What Freedom do we have today? Centro de Exames de Português

Every year, on 25th April, Portugal celebrates “Dia da Liberdade” (“Freedom Day”). This year is all the more important because it marks the 40th anniversary of "Revolução dos Cravos" (“Carnation Revolution”) that put an end to the dictatorial regime known as "Estado Novo” (“New State”), led by António de Oliveira Salazar until 1968 (who, at this point, was replaced by Marcelo Caetano) and which lasted 41 years (1933-1974).

Estado Novo” was preceded by another authoritarian regime, of military nature, which paved the way for Salazar’s rise to power, first as Minister of Finances (1926; 1928-1940), and later as Prime-Minister, from 1932 to 1968. Authoritarianism in Portugal was implemented in the aftermath of the chaotic First Republic, which lasted 16 years, with several governments lasting only a few days and others that failed to take office.

Nowadays, many in Portugal compare the current right-center coalition government to “Estado Novo”. But can these two regimes really be compared? The immediate answer would be – of course not. However, when dissecting how freedom is enjoyed today, we realize a comparison may be drawn to some extent.

When António de Oliveira Salazar was in the power, all freedoms (most notably, freedom of expression and freedom of the press) were severely restricted, this situation enforced by the surveillance and conduct of a specific state police ("Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado" – PIDE). Individual opinions and media information were surveilled, repressed and censored. But can it truly be said that, to some extent, the same doesn’t happen today? In varying degrees and employing different strategies, governments still exert control over what is said and published within their borders, and even beyond. 

Take the recent example of Turkey, where Twitter and YouTube were blocked by governmental order and where Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is suspected of exerting influence and control over several newspapers. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have leaked to the world how governments spy on each other, on their respective populations and on people outside their national jurisdictions. When compared to the repressive nature of “Estado Novo”, the difference is that, until very recently, we were largely unaware we were being watched and how and who was watching us. What we learnt, after Assange and Snowden, is that someone always is. So, what kind of freedom is this? Is it in line with the principles, standards and obligations of the democratic regimes of today? The massification and increasing dependency of people on new communication technologies and the Internet present a new arena of action for governments wishing to control their populations.

This is not to say we do not live in freedom. But it is a freedom with limits, with too many nuances and grey areas. If we pass the limits and enter into the State sphere, we will run into problems and encounter resistance; the same that Assange and Snowden are now struggling with, when their findings provoked a malaise in the relations between some countries, such as between the United States of America and Germany

The main problem comes when governments control citizens through new technological “toys”, to know whether we are spies, terrorists, threats, or just "regular" people. They invade our privacy while choosing to shield themselves from scrutiny inside a “black box”, not wanting us to know their secrets, or worse, the secrets of others countries they already know of. We have reached a point where they now seem to know too many things, including some they were not supposed to.

Espionage has always been a recurrent practice between States, but now this practice seems to be going beyond the expected standards for democratic regimes. Not only these democratic countries seem not to trust each other but, what’s worst, seem to treat their people with suspicion and distrust.

While it is expected that individuals and States will go to great lengths to protect their own secrets, seeking to know the secrets of others can very easily degenerate in a severe violation of the privacy of individuals and curtail, to a certain extent, some of the very defining principles of any democratic regime, namely, freedom.

We will still live in freedom but it is never absolute, it is a limited freedom. In democracies, citizens live more freely than under authoritarian regimes, but always in the shadow of governments that will seek to control us, taking from us some of our freedom and invading our privacy without our knowledge or consent, arguing it is only for our protection. But who will protect us from them?

Edited by: Margarida Hourmat
Photo credits:  Centro de Exames de Português