Money and corruption is the enemy of free speech
“[Eva] Kaili’s father was arrested that morning [December 9] attempting to leave the Sofitel hotel in the EU quarter with a suitcase stuffed with €750,000 in notes.” –The Guardian
Eva Kaili’s twitter account was still active up until December 9. That was the day that Kaili, glamorous former TV news host and current Vice President of the European Parliament was arrested as part of an investigation into organized crime, money laundering and corruption.
Along with Kaili, her boyfriend, Francesco Giorgi and co-founder of the non-profit Fight Impunity was also arrested. The stated mission of Fight Impunity is to ensure ‘…the principle of accountability as a central pillar of the architecture of international justice.’
Eva Kaili’s father was arrested that same day, in his possession, a suitcase packed with 750,000 euros.
As of this writing, both Kaili and Giorgi are still in detention. For most people reading this story, the voyeuristic fascination of watching their downfall is undeniable. Seeing this as a free speech issue, however, is not the first thing that comes to mind.
Free speech is usually thought of in terms of either the state or private companies power to censor speech. What the Qatargate corruption scandal illustrates is that the concept itself is meaningless in a society where speech can be purchased like a suit off the rack.
In fact, genuine free speech can’t exist outside of an overall culture of free speech.
A free speech culture is one in which speech can’t be bought. It is one in which each person’s speech is given freely, without being purchased or constrained and where all speech has equal weight.
Qatargate – speech for sale in the European Parliament
Eva Kaili is accused of accepting large sums of cash in return for her friendly and repeated expressions of support for Qatar, one of the most authoritarian and repressive regimes on the planet. Qatar is a medieval relic with a modern veneer–a monarchy that doesn’t allow political parties or trade unions; where homosexuality is a crime and subject to the death penalty. It imports a large population of manual laborers, many from Nepal–modern day slaves who are recruited under false pretenses, trapped by debt to traffickers, live in conditions of squalor and have their passports confiscated. Perhaps as many as 500 immigrant workers died during Qatar’s preparations for hosting the 2022 World Cup. Without transparency, we can’t know for sure how many died or the exact details of their working conditions.
That’s not the picture anyone would get from listening to Eva Kaili’s speech to the European Parliament on November 21, 2022, just before the World Cup. She defends Qatar from those who ‘bully them’ and who ‘accuse them of corruption’. She dismisses critics who ‘do not have the right to impose moral lectures for cheap media attention’ and she describes the Qatar elite as ‘a new generation of intelligent, highly educated people’, who are ‘peace negotiators, good neighbors and partners.’
Eva Kaili’s speech easily outshouted the voices of the immigrant slaves in Qatar–voices so faint, thanks to Kaili and others, that we can barely hear them.
Legalized corruption – speech for sale
“Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, combined to earn more than $153 million in paid speeches from 2001 until Hillary Clinton launched her presidential campaign [in 2015]…” –CNN
Kaili could have taken lessons from Hilary Clinton. If she were in the U.S., she could have just given a few bland speeches to Qatar notables and legally walked away with millions in ‘speaking fees’. Her father could have been spared the ordeal of lugging around a suitcase holding 750,000 euros. Her boyfriend could still be representing an NGO named Fight Impunity whose mission is to ensure ‘equal justice’ for all.
There probably are a few people who believe that Hilary and Bill Clinton were given over $153 million dollars by Goldman Sachs and other major corporations because their words had some quasi-magical value. Others are certainly more inclined to see it as influence peddling or, to put it more clearly, legalized bribery.
Corporations are people and their speech is protected
…thanks to the [U.S.] Supreme Court’s [decision in Citizens United], a tiny sliver of Americans now wield more power than at any time since Watergate…” –Citizens United Five Years Later
It was the alchemy of the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, that literally converted money into speech. With Citizens United, the largest corporations and a handful of the wealthiest individuals have been handed unlimited access to the political process, giving them the loudest voices of all.
Lobbying-money talks and money is everywhere
Federal lobbying spending in 2021 reached nearly $3.8 billion, its highest level in nominal dollars ever and one of the most expensive years adjusted for inflation. State lobbying spending in 2021 topped $1.8 billion dollars, a record in nominal dollars and second only to 2019 in inflation-adjusted spending. –OpenSecrets.org
It is really a wonder when political figures still resort to illegal forms of bribery when there are so many legal ways for them to sell their influence.
In every domain that matters, from issues of war and peace, health care, environmental policies, our laws are literally written by the well-healed agents of legalized bribery…lobbyists. Lobbying is just our way of allowing the wealthiest elite and largest corporations to legally transfer almost limitless cash to politicians who will go on to approve the laws the lobbyists want them to pass–or reject the ones that threaten their power.
Christmas past and Christmas present
The ABSCAM scandal of the late 70’s was an FBI sting operation that scooped up numerous members of the U.S. Congress. The scenes of these elected officials grabbing envelopes of cash from FBI agents posing as Saudi businessmen were riveting and would have gone instantly viral on today’s social media.
Michael Myers, at the time a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, was one of those arrested and convicted of accepting bribes. Myers can be seen below, clutching an envelope containing $50,000 in cash that he had just been handed by the undercover FBI agent standing to his right.
The punchline is that Myers, who served a year in prison due to ABSCAM, is now back in the news at 78 years old. Last September he was convicted of taking ‘consulting fees’ which, after skimming his portion, he used to pay election officials to ‘tamper with election results’.
