Group sitting at cafe overlooking the White House

The Public Sphere’s New Enemies

All around the world, the space that people need to express themselves freely and register dissent is shrinking. Even as the Internet and communications technology have made speaking up publicly technically easier than ever, ubiquitous state and commercial surveillance has ensured that free expression and protest remain constrained.

NEW YORK – Before November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, it was legal to stage a demonstration in a public square in that city. Now it isn’t. In Uganda, although citizens campaigning against corruption or in favor of gay rights often faced a hostile public, they didn’t face jail time for demonstrating. But under a frighteningly vague new statute, now they do. In Egypt, government authorities recently raided and shut down prominent cultural institutions – an art gallery, a theater, and a publishing house – where artists and activists once gathered.

All around the world, it seems, the walls are closing in on the space that people need to assemble, associate, express themselves freely, and register dissent. Even as the Internet and communications technology have made speaking up publicly technically easier than ever, ubiquitous state and commercial surveillance has ensured that expression, association, and protest remain constrained. In short, speaking up has never required more courage.

For me, this shift could not hit closer to home. In November, the Open Society Foundations (the global philanthropies of George Soros, which I lead) became the second organization blacklisted under a Russian law, enacted in May, that allows the country’s prosecutor general to ban foreign organizations and suspend their financial support of local activists. Because anyone who engages with us is subject to possible prosecution and imprisonment, we have had no choice but to cut off relations with the dozens of Russian citizens we supported in their efforts to preserve some fragment of democracy in their country.

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