New York Times journalist James Risen suggests that the freedom to do investigative journalism in the United States is limited when it runs up against government secrecy. In yet another case, a FOX journalist James Rosen had his emails and phone records seized while twenty phone lines used by the Associated Press were monitored by federal law enforcement.

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