Jailhouse blog

By Robert Mahoney

This year, for the first time, online writers form the largest group among imprisoned journalists

December 11, 2008

If you are reading this online you are probably not in one of the countries – more than two dozen of them – that actively filter or block internet content. You’re lucky. But don’t take it for granted that you’ll never see the words “Access Denied” on your screen. It is a bitter irony that in the month we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the bedrock of our modern freedoms, online journalists have become the single biggest group of writers behind bars.

As the internet rescues writers and ordinary citizens living under autocratic regimes from the informational Dark Ages so governments are harnessing the very same technology to turn against them. China’s electronic barrier against “undesirable” content – the Great Firewall – is already legendary. Less well known is that countries like Vietnam, diligent students of their northern neighbour, have erected their own formidable fences to free expression. Governments from Morocco to Malaysia have also invested in the technology to control the new medium.

If crafty journalists and bloggers manoeuvre their message around online censorship walls, the authorities resort to a less sophisticated tactic: imprisonment. The Committee to Protect Journalists published its annual census of journalists in jail this month, and for the first time online writers formed the biggest group, with 58 behind bars. That is nearly half of the total 125 journalists in prison worldwide. It is 11 years since CPJ recorded its first case of an online journalist imprisoned. Given the explosion in internet use it won’t take that long for online writers to dominate the imprisoned list completely.

More than one billion people are online today and twice that number have access to mobile communications such as cell phones. China is adding 240,000 internet users a day and will reach half a billion in the next three to four years.

That ought to spell good news for writers but the countries that head the CPJ census – China, Cuba, and Burma – either bully or cajole to keep journalists on message or off line. Burma is among the most extreme intimidators, using inhuman jail terms to cow would-be independent writers. How else could you interpret the combined 59-year prison sentence handed down to blogger and comedian Maung Thurafor illegally disseminating video footage of relief efforts in areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis? The chilling effect of such sentences is probably immeasurable. Once the cancer of self-censorship takes hold it can destroy a country’s press and undermine its democratic institutions and aspirations.

China, too, gave an exemplary jail term to journalist and writer Shi Tao. He received a 10- year sentence in 2005 for using his personal email account to send notes on a directive issued by China’s Propaganda Department to an overseas news website. The authorities identified him after obtaining information about his account from Yahoo. The case has become a rallying cry for internet freedom advocates and spurred calls in Washington for legislation that would force US internet companies to resist censorship and shun markets where freedom of expression and privacy are routinely violated.

US Representative Chris Smith proposed the Global Online Information Act (GOFA) the year after the Shi Tao case. The bill has not come to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote but its backers are expected to renew efforts to introduce it in the New Year.

The prospect of US legislation prompted companies like Yahoo to seek a voluntary path to safeguard internet freedoms. It joined rivals Microsoft and Google in a partnership with human rights groups, socially responsible investors and universities to draw up a set of guidelines for dealing with demands from governments, such as user information or website take-downs, which clearly violate international standards of privacy and freedom of expression.

Nearly two years of negotiations among these groups, including the CPJ, resulted in the Global Network Initiative. The initiative is still untested and incomplete but it is a start in trying to maintain online freedom of expression and privacy. It needs to extend membership beyond corporate America and beyond internet giants. Telecom companies, which provide the network underpinnings of the Internet, hold vast treasures of personal data and control the outward and inward flow of information. They need to be part of the process.

It is not just countries that jail journalists that need to be held to account. As we have seen, governments in the United States and Europe have prevailed upon telecommunications companies to hand over user data. As citizens, internet users can demand their governments keep the web open. As customers and shareholders, they can pressure corporations to stand up to government censorship.

It took a world war and the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima to bring 50 nations to sign such a transformative document as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris in 1948. Article 19 of that document is the cornerstone of media freedom. The declaration is the most translated document in the world. But it is not always translated into action. In fact, the international political climate today is such that even optimistic United Nations watchers doubt that the now 192 member countries of the UN could agree on such a clear affirmation of the primacy of human rights again.