The six journalist and activist members of the 2012 Internet Freedom Fellows Program concluded their 10 day speaking tour on Friday, outlining Internet freedom challenges facing India, Syria, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Venezuela and Azerbaijan.
Founded in 2011 by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, the second year of the program featured meetings from June 19-29 during the United Nations Human Rights Council. The fellows met with other activists, international government leaders, and members of civil society and the private sector engaged in technology and human rights.
The nonprofit Internet Society organized a discussion for the Freedom Fellows during a stop on June 25 in Washington, D.C., entitled “Censorship 2020.” Full video of the Internet Society panel about the future of digital liberties is online here.
Perhaps the most violent example of Internet repression today is Syria, where opposition activists get help from software engineer Dlshad Othman to counter hacks employed by the military regime of Bashar al-Assad.
After the Syrian revolution started in March 2011 the Assad government suspended use of the Internet for weeks at a time to prevent live Web casting of demonstrations, Othman said. When the Internet is available, the embattled Assad regime censors numerous Web sites and employs a variety of cyber-attacks, such as direct denial of service attacks which slow down the network, and malware which intercepts the passwords and keystrokes of opposition activists.
Despite the government’s use of the tool for repression and surveillance, Othman also spoke about how useful the Internet was under which restricts the formation of civil society.
“You are not allowed to group five people and discuss, so the military [can] attack you and arrest you,” Othman said about restrictions on free expression in Syria.
Civil society in Cambodia also faces great censorship and bias, yet blogs and Web sites such as Facebook create a “digital democracy” for free expression with fewer dangers than offline advocacy, said Sopheap Chak, a journalist with Global Voices Online.
“While I say currently the situation of online freedom in Cambodia is a digital democracy, the future of it is not yet known,” said Chak, who is also the program director of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights.
Several Web sites such as Blogspot have been blocked and the opposition bloggers are threatened with arrest, Chak said, adding that most traditional Cambodian media such as radio and newspapers favor the government.
“It may appear that the freedom of expression in Cambodia compared with neighboring Asian countries is quite better, but we have to look at the freedom from fear,” Chak said.
An open Internet does not mean there is freedom online, as evidenced by the case of Emin Milli, an activist blogger from Azerbaijan, who was jailed for 17-months on a hooliganism charge in 2010 after his online criticism of the government.
Countries such as Azerbaijan are examples of what Milli called Autocracy 2.0, where governments devise new ways to curb freedoms while keeping a modern economy and open Internet. Along with risks of arrest on trumped up charges, such as in Milli’s case, government officials post online comments to discredit opposition via anonymous “trolling,” or attempts to blackmail journalists by publishing surveillance online that compromises their privacy. Journalists who have been threatened with videos taken in their homes include as Khadija Ismailova, a journalist working in Azerbaijan with Radio Free Europe, and Masha Gessen, a journalist working in Russia.
“For me I don’t differ between freedom online or offline,” Milli said. “In Azerbaijan they are showing it is wrong to distinguish between freedom and offline, because it is the same freedom.”
Fear of reprisal despite an uncensored Internet is also part of life in Venezuela, said Andres Azpurua. Internet use in Venezuela is becoming more widespread and convenient, with Facebook penetration at approximately 80 percent among Internet users there, Azpurua said.
“Politicians measure themselves in the number of followers they have on Twitter rather than how many votes they got in the last election,” he said.
Government monitoring of digital speech became easier under President Hugh Chavez, who in 2007 nationalized Venezuela’s telecommunications companies. The fear of harassment and other punitive actions by the government is enough to make people censor themselves online, Azpurua said.
“As more of our life happens online, the more important it is for us to have free access to the Internet,” Azpurua said. “I believe we will see more digital violence along with physical violence to stop people from spreading their word. And by digital violence I mean hacking a Web site, defacing a Web site, harassment online.”
The freedom to connect makes all other digital rights possible, so expanding telecommunications infrastructure is a necessity for Koundjoro Gabriel Kambou, a journalist who reports for Lefaso.net in the developing nation of Burkina Faso.
The West African nation has struggled to secure human rights, with the most recent challenge to stability being an uprising by the military in mid-2011 because of soldiers’ pay disputes. Addition of Internet infrastructure and social media made information access and education resources more widespread. Improving connection speeds and reliable electrical power to mobile Internet is a key goal to bring online use out of the Internet cafes to homes around Burkina Faso, Kambou said.
“We can benefit from the network connection at home and everywhere thanks to the connection from mobile phones,” Kambou said. “It is an important asset to the activists of human rights and freedom of speech.”
Such Internet prosperity can only be secured if governments and companies share power and accountability, said Pranesh Prakash, an expert on technology law at India’s Centre for Internet and Society.
Citing security and terrorism concerns, Prakash said governments such as India’s are requesting data from Internet intermediaries or requesting companies such as Google or Blackberry to relocate data to servers in their nations so they can claim access to it.
Without cooperation through a multi-stakeholder partnership involving civil society, government and companies, Prakash said several different Intranets could spring up in nations such as Iran, which want to declare sovereignty over their networks.
“Nations basically have to come forward and give up some of what they see as their sovereign rights for the greater good of an open, free, and seamlessly global Internet that simultaneously allows the safeguarding of civil and political liberties as well as innovation, trust and security,” Prakash said.
TO FOLLOW INTERNET FREEDOM FELLOWS ON TWITTER
Emin Milli – @eminmilli
Andres Azpurua – @andresAzp
Koundjoro Gabriel Kambou – @AngeGabrielKamb
Dishad Othman – @dlshadothman
Sopheap Chak – @jusminesophia
Pranesh Prakash – @pranesh_prakash)