New threats to free expression in the digital age
Greetings, IFEX friends, from all at the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific. I’m excited to be once again joining next week’s IFEX GM and Strategy Conference. It’s a terrific way for us to come together to share our stories, our struggles and our ideas for furthering the global campaign for freedom of expression and access to information for all people.
I’d like to kick off my first foray into blogging by talking about – aptly – journalists and freedom of expression online.
The rise of online media has revolutionised the way everyone with access to the web operates in their professional and personal lives. The past few years have seen working journalists and their industries presented with a whole host of challenges and opportunities. In some parts of the Asia-Pacific region, the business model that supports journalism has been unsettled and citizen journalists and bloggers are playing an increasingly significant role in public discourse. WikiLeaks, in addition to exposing some uncomfortable truths about the nature of diplomacy, has fundamentally shifted long-held conventions about the relationship between journalists and sources.
As we meet in Beirut the Human Rights Commission will consider this latest report by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue. The report focuses on the Internet, looking at the trends and challenges for people around the world who use this transformative medium to exercise their rights and promote society’s progress as a whole.
This an important report, as it outlines how countries block access to the Internet, restrict content and criminalise legitimate forms of expression. The arbitrary use of criminal law, La Rue writes, creates a “chilling effect” and leads to other human rights violations, such as arbitrary incarceration and torture.
La Rue also notes that the Internet has become the key means for people to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and access to information. And, as much as there are journalists using online media and communications technologies to exercise these rights, some authorities are doing their best to place roadblocks at every digital avenue.
China is an urgent case in point, and is highlighted in La Rue’s report. Filtering systems, La Rue writes, scan websites for words like democracy and human rights in order to block access to them. Bloggers are incarcerated at rates outstripping the rest of the world – and that is only the cases that we know about. ISPs are required to watch over Internet users and are held responsible for user content posted online. The IFJ report released in January, Voices of Courage: Press Freedom in China also considered these grave issues.
The IFJ has been monitoring violations of journalists’ rights in China since 2008. Earlier this year, when calls for “jasmine” revolution spread through the Web from Tunisia and through the Middle East, people in China who attempted to either publicise these events or make similar calls for protest have been dealt with harshly by the authorities. Scores of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists have been harassed, demoted or jailed. The most high-profile case to date is that of artist Ai Weiwei, who has been locked up for almost two months with the authorities alleging tax evasion at one of Ai’s companies. On April 3, the day Ai was detained, journalist Wen Tao, a close associate of the artist, was also incarcerated.
Media organisations can suffer the wrath of the authorities without even mentioning Ai’s name. On May 12, Southern Metropolis Daily ran an editorial that alluded to the artist by making oblique references to his work. The writer of the piece now faces the sack, and the editorial lasted only a few hours on the newspaper’s website before it was pulled down. It’s a beautiful, evocative piece of writing – and thanks to the Hong-Kong-based China Media Project, you can read it in full here.
It’s clear that for all its potential to strengthen democracy and free expression, we must be vigilant to ensure the Internet isn’t constrained and restricted just like the printing press or airwaves have been in many parts of the world. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Internet policy and regulation next week at IFEX Strategy Conference for this reason.
Serenade Woo, the IFJ’s Press Freedom in China project manager is set to take part in this discussion. The IFJ has monitored violations of press freedom and journalists’ rights since the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing in August 2008. It’s important work, made possible in consultation with a range of international organisations and funded by the Media Safety and Solidarity Fund that is supported by journalists in Australia and New Zealand.
Over the years the IFJ project has uncovered scores of censorship orders for print and online media issued by China’s authorities and, with the assistance of journalists on the ground, delved into China’s efforts to control online media and information sharing.
The clampdown in China since February is at least as harsh as that of the period leading up the 2008 Games, and I’m interested in hearing more about how the situation there compares with that of the oppressive regimes in the Middle East that persist in their desire to undermine the rights that we at IFEX hold so dear.