Can Europe Make It?

New authoritarian zeitgeist: family resemblances

What these regimes have in common is the “man-made” nature of the Zeitgeist. Democracies are not dying in the world today; they are being killed by premeditated, deliberate acts on the part of the incumbent leaders.

Ayşe Kadıoğlu
6 December 2019, 3.32pm
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leaves the polling booth during municipal elections, in Istanbul, Sunday, March 31, 2019 – later declared invalid.
Depo Photos/PA. All rights reserved.

I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New.
Bertolt Brecht, The Parade of the Old New, Poems from the Darkest Times (1938-41)

As another decade of the twenty first century is about to begin, we are witnessing the conflicting global rise of both novel authoritarian practices and mass demonstrations of resistance.

A new type of authoritarianism has become a landmark development of this century in countries like Venezuela, Philippines, India, Turkey, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, and Poland albeit with significant differences among them. Though not among the above list of countries, it is easy to detect several authoritarian practices in the United States during the Presidency of Donald Trump. We live in an era in which authoritarianism is the predominant spirit of our times, the Zeitgeist.

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The increasing normalization of authoritarianism is numbing our sense of alarm and is leading to low levels of political efficacy at a global level. Research conducted in 2014 portrayed low levels of political efficacy in 31 of the 33 countries surveyed in emerging and developing economies where people mostly feel that government officials do not care about what they think.

The increasing normalization of authoritarianism is numbing our sense of alarm and is leading to low levels of political efficacy at a global level.

Expressions like competitive authoritarianism and electoral authoritarianism have entered the literature in an attempt to distinguish some of these regimes from democracies as well as past authoritarian regimes that mostly emerged by abrupt military coup d’états. Rather, these new regimes appear to consolidate themselves gradually over the course of many years during which the incumbent political actors pursue electoral politics by holding competitive yet most of the time unfree and unfair elections on an uneven playing field.

New authoritarianism and fascism

Some of the distinguishing features of today’s authoritarian Zeitgeist are reminiscent of the fascisms that existed before the Second World War. Nevertheless, they also represent a novel style and content in politics. There is also a tendency to call these regimes ‘populist’ which inevitably shifts the focus from the regimes towards those who support them. Yet, associating populism only with authoritarianism leads to the abandonment of the mantra “we the people” to the authoritarian political actors and their supporters. It is time to reclaim this mantra and associate popular support with democratic practices. Otherwise, the critique of these regimes begins to look like the criticism of the masses who support them, turning the idea of democracy exclusively into an élitist project.

The critique of these regimes begins to look like the criticism of the masses who support them, turning the idea of democracy exclusively into an élitist project.

The leaders of the new authoritarian regimes advocate illiberal democracy against a liberalism ostensibly imposed on their people by the western élite in their countries. The notion of illiberal democracy that was initially used by Fareed Zakaria in 1997 in order to describe developments in authoritarian practices has now been transformed into an explicit aim. Victor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, has openly been advocating it. During his leadership as Prime Minister, Freedom House declared the status of Hungary, a European Union member state, as “partly free” in its Freedom in the World 2019 Report. In a frequently quoted speech that Orbán gave in 2018, he declared:

Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues – say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favour of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.

Such use of the concept of illiberal democracy demonstrates how the analytical tools used in the literature in order to understand authoritarian practices are being hijacked and turned into projects as part of the new authoritarian Zeitgeist.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), one of the earliest and most comprehensive analyses of the Nazi regime in Germany and Stalinist regime in Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt used the expression “novel form of government” in describing these regimes. The regimes that she identified as totalitarian were novel since they did not resemble any of the preceding authoritarian regimes. Such novelty also seems to be a distinguishing feature of today’s new authoritarian Zeitgeist. Nevertheless, as often happens with such novelties, they at times resemble their predecessors. As in the Bertolt Brecht epigraph of this essay, the new authoritarian Zeitgeist, as novel as it is, seems to come as the “Old New” due to its several fascistic features.

