By Joel Simon
The most important battles of the Arab Spring were fought on the streets, but there was also a fierce battle over control of information. In Egypt, the government unplugged the Internet, shut down satellite channels, and orchestrated attacks on foreign correspondents. None of it worked. Protesters were able to keep channels of communication open to win sympathy and support for their cause, highlight the Egyptian government’s record of abuse and corruption, and ensure there would be witnesses to any violence against them. The global visibility of the protests raised the cost of government repression to the point where it became unsustainable.
That new information platforms such as Twitter and Facebook helped journalists and other citizens break Hosni Mubarak’s information blockade has been the source of legitimate excitement. But despite the triumphs of the Arab Spring, censorship is alive and well. In fact, some of the biggest stories of 2011 might have gone uncovered or under-covered because of effective censorship. These include rural unrest in China; the power struggle in Iran; the relationship between militants, Al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani intelligence service; political instability in Ethiopia; and the bloody battles between rival drug cartels in Mexico.
Journalists who sought to cover these and other stories faced violence and repression. In Pakistan, investigative reporter Saleem Shahzad was abducted and murdered in May after he exposed links between the country’s intelligence services and Al-Qaeda. In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, drug traffickers kidnapped, murdered, and decapitated journalist María Elizabeth Macías Castro after she tried to use social media as an end-run around their violence-imposed censorship. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, several journalists, including two Swedes, were jailed on terrorism charges in retaliation for their coverage of separatist and opposition groups.
Indeed, the lesson repressive governments and other enemies of press freedom may have taken from the Arab Spring is that maintaining a viable censorship regime is even more urgent in the Information Age. After all, once control of information slips from their hands, it is difficult to retain power. The Syrian government’s ability to control domestic media and keep international reporters out of the country gave it a huge advantage in quelling protests. Social media networks made it impossible to fully suppress information, but what emerged from Syria was fragmented and did not penetrate the global consciousness to the same degree as what emanated from Egypt.
Thus the battle against censorship goes on. Technology is a fundamental tool in the struggle, but new and innovative political strategies must also be employed. While repressive governments have long sought to control critical information, the cost of censorship is much higher today because of the globalized nature of our existence. In China, for example, when authorities suppress information about food safety, they are not censoring news solely within their national borders. Because China exports so many manufactured foods, its leaders are effectively censoring news of interest and concern to people throughout the world.
Even as trade and new systems of communication turn us into global citizens, the information we need to ensure accountability often stops at national borders. Without adequate information, global citizens are essentially disempowered. “Whenever there is censorship anywhere, there is censorship everywhere,” Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger noted at a March 2011 event marking CPJ’s 30th anniversary.
In a functioning democracy, few restraints are placed on the press because an informed public debate is needed to ensure accountability. Conversely, every totalitarian system is based on control and manipulation of information, which allows leaders to govern without oversight. Globally, the current situation more closely resembles a totalitarian society without a legal framework to ensure that information circulates freely across borders.
Journalists and other front-line news-gatherers operate in a legal void. While the right of people everywhere to “seek and receive information through any media and regardless of frontiers” is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international legal instruments, the reality is that there are few effective legal mechanisms to fight censorship on an international level.
What can be done to combat censorship in the Information Age? The key is to mobilize the many constituencies that have a stake in ensuring the free flow of information–civil society and advocacy groups, businesses, governments, and inter-governmental organizations–and build a global coalition against censorship.
While the ability to seek and receive information is an individual human right, there is a collective interest in ensuring that information flows freely. After all, an attack on an Egyptian, Pakistani, or Mexican journalist inhibits the ability of people around the world to receive the information that journalist would have provided. Advocacy groups with a global agenda, notably human rights and environmental organizations, have a powerful interest in promoting global press freedom even if it is not part of their explicit mandates. For example, combating global warming will depend in large measure on China’s policies, which, because of official censorship, are often shrouded in secrecy. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, are hiring former journalists to provide real-time reporting from the front lines.
“We recognize the skills that journalists bring to human rights documentation–a knowledge of issues, countries, and institutions; the ability to gather information quickly; and a sense of how to tell the story,” said Iain Levine, program director of Human Rights Watch. Human rights researchers are, in fact, filling a gap left by international media organizations that have cut back on foreign staff.
For many reasons, the global business community has a clear stake in ensuring that information flows freely. With operations and supply chains spread throughout the world, navigating political unrest, environmental disaster, and other disruptions is crucial–and it cannot be done effectively when key information is censored. Financial services companies that manage global portfolios operate with the same considerations.
More broadly, in an information economy, it could be argued that censorship itself is a restraint on trade. For example, China’s insistence that Google censor its search results undermined the company’s business model. And Isaac Mao, a Chinese entrepreneur and blogger, notes that Chinese online censorship may be starting to disrupt the global Internet.
