suppression occurs when:
person makes a public statement or does something
that is seen as a threat to the powerful interest
group. The group most commonly is a government, industry
or profession, but could be, for example, a trade
union, church or environmental organisation.
a result, action is taken in an attempt to stop or
penalise the person or activity.
suppression can occur because of the way in which
powerful interest groups control major institutions.
This applies particularly in employment and education.
Individuals who find the institutionalised ideas irrelevant
to their own have their own ideas suppressed through
lack of opportunity. They can also experience direct
suppression if they attempt to bring about change.
often occurs because people are worried about risking
their jobs, promotion prospects or ability to live
without threat in their community, or because they
fear direct suppression. Self-censorship makes overt
used against critics include:
a.. censorship of writing;
b.. blocking of publications;
c.. blocking of appointments;
d.. blocking of promotions;
e.. blocking or withdrawal of research grants;
f.. forced job transfers;
h.. denial of research opportunities;
i.. legal actions;
j.. ostracism and harassment;
m.. spreading of rumours.
Reasons for suppression
While these are common methods used to attack critics,
the reasons given are different. In almost every case,
those who take action against dissidents say that
the reason is poor performance by the dissident or
something else that is the dissident's fault, especially
an attack on the dissident's personality.
can anyone be sure suppression is involved? There's
no way of being absolutely sure. But the following
factors are good indicators.
is not taken against others who are similar to the
person attacked except that they have not done anything
threatening to the interest group. This is the double
is a pattern of attacks on critics in the area. (But
note that most attacks are not public knowledge.)
In many cases, those who are suppressed are said to
have brought it on themselves. Often, their personalities
are criticised. They are said to be touchy or abrasive
or paranoid. When listening to such comments, use
the double standard test. Are there other people who
are touchy, abrasive or paranoid? Have they been attacked
too, that people who are attacked may quite justifiably
be affected psychologically. For most dissidents,
suppression is hard to deal with. It also often becomes
the person's primary concern, driving others away.
Dissidents shouldn't be blamed for difficulties which
have been brought on them by others.
few dissidents are saints, but most are normal human
beings with the usual range of human frailties. Some
dissidents have quite nasty personal characteristics.
But in every case, dissent should be protected. The
focus should be on opposing suppression and ensuring
freedom of speech, not on the psychology of those
everyone who speaks out is attacked. Only some are.
Why? There are all sorts of factors involved. For
suppression to occur, someone must take action against
the dissenter. Personalities play a role.
are some regularities in suppression. For example,
there are many documented cases of suppression of
political radicals (left-wing and, more occasionally,
right-wing), feminists, people who expose corruption,
and critics of nuclear power, forestry, fluoridation
or pesticides. In some areas--such as automobile safety--there
are few cases of suppression because there are few
actions which can be called suppression most often
are implemented by people in positions of power in
organisations or associations. This means business
executives, government officials and leaders in professions
(law, medicine). Usually, the attacks on a person
come from their superiors: for example, attacks against
academics who speak out more often come from university
administrations than from outsiders.
is helpful to assume that those who are responsible
for suppression are sincere. They really believe that
the dissident is incompetent, unauthorised or whatever,
and that their own behaviour is quite justified. To
call something suppression is to challenge the explanations
given by those in power.
suppression is important
Suppression can cause large costs to society. Among
those suppressed are:
a.. engineers who tried to point out the
problems with the Challenger space shuttle that
caused it to burn up;
b.. citizens who exposed illegal waste dumping;
c.. public servants who have exposed fraud
in government costing millions or billions of dollars;
d.. accountants who have exposed business
fraud involving large sums of money or the deaths
suppression is undesirable for a more fundamental
reason. Freedom of speech is central to a free society.
It is necessary so that all points of view can be
presented and considered. Dissent should be encouraged
rather than discouraged.
of speech should be available to all, including employees.
When employees in government or industry are inhibited
from speaking out through fear for their jobs, society
suffers. Powerful organisations that claim to serve
the public interest should be able to tolerate critics.
Indeed, they need criticism to make them more effective.
Sharon Beder, a trained engineer, was a key
figure in generating concern in Sydney about the discharge
of sewage and industrial waste into the ocean. Many
engineers in the Water Board were extremely hostile
to anyone who questioned the Board's policies. One
top member of the Institution of Engineers, the key
professional body, threatened Beder with the possibility
of a disciplinary tribunal. Ironically, a code of
professional ethics was invoked to try to silence
Diesendorf, coordinator of the Australian Conservation
Foundation's Global Change Programme, in 1990 criticised
statements by Dr Brian O'Brien, formerly head of the
Western Australia Environmental Protection Authority,
which minimised the likely impacts of the greenhouse
effect. Diesendorf also pointed out that O'Brien's
employment as a consultant to the coal industry should
be taken into account when evaluating his views. O'Brien
issued proceedings for defamation against both Diesendorf
and the ACF. The case was settled out of court through
a carefully-worded apology.