In his 1995 essay titled “Ur-Fascism” Umberto Eco described how, despite their significant differences, fascist regimes are distinguished by virtue of family resemblances. These family resemblances include fear of those viewed as different, and feeling besieged on the basis of past and future plots that allegedly try to topple these regimes. Fascist regimes appealed to the frustrated middle classes and glorified activism while defining pacifism as collaborating with the enemy. They requested total loyalty and maintained that disagreement was treason. This inevitably led to the suppression of individual rights while glorifying the people as a monolithic entity.

There was also the utilization of a new language, a Newspeak, in an attempt to diminish criticism. Eco mentions the Nazi and Fascist schoolbooks that “made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” All in all, criticism was replaced by rejection while political adversaries were presented as enemies.

This inevitably led to the suppression of individual rights while glorifying the people as a monolithic entity.

In distinguishing fascism from totalitarianism, Eco maintains that “fascism had no quintessence. Fascism was a fuzzytotalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.” It seems as if, in today’s world, ur-fascism has indeed returned, as Eco observed, in “plainclothes.” Its return is visible in the family resemblances of today’s authoritarian Zeitgeist in many countries.

Cross-regional comparisons

In what follows, three family resemblances in the cross-regional cases of Venezuela, Turkey, and Poland are detected and underlined. Cross regional comparisons are significant since they tend to shift the focus away from the cultural and religious variables peculiar to a region. This is not to say that culture and religion have no impact on rising authoritarianisms. Yet, cross-regional comparisons expose the fact that the most significant variables that they have in common are the premeditated, deliberate acts on the part of the incumbent leaders. Today, democracies are not necessarily dying because of cultural, religious reasons and/or economic crises. They are being killed globally by a handful of political leaders who promote a new style of politics geared at the reduction of executive constraints. This is even visible in the new electoral manifesto of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom recently launched by Boris Johnson. Many observers are distressed by the Tory manifesto’s proposal to reform judicial review which is seen as a sinister plan to put government beyond legal scrutiny.

This essay is an attempt to shift the attention to the “man-made” nature of the new authoritarian Zeitgeist.

Opposition as the enemy

In today’s authoritarian atmosphere, opposition members are portrayed by the incumbent leaders as enemies rather than adversaries. The incumbents use a polarizing and disparaging language that frequently involves name-calling when referring to the opposition. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez promoted the vision of a devoted, patriotic, humble hardworking people against a corrupt, traitorous élite. The élite were labeled as the escuálidos (squalid ones).

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has cynically used the expression mon cher or “those who sip whisky by the Bosphorus” in referring to liberal Istanbul intellectuals. He coined the expression çapulcu (marauders, raiders) for those who took to the streets during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Turkey’s Academics for Peace who signed a petition calling for the peaceful resolution of the conflict and an end to the ongoing atrocities against Kurdish citizens in the southeastern provinces of Turkey were called “colonialists” and “fifth column operators,” implying allegedly treacherous behavior. They were targeted in their homes and offices, harassed, and face imprisonment through hundreds of court cases against them.

In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the incumbent Law and Justice Party known by its Polish acronym PiS, has called the party’s opponents gangsters, cronies, reds, and the worst sort of Poles. More recently, the main public broadcasting corporation, TVP, showed images of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, Poland’s former prime minister, and a founder of the main opposition party, the Civic Platform, next to images of Hitler and Stalin. In a recent tweet, President Donald Trump also suggested that the Democrats were committing treason by embarking on the impeachment process.

At times, opposition actors are portrayed as in coalition with those who are trying to topple the government. A key opposition leader in Venezuela, Leopoldo López who is one of the founders of Voluntad Popular was arrested in 2014 and charged with disseminating “subliminal messages” that incited violence. He was convicted and sentenced to almost fourteen years in prison for public incitement, criminal conspiracy, and instigating arson and criminal damage. López was under house arrest when Juan Guaidó of Voluntad Popular declared himself the acting President of Venezuela in January 2019. When Guaidó made his strongest bid for power against Nicolás Maduro in the Spring of 2019, Leopoldo López, who was freed from house arrest by soldiers supporting Guaidó, appeared by his side when he addressed the crowds in Caracas.

Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish opposition political party with the Turkish acronym HDP has been in prison for three years on terrorism charges.

In Turkey, President Erdoğan has accused the main opposition party CHP for serving as a subcontractor for the actors behind the 15 July 2015 coup attempt. Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish opposition political party with the Turkish acronym HDP has been in prison for three years on terrorism charges. Demirtaş was leading the HDP during the June 2015 elections when the party scored a 13% victory which was easily over the national 10% threshold. In October 2019, soon after the beginning of the Turkish military’s onslaught in Syria, investigations of many social media accounts that shared anti-war statements were initiated on the basis of police surveillance. Not surprisingly, many members of the HDP became the targets of these investigations. They were charged with engaging in terror propaganda.

About one hundred individuals including HDP members and students were taken into police custody in Urfa on the basis of such charges. Many others in Eskişehir, Mardin, Ankara, and Istanbul faced similar charges.

Interestingly, a charge similar to Venezuela’s Leopoldo López, was brought against Ahmet Altan, a veteran journalist in Turkey. Altan was arrested for sending “subliminal messages” in a television show that was aired before the 15 July 2016 coup attempt and charged with attempting to topple the government. After his imprisonment for over three years, Altan was released briefly in early November 2019 only to be arrested again, leading to The Economist’s use of the expression Turkey’s revolving prison doors. The fact that two figures opposing their governments, thousands of miles apart in Venezuela and Turkey, were charged for disseminating subliminal messages suggests the cross regional character of these new authoritarian practices.

Conspiracy theories are also used against members of the opposition. In Poland, PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczyński has created a myth around the Smolensk plane crash that killed his twin brother, the then-President Lech Kaczyński in 2010. He implied that the crash was not an accident but an assassination, and that the then-Prime Minister was responsible for criminal negligence and covering up the investigation.

The charges described above against the members and leaders of opposition political parties signal in no uncertain terms that we live in times when political differences are no longer represented in public deliberative processes but rather in the style of “us” versus the “enemies.” Opposition political party members and leaders find themselves in a position to face charges of terror. Such a polarized view of the society is a key feature of today’s authoritarian Zeitgeist. This is a view that undoubtedly glorifies faith in and loyalty to the incumbents over criticism and competence. Many key government positions are filled on the basis of loyalty rather than merit.

We live in times when political differences are no longer represented in public deliberative processes but rather in the style of “us” versus the “enemies.”

Civil society loyalty to government

New authoritarian regimes create and foster their own civil society organizations while portraying prior civil activism as unpatriotic and engaging in a crackdown against it. The Chavista regime in Venezuela, for instance, used the expression ‘civil society’ pejoratively and in reference to upper middle class organizations characterized as élitist. Instead, they have been replacing the expression ‘civil society’ with “communities” in an attempt to underline their grassroots character.

With the onset of hunger and malnutrition, many human rights organizations in Venezuela felt compelled to shift the focus of their activities to humanitarian needs focusing on essentials like food and clothing. Human rights organizations began opening community kitchens by 2016. About the same time, Nicolás Maduro’s government began to provide communities with subsidized food boxes in order to circumvent what they described as an economic war waged against Venezuela by the United States. These food boxes were provided through government formed committees called  Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP). Yet, the subsidies delivered by government controlled communities enhanced the monitoring powers of the government over the citizens. Food boxes were delivered to those who signed up for a controversial identification card called Carnet de la Patria (the homeland card). The opposition members claimed repeatedly that these cards were used by the government to monitor citizens and allocate scarce resources to their loyalists.

