“The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that.” Ai Weiwei, Guardian April 2012.
May 3rd is designated annually as Press Freedom Day by UNESCO, and marked worldwide by professional media organizations, NGOs and human rights activists, and states.
This year, PEN International is celebrating the rights of all citizens on Press Freedom Day. As always, we champion the rights of media organizations and journalists to safe, uncensored reporting and publication and pay tribute to those who have been killed and disappeared. But we celebrate especially the rights of all citizens to untrammelled access to information and truth; as set out in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, “the freedom to hold opinions and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
These rights are persistently denied by repressive regimes often in collusion, implicit or otherwise, with powerful non-state players. In the past year, we’ve witnessed countless examples of such persecution, and to an overwhelming degree, digital media plays a crucible role, simultaneously the instrument of sharing news and knowledge and the instrument of persecution and surveillance. In 2012, two of UNESCO’s themes for Press Freedom Day are Media Freedom has The Power to Transform Societies and Difficulty in The Access to Quality Information Undermines Media Freedom. These themes are joined in the digital media theatre. Non-state players, notably compliant technology companies, play a reprehensible supporting role.
China’s War on Weibo (China’s Twitter) is waged with words themselves as weapons; the government mounts search-and-destroy missions using a scattershot of keywords to obliterate reference to subjects it doesn’t want people to write about or know about. Two remarkable examples in the past year of the clash between the public’s freedom to know and the government’s urge to control: the collision of two high-speed trains in Zhejiang Province after which Chinese citizens posted 25 million messages in five days critical of the government; and the recent downfall of disgraced communist party leader Bo Xilai. The government also uses digital media for surveillance of thousands of Chinese citizens, dissidents and others; surveillance is done through the monitoring of cell phones and computers, email accounts, and extends to the use of 24/7 video cameras outside the entrances to private houses, and even the building of a guard hut opposite someone’s front door.
In Bahrain, cruder tools are used: the almost idiosyncratic blocking of websites that might be of interest to citizens and activists; the insidious trolls who track the Twitter accounts of activists (in Bahrain and beyond) to harass and denigrate those individuals. (Government officials joke about having to use proxy sites themselves to track criticism of the regime.) Despite government measures, as in many other MENA countries this past year, Bahraini activists provide nonstop, 24/7 news service to each other and the world using social media. The online campaign has become increasingly sophisticated and creative as dissent accelerates.
In both China and Bahrain, as in many other countries, the use of digital media, to convey news, opinions, evidence of wrongdoing, can have terrible consequences, including extrajudicial killing, torture, detention and forced exile. In many countries, bloggers and citizen journalists are the most vulnerable of all; they work without the protection of professional training and media organizations.
So on May 3rd this year, PEN champions the rights of all people to freedom of expression in digital media. We’re currently working on the PEN International Digital Media Declaration, which, once approved by PEN centres, will form the basis for campaigning worldwide. Here are some of the principles we’re working on:
- All persons have the right to express themselves freely through digital media without fear of reprisal or persecution.
- All persons have the right to seek and receive information through digital media.
- All persons have the right to be free from government surveillance of digital media.
- The private sector, and technology companies in particular, are bound by the right to freedom of expression and human rights.
- The message remains the same; it’s only the medium that changes.
Marian Botsford Fraser,
Chair, Writers in Prison Committee