Freedom of speech under attack in the era of Trump

In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s controversial policies, I felt compelled to share some of the thoughts I’ve had since the President got elected into office and the first signs of resistance to his administration began to crop up.

I am an international student from Mexico. I grew up in a country where children with cancer have been given water instead of chemotherapy authorized by shameless politicians looking to make a profit (BBC News, “Mexican governor: Cancer children given water instead of chemotherapy,” 01.19.2017). I grew up learning that a president can get elected with only 38 percent of the popular vote, and comes from a party that has dominated Mexican politics for over a century and is known for its repression and widespread electoral fraud (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Institutional Revolutionary Party,” 07.02.2012). I grew up in a society that constantly complains about a corrupt, ineffective government that operates with impunity, but that does little to resolve its issues. More on that last part later.

In the late 1960s, Mexico City was preparing for the 1968 Summer Olympics. Inspired by the recent successes of student-led movements in France, Mexican high school and university students began a nation-wide strike demanding, among other things, a more transparent and open democracy (Global Nonviolent Action Database, “Mexican students protest for greater, 1968,” 08.1968–10.1968). It was believed, at the time, that the government–pressured and already under scrutiny by the international spotlight it was in–would listen to its people’s requests. Instead, President Diaz Ordaz issued a threat to punish dissent with violence on his Sept. 1st national address, while dismissing public unrest despite the massive and open protests taking place in Mexico City.

On Oct. 2nd, just ten days before the beginning of the Olympics, several armed military forces opened fire on thousands of protesters who had gathered near a housing project, Tlatelolco, to demonstrate peacefully. Among the protesters were children, women, elders, students, teachers and other civilians. The next day, as the sun rose in the sky and the morning papers were sent out to homes across the city. Not one of them mentioned the massacre at Tlatelolco. In fact, it would take almost three decades for the Mexican government to publicly recognize the event, and to persecute those responsible for the attack.

The man responsible for ordering the attack was never fully brought to justice. Current members of his party said people ought to “overcome the memory of history” (La Jornada, “Encarcelar a responsables de la masacre en Tlatelolco,” 10.02). The official government death toll was 30, but eyewitnesses and experts estimate the body count to be in the hundreds or even the thousands (UCSB Black Studies, “Tlatelolco Massacre”).

On the night of Sept. 26th, 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in the state of Guerrero disappeared. A group of over 100 students–who had, in the past, boycotted against several state and federal government officials–had been planning to travel to the state capital and subsequently to Mexico City to attend a march commemorating the anniversary of the 1968 massacre. The caravan was intercepted by corrupt municipal police forces (unfortunately, this was not an isolated case) presumed to have been working with the drug cartels (Vice News, “Mexico’s Efforts to Tackle Police Corruption Keep Failing,” 03.21.2016). The struggle left several dead or injured. 43 went missing. Because of technology, news of the event spread, and with it uncertainty. Even with tremendous pressure, both at home and from the international community, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and his administration failed to hold those responsible–namely the governorship of Guerrero–accountable in their responsibility for the tragedy, even denying their involvement of any sort. After some mediocre efforts to locate the bodies of the missing students, the government largely forgot about the incident and moved on.

In the last 15 years, over a hundred journalists in Mexico have been abducted and killed by scorned and dangerous enemies (El Universal, “PGR: 103 periodistas asesinados en los últimos 15 años,” 02.24.2015). Drug cartels and corrupt politicians act with impunity against those few who still openly denounce them for their crimes. This is not a new thing. Some newspapers, their owners bribed by–and perhaps, sometimes, in fear of–government officials or members of organized crime, have historically been known to refuse to publish anything that might incriminate any potential foe.

While in that respect, freedom of the press has made some strides–a number of political newscaster or commentators have gained notoriety and a certain degree of anonymity thanks to access to the Internet–the inadequate response of the federal and local governments to the issue goes to show that dissent is still punishable.

Based on this history of violence and oppression against those who protest the authorities’ power, it may be easier to understand why Mexicans seldom take to the street and actively demand for justice. Just last week, I attended my first protest ever, and for the first 30 minutes of the event, I couldn’t shake off the nerves from the idea of anything going wrong.

When I first came to the United States for college, my mother was afraid that the posts I was sharing on Facebook, criticizing Trump during his candidacy, would get me deported and asked me to stop sharing them. It’s not that we don’t care when authorities abuse of their power, it’s just that it has become easier (and safer) to engage in a form of passive activism–to express our indignation through social media, in the form of memes–and to comfort ourselves with the idea that we have done our part in undoing what wrong has been done.

While this is in no way meant to claim that the current situation the United States is facing is anywhere near to what my country and many others have experienced, there is a thin line between the outright oppression of speech and expression, as it has happened and is happening in Mexico, and the belittling or trivialization by elected officials of the concerns being raised by its people.

The ignorance of, and propagation of, “alternative facts” is an old game played by authoritarian governments that we know, unfortunately, works. Read critically, go to the source, even if it’s from a newspaper or publication you trust. Defend your right to voice your concerns.

Defend the right of others to voice their own concerns even if you don’t agree with them. Open up a space for conversation and dialogue. The only way the country will be able to get through this in one piece is through a united front against any injustice that may come its way.

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