In Turkey, the AKP was specifically active in the formation of pro-family women’s civil society organizations. Turkish Family Platform (TÜRAP, Türkiye Aile Platformu), for instance, was established in 2012 as an umbrella organization comprising about ninety civil society organizations in an attempt to promote family values. While on the one hand, government was co-opting civil society, many veteran civil activists were facing arrests and detentions. In July 2017, human rights activists representing institutions such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Citizens Assembly were arrested in a meeting in one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast of Istanbul and stayed in detention for more than 100 days. In October 2017, Osman Kavala, who is well-known for encouraging and ensuring the sustainability of civil society in Turkey, was arrested and charged with sponsoring the events of the Gezi protests of 2013. Kavala, who should be given a medal for his diligent support of civil society activities has been in prison for over two years now. As was aptly said in a recent opinion piece, Kavala’s imprisonment has indeed been Turkey’s shame.

Kavala, who should be given a medal for his diligent support of civil society activities has been in prison for over two years now.

A recent report further portrays how public funds are channeled to those civil society organizations that are close to the government and far-removed from women’s and LGBT+ organizations in Poland. The report detects deteriorating standards for organizing public calls such as setting extremely close deadlines which makes it virtually impossible to complete the applications.

Moreover, the Polish Ministry of Justice openly favours organizations that provide aid to all victims comprehensively rather than to victims that belong to a specific group. In one case, for instance, upon the intervention of the Ombudsman, the Minister of Justice ended up explaining why the Women’s Rights Center did not receive funding. He maintained that this was because the Women’s Rights Center specialized only on one group of victims, namely women. The Minister of Justice felt that men could also be victims of domestic violence. This led to the distorted conclusion that supporting a women’s organization would be discriminatory against men.

The use of law in authoritarian consolidation

The use of legality in authoritarian consolidation by political regimes has become a global phenomenon in the twenty first century. The concept “autocratic legalism” has been used in the literature in identifying such political regimes. It was initially used by Javier Corrales who describes Venezuela’s turn from a hybrid and/or competitive authoritarian to an autocratic regime since 1999 by the use, abuse and non-use of the law in favor of the executive branch.

Kim Scheppele, one of the leading scholars deciphering the dynamics of new authoritarian regimes, elaborated autocratic legalism in a comparative perspective in 2018. What distinguishes Scheppele’s analysis is the emphasis she lays on how these regimes “deliberately” use legality and create “new law as a way of consolidating political power.” She underlines the fact that “democracies are not just failing for cultural or economic or political reasons.” Rather, “some constitutional democracies are being deliberately hijacked by a set of legally clever autocrats” or what she calls “legalistic autocrats.” Scheppele’s emphasis on the deliberate use of legality in authoritarian consolidation is a fundamental turning point in understanding new authoritarian regimes.

In new authoritarian regimes, constitutional amendments and other changes in laws are used in order to empower the executive branch at the expense of the other branches of government. These laws are enacted in a constitutional manner and are often concealed in packages including articles that empower citizens, hence garnering their support.

In Venezuela, these laws included the ones leading to the elimination of the Senate, and enabling the President to rule by decree. Venezuelan governments also used the Organic Law of Telecommunications (2000) in suspending or revoking concessions of private independent media outlets in the name of national interest and public order. Suspending the concessions of private media outlets was coupled with government’s efforts to increase the number of public newspapers in local towns as well as state owned television channels. Such practices strengthened the media close to government and ensured an uneven electoral field. The Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination (2010), on the other hand, prevented human rights defenders in Venezuela from receiving international financial assistance. These laws enhanced the state’s capacity to exert pressure on civil society.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments in Turkey engaged in three sets of constitutional amendments, in 2007, 2010, and 2017. These constitutional amendments were all undertaken by national referendums. The initial step towards changing the regime from a parliamentary to a presidential system was taken during the 2007 amendments, which made it possible for presidents to be elected by the people rather than appointed by the parliament.