“China set up the Great Firewall at the gateway to the world to block people’s free access to overseas websites,” Mao said. But recent research has uncovered a global impact, including instances in which Internet users from Chile to California were routed through servers inside China–and were thus caught in the country’s censorship web. “People living in New York City who try to study Chinese would hit the wall when websites include some ‘sensitive words,'” Mao explained.
A paper published by Google on its public policy blog in late 2010 called on the international community to “take action to ensure the free flow of information online” and noted that “direct government blockage of an Internet service is tantamount to a customs official stopping all goods from a particular country at the border.”
Trade experts say it would be extremely difficult to incorporate anti-censorship requirements into existing trade agreements. But some connections are being drawn already. In October 2011, the U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization wrote to his Chinese counterpart requesting information about China’s Internet policies and noting that “some companies based outside of China have faced challenges offering their services to Chinese customers when their websites are blocked by China’s national firewall.” In response, the Chinese expressed willingness to engage in dialogue with companies but pointedly noted: “We oppose using Internet freedom as an excuse to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”
The Chinese reaction points to a significant challenge: the international perception that Internet freedom is a Trojan horse used by the United States to undermine political adversaries. In January 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at the Newseum in Washington and laid out a U.S. government policy to promote Internet freedom around the world. “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” Clinton said.
The speech–and the policy–were well-received by defenders of human rights and freedom of expression. But as Evgeny Morozov argued in his recent book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Clinton’s speech reinforced the notion in the minds of many global leaders that Internet freedom is nothing more than an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.
In an era in which U.S. motivations are widely mistrusted, Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi noted, a multilateral approach to press freedom is more likely to have a positive impact. After the murder of Saleem Shahzad, for example, U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told journalists in Washington that the Pakistani government had “sanctioned the killing.”
“In normal times, it would have been a good thing,” Sethi said of the U.S. condemnation. “But because it touched on the national security situation in Pakistan, it confused people and played into the nationalist narrative. There is confusion in the minds of people in Pakistan every time the U.S. tries to help.”
What is needed therefore is a broad global coalition against censorship that brings together governments, the business community, civil society organizations, and the media. These powerful constituencies must unite in support of freedom of information, pressing international organizations, including intergovernmental groups such as the Organization of American States and the Council of Europe, as well as the United Nations, to create a legal framework to ensure that press freedom and freedom of information are respected in practice. Human rights and press freedom organizations should look for opportunities to adjudicate press freedom cases at the international level in order to build a body of global precedent.
In fact, Article 13 of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights explicitly prohibits prior censorship, a ban reaffirmed in a 2001 decision by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court, which ruled that Chile had violated the convention by banning the Martin Scorsese film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Catalina Botero, the OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression, argues that threats and violent attacks by individuals constitute a form of “indirect censorship” and therefore also violate Article 13. She acknowledged, however, that it’s more difficult to make that argument in a global context. “The explicit prohibition on censorship in Article 13 does not exist in the European Convention of Human Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Botero said.
On a political front, the leaders of international organizations must become outspoken advocates for freedom of expression, seeking to isolate and pressure the countries that actively inhibit the flow of information across borders. The role of special rapporteurs within the international system needs to be strengthened as well. Frank LaRue, the U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, released a report in June that called online access a fundamental right that governments should restrict only in the most limited of circumstances. But the secretary-general and other U.N. leaders, while broadly supporting Internet freedom in their public comments, have not embraced LaRue’s findings or advocated for their implementation.
The Internet and new information technologies have made the process of gathering and disseminating news highly diffuse. This new system has some widely recognized advantages. It democratizes the information-gathering process, allowing participation by more people with differing perspectives. It opens the media not only to “citizen journalists” but also to advocacy and civil society organizations. The sheer volume of people participating in this process challenges authoritarian models of censorship based on hierarchies of control.
Andy Carvin, the self-described “social media guy” at NPR who used Twitter to report on the Arab uprisings, notes that “bloggers and citizen journalists” are now part of the media mix in the Arab world. Syrian authorities, while able to keep the mainstream media out of the country, were not able to completely suppress the news as a result.
“If their goal has been to prevent the outside world from knowing what’s going on, I don’t think Syria has been very successful,” Carvin said. “While they often throttle Internet access so we lose contact for a while, eventually it’s restored.”
But there are also considerable weaknesses in this new system. Freelancers, bloggers, and citizen journalists like those reporting on Syria work with few resources and little or no institutional support. They are far more vulnerable to government repression. New technologies cut both ways, and autocratic governments are increasingly developing systems to monitor and control online speech that are both effective and hard to detect.
Just as global citizens have a stake in ensuring that information flows freely, powerful forces–criminal organizations, militant groups, repressive governments–have enormous interest in controlling the news. Censorship within national borders disrupts the flow of information around the world. A global coalition against censorship needs to unite behind a simple idea: Censorship anywhere affects people everywhere. It can and should be abolished.
Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He led a CPJ mission to Pakistan in 2011.