Media conglomeration and the control of information
Mass media influences how facts are viewed and debated in a society, contributing to crafting its public opinion. –Media Ownership Monitor
This 2021 Harvard research project documents in detail who owns our largest media organizations. The short version is that 15 billionaires and a handful of corporations own most of the mainstream U.S. media.
This narrow ownership of our largest media conglomerates ensures that a certain worldview will always be amplified and that the voice of the most powerful will always be the loudest. Books have been written explaining exactly how this works. Over the past 30 years the problem has only gotten worse as control of the media is in fewer and fewer hands.
Litigation strategies to silence activists
Large lawsuits have been used to shut down critical speech for about as long as people have been able to sue each other. –Protect the Protest
In the U.S. legal tactics have been developed by high priced lawyers to silence activists of all stripes. These are essentially litigation strategies originally created for other purposes, but because of the huge costs incurred to defend against them, they are extremely effective in suppressing undesirable speech.
The general term for this type of litigation is SLAPP – “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”. The coalition Protect the Protest has documented numerous examples of SLAPP lawsuits that are deployed to stifle activists of all stripes. SLAPP litigation has been used to deploy ‘ag-gag laws to silence animal rights activists, copyright infringement lawsuits to prevent linking to youtube videos and anti-racketeering (RICO) lawsuits targeting environmental activists.
The cost of defending against these suits is astronomical and the possibility of losing one can be catastrophic.
Drug Cartels and the corrupting power of money
“..it’s speculated that each year, drug cartels spend more than a billion dollars [in Mexico] just bribing municipal police.” –The Amount Of Money Mexican Drug Cartels Spend On Bribes Is Staggering
That the Belgian police investigation of the European Parliament led to several high profile arrests and recovered about a million euros of cash, might be reassuring, except for the fact that Belgium itself is increasingly seen as a narco-state, overrun by crime and corruption.
This means that while Belgian investigators fix their gaze on one high profile corruption investigation, millions of dollars continue to flow into the country behind their backs–every..single..day.
The power of the drug cartels and international organized crime is the gigantic elephant in the room that is rarely mentioned–certainly not in the context of free speech. One important fact–it’s a misnomer to call them drug cartels. According to Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez, less than half of the Mexican cartels’ income now comes from drugs. This means they make even more money from other sources which include human trafficking, prostitution, the modern slave trade, extortion and of course legal businesses.
The cartels are the true genie which governments around the world have allowed out of the bottle. They have grown into giants that are now beyond anyone’s control.
The cartels seem to have limitless funds. We don’t know what limits, if any, there are when it comes to their power to control the speech and behavior of politicians, generals and the police. We get occasional glimpses of what is probably the tip of the iceberg.
Their effect on journalism and self-censorship is obvious. Only the brave few continue to investigate and speak up about what is perhaps the most serious threat to international security ever.
Transparency and a free speech culture are the only disinfectant
Genuine freedom of expression is analogous to open source computer code which is transparent and can be inspected and evaluated by everyone. Without open source standards we can’t know what code is infected, just as we don’t know how what we hear and what we think may have been influenced by the corrupting power of money.
When it comes to speech, transparency is the baseline requirement. Without independent media and a genuine public square, we can never truly evaluate the information we receive. We won’t know if it has been bought by bribes, paid for by lobbyists, influenced by tech managers or manipulated to serve corporate or state interests.
This is a global problem, and not at all particular to the U.S. When U.S. citizens find comfort in the protections of their First Amendment they fail to see the world around them.
Free speech only has meaning within a free speech culture. A free speech culture means a society where money doesn’t guarantee the biggest voice. A free speech culture means a society with a truly free and independent media and where corporate speech is recognized for what it is, the raw expression of power that does not deserve the status or protections of actual speech.
A free speech culture is one which stops treating speech as something that can be bought in secret. It is one where legal tools available only to the wealthiest can no longer be used to bludgeon into silence those who disagree.
These are not bandaid size problems. They are endemic features of capitalism. They will remain in place as long as society continues to worship the profit motive above everything. That is why the left needs to hold on to the ideal of free speech, without which all its other goals will forever remain out of reach.
‘Narco-state’ fears in Belgium after summer of violence
EU Parliament vice-president Eva Kaili in custody for alleged ‘bags of cash from Qatar’
European far-right cheers over Qatar corruption scandal
Greek MEP Eva Kaili to stay in custody after corruption charges, says court
Hillary Clinton Made More in 12 Speeches to Big Banks Than Most of Us Earn in a Lifetime
$153 million in Bill and Hillary Clinton speaking fees, documented
WikiLeaks Claims To Release Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs Transcripts
Running a Racket – The Scorched-Earth Legal Strategy Corporations Are Using to Silence Their Critics
Corporate Donations Tracker: Here Are The Companies Giving Millions To Anti-Racism Efforts
While Professing BLM Support, Wall Street Banks Reject Racial Equity Audits
23 Large Brands That Have Pledged More Than $1M To Social Justice Causes
Anti-Oppression Politics is a Red Herring to Divert Our Attention from Empire, Inequality, and Class Solidarity
San Francisco is ‘drowning in fentanyl.’ Where is the drug coming from?
Protect the Protest
Student Surveillance Vendor Proctorio Files SLAPP Lawsuit to Silence A Critic
Citizens United Explained–The 2010 Supreme Court decision further tilted political influence toward wealthy donors and corporations.