The most dramatic constitutional amendments were undertaken by national referendum in 2017. The referendum was held under a State of Emergency declared after the 15 July 2016 coup attempt defying all common sense notions of free and fair elections. The amendments to several articles of the already strict and illiberal 1982 Constitution led to a new presidential regime devoid of basic checks and balances replacing Turkey’s long established tradition of a parliamentary regime. A new article gave the President the power to issue executive decrees in matters vaguely defined as “related to executive power.” Whereas in the past the Council of Ministers needed an empowering act by parliament to issue law-amending ordinances, the President now derives the power to issue presidential decrees directly from the Constitution. While one article made it possible to extend the President’s term limits in case parliament decides to renew elections during the President’s second term in office, another one led to the creation of Vice-President(s) who are neither elected by the people nor approved by the parliament. Both the Vice-President(s) and Cabinet members are appointed and dismissed at the President’s will. Moreover, by making it possible for the President to appoint almost half of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (6 out of 13 while the rest are appointed by the parliament), the new amendments harmed the independence of the judiciary.

Before the 2017 amendments, AKP governments used law-amending ordinances in order to strengthen their government and debilitate the opposition. Such measures were used in removing about 152,000 civil servants from their jobs including the purging of 6000 academics from their universities in the aftermath of the coup attempt. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, the republic of letters along with critical thought, were destroyed in Turkey.

Law-amending ordinances were almost always omnibus laws that contained packaged changes to the existing laws in unrelated areas. In a rather interesting case, the critical change in legislation concerning the lifting of the responsibility of the High Electoral Council to ensure equal representation of the competing candidates/arguments in private radio and television channels prior to elections/referendums was buried in an omnibus law-amending ordinance. The package highlighted the new amendments on an entirely irrelevant issue, namely the mandatory utilization of snow tires and the related fines by devoting several lines to their explanation while the lifting of the High Electoral Council’s extremely significant responsibility was mentioned in such a short and obscure manner that it was hardly visible.

In Poland, the most distinguishing aspect of the PiS government since 2015 was the blows it dealt to the independence of the judiciary. These blows were described as an attempt to foster a Soviet-style justice system in an EU-member state. In July 2018, the Polish parliament introduced a mandatory retirement age of 65 for Supreme Court judges, resulting in the dismissal of 27 of the 74 judges in the Supreme Court. Moreover, the new law expanded the court to 120 judges, giving the government an opportunity to appoint two-thirds of the judges – a case of blatant court packing. These acts prompted one of the most fascinating social movements in Poland in 2018, driven by constitutional patriotism citizens took to the streets in defense of the Constitution. They chanted: “Polish Constitution is being broken. We, Polish citizens say No!!” Polish citizens dressed up Gdansk’s Neptune statue in a t-shirt with the slogan “Constitution” in August 2018. This limited response nevertheless signified an awareness on the part of the citizens about the mantle of the law in guarding rights and liberties acquired through long struggles. Moreover, the law passed by the PiS government that reduced the retirement age of the judges of the Supreme Court of Poland was overturned by the European Court of Justice in October 2018. The PiS Government was ordered by the court to suspend its overhaul of the Supreme Court. This was an outstanding resistance of the EU institutions against autocratic legalism, a timely reminder on the importance of the law, and an exultant moment in the history of the European Union.

The PiS Government was ordered by the court to suspend its overhaul of the Supreme Court. This was an outstanding resistance of the EU institutions against autocratic legalism.

Resisting the authoritarian Zeitgeist

Since the incumbent political leaders either change or attempt to change the constitutions in ways that will empower the executive branch of government, resistance to such regimes from within parliaments is becoming increasingly difficult. Hence, it is not surprising to observe low levels of political efficacy in the world today.

Nevertheless, despite all the obstacles and frustrations faced by opposition actors, it is possible to observe a recent global rise in mass demonstrations in every continent, in Algeria, Bolivia, Britain, Catalonia, Chile, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Lebanon and more. Such resistances led to the resignation of Bolivia’s three-term President Evo Morales in November 2019. It has recently been suggested that “not since the wave of ‘people power’ movements swept Asian and east European countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s has the world experienced such a simultaneous outpouring of popular anger on the streets.” These movements are mostly triggered by the social media.

