FAITH column April 3 2016

The imprisonment of increasing numbers of journalists around the world for ‘crimes’ of dissent against ruling elites and governments’ control on media independence and democratic protest remind us all to maintain our faith in the right to dissent. Religious dissent has been integral in shaping human history and perhaps Jesus himself could be regarded as the one of the first to dissent for a theological change that inspired his disciples and evolved into Christianity.
In the 18th century, the Rational Dissenters (moderate Anglicans) believed that state religions impinged on freedom of conscience, opposing the hierarchical structure of the Established Church. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel in 1948, proclaimed ‘the test of democracy is freedom of criticism’, while American psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in ‘Psychoanalysis and Religion’, 1950, that: ‘Human history (began)…with man’s act of disobedience which (was)…at the same time the beginning of his freedom and development of his reason.’
Turkey recently denied the right to dissent in the Zaman newspaper and a Japanese government minister just announced to broadcasters that their licences could be revoked if they failed to be ‘impartial’ in political coverage. Respected Japanese journalists declared this ‘warning’ constituted a threat to media freedom: ‘rather than the media watching the authorities, the government watches the media’. If people remain ignorant about government corruption, we must exercise our right to dissent and expose these countries as no more than ‘democratic’ frauds.
Faith in the right of dissent must be encouraged and applauded not oppressed to simply maintain the status quo. Criticism is essential in intellectual policy debate to be resolved rationally without rancour or recrimination. Australian journalist Peter Greste was eventually released from an Egyptian prison, but so many hundreds of journalists (in China, Egypt and Russia et al) languish in prisons or are shrouded by silence that I can only lament our insular parochialism that permits international reportage on just one side of a story; albeit that of governments’, however undemocratic.
The right to dissent must not be taken for granted; it is intrinsic to democracy to guarantee we do not live in fear or ignorance. Argentina’s President, Mauricio Macri, on meeting with American President Barack Obama a fortnight ago to remember the 1970s/80s military regime’s brutal oppression, said significantly: nations must not be ‘passive onlookers’ to human rights violations as had been the case in the past. This must resonate in Australia as the political right to dissent is as paramount as religious freedom. Faith must embrace both so people can live without fear of being locked up behind bars or ‘disappear’ into an invisible abyss of some gulag.