Can the Internet be a Force for Press Freedom?

8 years ago

Just days before a leading press freedom group reported that an unprecedented number of bloggers and online journalists are being imprisoned, a pioneering human rights activist and online community builder called for a more sophisticated, globally-conscious approach to protecting online speech.

In a Dec. 4 talk before the World Press Freedom Committee, Rebecca Mac Kinnon, a former television journalist who co-founded Global Voices, said authoritarian governments such as China are learning to use online media to tighten their grip on power while fostering the illusion that they allow free expression. On Dec. 8, the Committee to Protect Journalists fingered China as the world's leading jailers of journalists and bloggers.

According to CPJ, China is holding 24 journalists. The next highest number of prisoners, with 23 prisoners of its own, Iran is a close second. Cuba, Eritrea and Burma round out the top five. CPJ found that 136 journalists are in jail world wide. Nearly half of those jailed reporters are freelancers who do not have the legal and political support traditionally afforded by news organizations. [Reporters Without Borders has a somewhat different tally: they list 30 journalists and 60 "cyber-dissidents" among China's prisoners of conscience.]

MacKinnon noted that those swelling ranks of online reporters has sparked unprecedented cultural and political activity in countries with governments that had been accustomed to dictating behavior. We've grown accustomed to getting breaking news about government repression from Twitter and other social media. However, repressive governments now have their own cadre of pro-government Tweeters and Facebookers ready to push the Communist Party's version of the news. The government is even trying out  its version of town halls. MacKinnon explained:

"The National government now also deems it necessary to engage with citizens on the Internet. Last spring Premier Wen Jiabao held a live webchat with “netizens” for more than two hours, answering all kinds of questions, including some about corruption."

As MacKinnon noted, the issues discussed in these forums never exceeds the government's pre-determined boundaries. In addition, both Chinese and Western technology vendors have cooperated with the Chinese government's efforts to shut down dissident blogs and websites. What's more, Chinese technology vendors have been successfully hawking their wares to repressive governments in less-developed countries:

Why should an African dictatorship want to pay for Chinese companies to wire up their citizens to broadband and mobile networks? Isn’t that suicidal? Not if you follow the Chinese example. China points the way for how it’s possible to hook up your economy to the global network and still maintain one-party rule.

MacKinnon has coined a term, "cybertarianism" to describe this use of online technologies to support dictatorships.

Because I don't know much about Sri Lanka, I can't tell whether cybertarian astroturfing or genuine political disagreement is at work in the responses to this story by Clothilde Le Coz on one dissident journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam.  Tissainayagam convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 20 years in prison, ostensibly for writing an article critical of the government. Sri Lanka has become notorious for government complicity in the killing and persecution of journalists since the January, 2009 murder of magazine editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. Le Coz posted this Youtube interview with Wickrematunge's successor, who has also been subjected to death threats:

Meanwhile, CPJ's prison census found another trend:

CPJ’s census identified an alarming rise in the number of cases in which governments are bypassing due process and filing no charge at all. In 39 cases—more than a quarter of the overall census—authorities have disclosed no formal charges. The tactic is used by countries as wide-ranging as Eritrea, Iran, and the United States.

The US wound up on this infamous list for its detention of journalists without charges in Iraq. Currently, the US is holding Ibrahim Jassam, an Iraqi freelance photographer and cameraman whose clients included Reuters, according to CPJ. As this May, 2009 Los Angeles Times story reports, Jassam remains in US custody despite a November, 2008 order from an Iraqi court mandating his freedom. US military authorities say they have classified information linking Jassam to terrorists.

In the meantime, a new press law in Iraq has journalists' taking to the streets:

h/t Juan Cole

In her speech, MacKinnon argued cases such as Jassam's undermine US efforts to press countries such as China to allow more press freedom. The dictatorships respond that they are simply exercising the same kind of power that the US arrogated to itself in passing the PATRIOT ACT.

MacKinnon's observations and the reports human rights abuses to journalists seem pretty pessimistic. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the ingenuity of tech-savvy dissidents in China and elsewhere. The ongoing protests in Iran attests to the persistence and ingenuity of activists who are determined to get their message out.

Related: Committee to Protect Bloggers - Moroccan blogger Bashir Hazem to stand trial today

BlogHer Contributing Editor||