As a self-styled polemicist, opportunities to genuinely promote freedom have largely been dominated by what I write and what I say. What I do for a living generally doesn't offer much chance for that, as it is dominated by development of business strategies, public policy and analytics. Various charities and organisations promote individual freedom as well, but nothing quite comes close as being able to act in a way that is contrary to those who suppress freedom - particularly freedom of speech.
So it is in that light that I visited four dictatorships this year, all countries where the state has direct control over the entire mass media, where rule of law is at the mercy of the leadership and ruling parties and where criticism of the political leadership can prove fatal. Talking about political change in such countries is not something undertaken lightly. As such I hope you bear with me in that I wont identify the country I visited where the following rather minor events happened. The primary reason I wont identify the country online is to protect those in that country who I talked to and who committed political crimes with me. For not only is that important, but it is more important that people like them, who have some privileges already understand the outside world.
The people I met were initially cautious and careful about what to ask and what to say, but after building trust over a few days they were willing to talk - in circumstances when no one else would overhear. Questions were asked about other countries, about whether people know what it is like there and what life is like in other countries. Questions asked about history and events that have been suppressed (and rewritten), as foreign books on subjects (and local translations) are rare. Questions asked about whether I thought change would come and what might happen and what should happen. The people I met had consumed news from the BBC and CNN, although only sporadically, as access was severely restricted.
Perhaps the most astonishing question was to explain World War 2, from a Western perspective, and to explain to a university educated man what the Holocaust was, and what Germany is really like.
I brought in literature that I knew would not be allowed to be distributed there, and I left one book which was a Western book in English containing a description of the country in question. I understood that it would be prized far more than the price tag.
However I also allowed one to listen to foreign broadcasts in the national language - a criminal offence punishable by execution. This was done carefully, as I brought a multiband (shortwave) radio into the country quite openly, although such radios are not freely available in shops there. Foreign news broadcasts were devoured as I listened with my new friend when the opportunities arose. Every day I was asked about what was in the news from overseas, whether there was news about the country concerned, and I made a point of remembering what I heard from the BBC World Service, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle. Information was devoured, whatever I had to tell.
The current leadership was rarely mentioned, and none I talked to expressed enthusiasm or interest in their deeds. They were simply acknowledged as "being there". The overwhelming understanding was that the government was, by and large, not to be trusted. Yet I could have talked for days and days about the outside world. It was abundantly clear that none of them could easily get to leave. What was also very clear was that these are intelligent and articulate people, who are looking for opportunities to reach out to the rest of the world, and to learn the truth, and who are anticipating change. When and how that change occurs is unclear, but what is currently clear is that there is a political tinderbox which may ignite given half a chance - but one that is suppressed by a brutal secret police and climate of distrust. Since then events have happened that might give hope for change in the near future.
When I left, I was told by one of them that eventually when he could leave, he would find me in London. It was quite heart-breaking to realise how easy it is to visit and leave such places, when it is not the case for those who live there.
What to do? Despite what some political dissidents say, it IS important to visit such regimes. It is important to bring books, bring a radio, learn a language and talk, let people know that you are interested, that you are not engaging in some macabre act of voyeurism, but that the outside world not only cares, but is friendly.
So this time of year I want to give pause for those who do not live in a place where they can rant, blog, talk freely or simply insult the political leadership. One cannot underestimate the importance of having such basic freedoms, and that those who are willing to compromise it are not deserving of it. The darkness, stinking, cruel climate of fear that such dictatorship imposes on people is real. Too many are unaware of what it is like, because their age or geography has meant they have not lived with such control, or lived in a world when more than half of it was under it (and promoted it).
and the price of maintaining freedom is eternal vigilance.