Yet, as is eloquently argued by one of the leading scholars on non-violent resistances in the world, Erica Chenoweth and her colleagues, although the social media is making mass protests easier to organize, it is at the same time making them harder to resolve. Since social media is used both by the incumbents and the protestors, there is always the risk for mass protests to be hijacked in different directions. Moreover, Chenoweth and colleagues argue that, although social media can trigger the mushrooming of social movements, it can also limit the long-term movements opting for change by making it impossible to plan, organize and come up with strategies for the future.

What is to be done?

A recent piece by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker on how to struggle against the climate apocalypse seems pertinent in resisting the new authoritarian Zeitgeist. Many people who are disturbed and frustrated by the acts of new authoritarian leaders try to bury their heads in the sand and hope that this era will go away. The discourse and the daily manifestations of new authoritarianism is so utterly appalling that, many times it leaves the opposition rather speechless. The entire language of politics is changing and becoming obscene. Any attempt at public deliberation almost seems like the relic of a bygone era, to be replaced by disdain and threats. New authoritarian leaders are like Bertolt Brecht’s gangsters. The suffocating discourse and the constitutional amendments undertaken by the new authoritarian regimes create a sense of despair akin to the one we feel in facing the climate apocalypse.

Franzen maintains that there are two ways to think about the climate apocalypse: “you can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.” Franzen, then, begins to show a new way of envisioning hope that can be derived from the daily struggles themselves. In other words, he reminds readers about reproducing resistance relentlessly by everyday acts without being discouraged by the prospect of losing the fight. He injects hope into engaging in acts that most people view as futile and Sisyphean tasks. He underlines the significance of small, local battles that can generate a “hope for today.” As Franzen puts it: “Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically – a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble – and take heart in your small successes.”

Daily struggles, smaller battles do matter in fighting today’s authoritarian Zeitgeist. Istanbul mayoral elections held in 23 June 2019, for instance, resulted in the victory of the candidate of the main opposition political party, CHP. The fact that this happened on an uneven field was all the more important. There were people who favored boycotting the elections, pointing to such an uneven field. In a relentless effort to ensure victory for the opposition, the citizens of Istanbul not only voted but took part in voluntary acts led by civil society organizations such as Oy ve Ötesi (The Vote and Beyond) in order to guard their votes – by staying in polling stations until the votes were counted. Three opposition parties with significant differences in their ideological stances formed a historically significant coalition in order to contest the elections more strongly. Although, AKP is still the governing party in Turkey, the fact that the main opposition candidate became the mayor of Istanbul, a city with a population of about 15 million, was a big crack in the wall through which some light got in. It is through such victories that human agency is resurrected and without such moments of resurrection, it is impossible to keep fighting today’s authoritarian Zeitgeist.

The fact that the main opposition candidate became the mayor of Istanbul, a city with a population of about 15 million, was a big crack in the wall through which some light got in.

Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate for Istanbul of Republican People's Party CHP, and his wife Dilek Imamoğlu cast their ballot in Istanbul, March 31, 2019.  Depo Photos/PA. All rights reserved.
Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate for Istanbul of Republican People's Party CHP, and his wife Dilek Imamoğlu cast their ballot in Istanbul, March 31, 2019.
Depo Photos/PA. All rights reserved.

The family resemblances of today’s authoritarian Zeitgeist described above can be observed globally. The promotion of polarization in the society and the portrayal of the opposition members as enemies, conquest of the realm of civil society by fostering organizations loyal to the government, and the use of legality in authoritarian consolidation, all involve deliberate acts by leaders of incumbent governments. Democracies are not dying in the world today; they are being killed by such acts. We cannot underestimate the power of relentless daily battles in fighting this.

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