Obendorf, a government veterinarian in Tasmania,
spoke out about the risks involved in dismantling
animal health surveillance in Australia. He was dismissed
from his position and, after more than four years
of struggle, he finally received a public apology
from the Tasmanian government in 1997.
Pinson worked as an auditor at State Rail in New
South Wales. She discovered evidence of safety problems,
fraud, and sexual and racial harassment. In response
to her allegations, management did nothing except
try to shut her up, and eventually dismissed her.
Her allegations were given to the Independent Commission
Against Corruption, which referred them back to State
1978, Mick Skrijel, a crayfisherman, attempted
to expose police and political protection of drug
trafficking in South Australia. In 1985 he was charged
by the National Crime Authority and imprisoned, but
on appeal was released and his conviction quashed.
In 1995 a government-appointed investigator called
for a royal commission into the affair. Federal governments
have remained silent.
(1) Do nothing.
This seldom is successful in stopping suppression.
Often the attacks continue. Furthermore, no support
is generated for the dissident.
critics decide to toe the line and "lie low,"
then after a period--often years--they may be accepted
back into the fold. This acquiescence means that future
critics are likely to encounter the same difficulties.
Use informal methods.
This includes talking to the attackers, trying to
sort out misunderstandings, explaining one's actions,
etc. This can be successful when the suppression was
a mistake or when, as occasionally happens, those
involved are willing to change. But in many cases
the attackers are unwilling to reconsider their actions.
Use formal channels.
This means making formal appeals against decisions,
using internal grievance procedures, bringing cases
before the Ombudsman or the Human Rights and Equal
Opportunity Commission, or launching court actions.
This sometimes helps, but usually only in the most
blatant or cut-and-dried cases. The disadvantages
of formal channels are that organisations have a large
advantage in resources, there are long delays and
only narrow aspects of the case are dealt with.
Promote and use whistleblower legislation.
Several Australian governments have introduced or
are considering legislation to protect whistleblowers
from reprisals. This sounds like an excellent idea,
but it has severe limitations. The legislation can
only cover certain types of individuals, typically
public servants, and particular types of dissent.
But many types of problems are hard to legislate against,
such as subtle harassment campaigns and blocking of
has potent symbolic value. On the one hand, it may
legitimate dissent. On the other hand, it may give
the appearance that something is being done about
suppression when actually little has changed.
Bring in unions or other supporting organisations.
When unions or staff associations take up defence
of a dissident, this can be very effective. But in
many cases they have no special brief to intervene
(such as when editors censor publications) or, worse,
may side with the attackers.
Mount a publicity campaign.
This could be a small and "in-house" operation
involving circulation of a summary of the case to
friends and colleagues and asking them to write letters
or it could be a major public campaign with stories
in newspapers and on television. Publicity is undoubtedly
an extremely potent method of opposing suppression.
Furthermore, journalists often are interested in suppression
cases because they make a good story. The disadvantage
is that publicity can easily get "out of control"
of the dissident and may aggravate a polarised situation.
is vitally important that action be taken against
suppression. This is because the most important effect
of suppression is not on the dissident--though that
may be traumatic--but on others who observe the process.
Every case of suppression is a warning to potential
critics not to buck the system. And every case in
which suppression is vigorously opposed is a warning
to vested interests that attacks will not be tolerated.
Dissent Network Australia (DNA) is designed to bring
together individuals who have experienced or are concerned
about suppression of dissent. We aim to develop strategies
for publicising and challenging suppression in Australia.
We invite you to support the goals of the network
in some of the following ways.
a.. Speak out against instances of suppression.
b.. Provide advice or personal support for
someone under attack.
c.. Collect and share reference materials
and case studies.
d.. Be a contact person at your community
e.. Liaise with your union, professional
association or community organisation to introduce
appropriate policies or legislation supporting the
right to free speech.
f.. Write letters or articles opposing suppression
and supporting intellectual freedom.
g.. Stimulate discussion on defamation law
DNA's contact list gives names of people potentially
willing to comment or take action on issues related
to the suppression of dissent.
information can be obtained from
Isla MacGregor, 24 Summerleas Road, Fern Tree, Tasmania
7054, email: email@example.com
Martin, Science, Technology & Society, University
of Wollongong, NSW 2522, phone (02) 4221 3763 work,
(02) 4228 7860 home, fax (02) 4221 5341, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
leaflet is located on Brian Martin's website on suppression
of dissent in the section on Guide for newcomers.
has been reproduced with the permission of the author.
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