Censorship: Bloggers in jail

Feature by Emma De Vita, senior section editor of Management Today

The web is not as free as you might think. In some countries, posting critical views online can cost you your freedom.

The web is not as free as you might think. In some countries, posting critical views online can cost you your freedom.

In the short space of time since the internet was invented, we have got used to sharing our thoughts and opinions online and there are currently more than 70 million blogs in existence. While most bloggers have nothing to fear from their postings, for a small but increasing number of cyber dissidents blogging has become a matter of life and death. Take Abdel Karim Suleiman, the 22-year-old Egyptian blogger who recently received a four-year jail sentence for charges that include "spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country's reputation". Then there is Tunisian lawyer and human rights defender Mohammed Abbou, now serving a three-and-a-half year prison sentence for publishing articles critical of his homeland's authorities on the internet. Or Iranian blogger Mojtaba Saminejad, who was tortured during his 88 days in solitary confinement.

According to free-speech campaigners Reporters Without Borders, 30 bloggers and cyber-dissidents were detained in 2006, with a total of 68 now in jail. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that internet writers and editors are the fastest-growing segment of imprisoned journalists, with 49 behind bars as of December last year. And it is getting worse. In May, the Open Net Initiative (ONI), a transatlantic group of academics from Harvard, Toronto, Oxford and Cambridge universities, revealed that 25 countries now apply state-mandated content filtering to block access to particular websites, compared to just a couple of countries five years ago. "There has been an increase in the scale, scope and sophistication of internet filtering," says John Palfrey, one of the ONI's researchers at Harvard.

Governments have always tried to control the flow of critical information, and press censorship is nothing new. But where once it was relatively easy to quash free speech within national borders by closing down radio stations or seizing printing presses, the global reach of blogs, and the relative ease with which they can be restarted, mean that the flow of dissenting information is less easily stymied. "There is no effective way to ban a blog," says Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices, an international blogging network based at Harvard University. "It only makes them go underground."

Generally, bloggers are better able to dodge restrictions because they can assume different identities online and are not tied to a particular location. "One of the reasons for the growth of blogging and online journalism is that it provides a space for dissent that is harder for governments to control," explains Steve Ballinger, media officer at Amnesty International.

And the internet provides a precious forum for discussion. "In many countries where traditional media outlets are controlled by the government, the internet has provided those with access to it with an opportunity to share critical ideas, says Daniel Simons, a legal officer at Article 19, an organisation campaigning for free speech.

Professor Charlie Beckett, director of Polis at the London School of Economics, agrees: "In societies such as China and Iran, where press freedom is restricted, blogs become an important outlet for expression. However, there are ways of controlling it, it is not totally free," he says. "But many bloggers in those states talk about things other than politics that still challenge the status quo. For example, in Saudi Arabia, issues of sexuality can be discussed online that aren't mentioned in the media."

The most notorious countries for internet filtering and censorship are Iran, China, Tunisia, Egypt, Belarus and Vietnam. The ONI would add Burma, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Uzebekistan and Fiji are more recent offenders. "States are frightened by the freedom implied by the internet," says Julien Pain, head of the internet freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders. "They are developing more and more technology to improve censorship, either by asking bloggers to register and pushing them to self-censure or by closing down their blogs.

China, because of its size and rapid economic growth, has received the most attention from human rights groups. It has 137 million internet users, nearly 21 million of whom write blogs, according to The Irish Times, and is known to be extremely technologically adept at censoring the web. There are rumoured to be an incredible 40,000 officials employed by the state to monitor internet postings and protect what has been dubbed "the great firewall of China". According to Amnesty International's 2006 report Undermining Freedom of Expression in China, "controls operate at every level, from service providers, internet cafes, blog managers to individual demands. However ... the effectiveness of censorship in China still rests on self-censorship as companies, institutions and individuals seek to avoid punishments associated with crossing the line."

Amnesty believes that at least 54 Chinese internet users are presently imprisoned for signing petitions, calling for an end to corruption, spreading information about Sars and planning to establish pro-democracy groups. These include Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist who is serving a ten-year sentence after sending an email about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests to a Chinese editor in the US.

Search for accomplices
Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have been heavily criticised for acquiescing with the Chinese state's demands for self-censorship. Google filters content sent to Google.cn users; Yahoo! has handed over information that led to the eventual arrest and imprisonment of at least two journalists; and, when Microsoft launched MSN Spaces in China in June 2005, attempts to create blogs with words such as "democracy", "human rights" and "freedom of expression" in the title were blocked. Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January that "on a business level, that decision to censor (its search engine in China) ... was a net negative".

China is not alone in creating an Orwellian nightmare. In 2003, Iran became the first country to imprison a blogger: Sina Motallebi, sentenced to 23 days in solitary confinement. Since then, 28 bloggers and online journalists have been jailed, including Arash Cigarchi, who was sentenced to 14 years. He initially faced the death penalty, but was eventually acquitted of "insulting the prophets".

Not all cases are so far away from home. "Article 19 involved in a case in Latvia (which joined the EU in 2004) last year," says Simons. "A local politician from the Russian-speaking minority was prosecuted for trying to forcibly overthrow the government, after some remarks made on an online forum. In a discussion about a book, Aleksandr Gilman described the Latvian state as 'the enemy and an absolute evil' and stated that 'it had been an unforgivable mistake that our generation allowed the Latvian state's establishment'. Whatever one thinks of these remarks, it would be hard to argue that they were designed to instigate a revolution." Gilman was eventually acquitted, but it appears the case has been reopened.

Born in the USA
But if you think heavy internet censorship is confined to states with repressive regimes, think again. Last year, Josh Wolf, a 24-year-old blogger videoed an anti-globalisation protest in San Francisco during which a police officer was injured. He was ordered to hand over the film to the federal court but refused, arguing he was protected by the First Amendment. He was jailed for 226 days, and has now been released, but his case caused much media debate.

The ONI's regional overview of the US makes for even more astonishing reading. It reveals that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretaps are reported to have included "taps on major internet interconnect points and data-mining of internet communications. Tapping these points would give the government the ability to intercept every overseas and many domestic communications ...

"If the allegations prove to be true," warns the ONI, "they show that the US maintains the world's most sophisticated internet surveillance regime."

What about the UK? There have, so far, been no cases of bloggers being harassed or jailed for the content of their postings. However, according to the ONI, there is large-scale voluntary ISP filtering in the UK for illegal content such as child pornography and race hate material. There are also controversial moves on an EU level towards the surveillance of internet traffic data, with the aim of developing a common code for all member states by 2009 to help to identify those who use the electronic communications networks for terrorist activities and organised crime.

This begs the question: should extremist groups using blogs be protected or banned? "The fact that something is extremist doesn't by itself justify banning it," says Simons. "The whole idea of freedom of expression is to protect views that challenge conventional wisdom. Even those ideas that are genuinely wrong are best discredited through open debate and not through criminal law." However, he adds: "If a blog intentionally incites illegal acts, it may well be justified to take measures against the author."

Do bloggers face more harassment than the publishers of dissident publications? "Overall, I would say bloggers are more susceptible to physical harm or imprisonment because governments can use technocratic means to control the traditional media, such as licensing requirements," suggests Simons.

Reporters Without Borders, Article 19 and Amnesty all run campaigns to support dissident bloggers. Article 19's Persian Impediment initiative against internet censorship records all cases of Iranians being detained on the basis of blogging activities, while Amnesty launched its irrepressible.info campaign with the The Observer in May last year. Its aims are multifarious: to stop governments filtering and censoring websites because of the peaceful political views expressed on them; for prisoners of conscience imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their beliefs to be released; and for companies such as Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft to stop colluding with repressive governments to restrict freedom of expression online. Amnesty marked the first anniversary of its campaign last month with an event called "Some People think the Internet is a Bad Thing", a global webcast featuring contributions from Martha Lane-Fox, Josh Wolf and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. "The internet has massive potential to be a force for human rights, enabling people to share ideas, disseminate news and information, and to campaign for change," says Ballinger, "that's why we see its protection as so important."

BLOGGING AT WORK - Tamzin Matthew

The rise of corporate blogging is a recent phenomenon. But can your employer censor what you write in a blog? Article 8 of the Human Rights Act states that everyone has the right to a private life, but this is a qualified right, which means it can be lawfully infringed. "Where a blog is made by an employee outside work, and on matters unrelated to their employment, then blog censorship would generally be inappropriate and unlawful," explains Tamzin Matthew, partner at law firm Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons. "However, there could be limited circumstances where it would be appropriate for an employer to remove a blog made outside work or to take disciplinary action against an employee, where the subject matter of the blog has a material adverse effect on the employer's business or interests."

One such case was Joe Gordon. In 2005, the bookseller became one of the first people in the UK to be sacked for something they wrote in a blog. Gordon called his "sandal-wearing" manager an "evil boss", and nicknamed Waterstones, the company he worked for, "Bastardstones".

Employers can also be liable for defamatory statements made by their employees in the course of employment, be it in writing, in an email or on a blog. Furthermore, an employer can also be liable if an employee discloses (knowingly or unwittingly) confidential company information. It could be the latest client win or details about a new product, which an eagle-eyed competitor would be quick to use to their advantage.

"A corporate blog could potentially lead to the inadvertent formation of a contract," continues Matthew. "If the blog (possibly made by an over-zealous marketing team) is worded in such a way as to constitute an offer that is capable of acceptance - such as a promise to give a free item to anyone who turns up at a particular place at a particular time - then the company could find itself being legally bound to give away stock, and unable to legally withdraw its offer to those who have already accepted."

An employer should certainly think about the possible problems that an employee's blog can cause, and take precautionary measures. "One option is to set clear limits on the permissible contents of a blog, reserving the right to take disciplinary action if employees overstep the mark," says lawyer Michael Burd of Lewis Silkin solicitors, "Such a policy can expressly extend to blogs written at home, emphasise employees' duties of confidentiality and prevent bad-mouthing of the organisation or its customers."


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