About the Event
In honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2010, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance hosted a morning of discussions on Capitol Hill entitled “Bloggers Behind Bars.” At a time when the number of online journalists in prison almost surpasses the number of jailed traditional print and broadcast journalists, press freedom seems more elusive in some parts of the world than ever before. Speakers, including members of Congress and human rights activists, addressed the threats that online journalists face worldwide.
As one of the day’s speakers observed, “the battle for press freedom has moved online.” Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that though the internet has empowered reporters working under repressive regimes, “this new freedom has brought its own set of dangers and vulnerabilities,” particularly since governments can “simply halt the circulation of information by pulling the plug on the Web.”
“The battle for press freedom has moved online.”
Bloggers can be silenced in other ways, too, and those without international prominence are at risk for intimidation, abduction and worse. Mahoney cautioned that online journalists are especially vulnerable because most are independent freelance writers working without the support and protection of an established media company.
One blogger with first-hand knowledge of this harsh reality was Mahoney’s co-panelist, Omid Memarian, an Iranian blogger who was imprisoned for three months for his work reporting on the 2009 Iranian elections. However, Memarian called his imprisonment “a privilege” because it gave him a better understanding of what bloggers experience in jail. He informed the audience that many journalists in Iran are locked up with criminals to “humiliate them and put pressure on them in order to make them forget about blogging when they leave prison.”
Tactics for silencing online journalists differ by country, as Robert Faris of Harvard’s Berkman Center explained. Internet filtering is very common in Syria and Tunisia, he said, while in Egypt the government goes after individual online journalists directly. And as Faris noted, jailing bloggers has a deeply “chilling effect” on internet press freedom.
“It’s a cat and mouse game…but there are ways to survive.”
However, there are still many ways for online journalists to subvert government censorship. Panelist Tienchi Martin-Liao of the Independent Chinese PEN Center observed that bloggers can register several blogs and use pseudonyms. Bloggers in China will often have a blog on a server outside China if they have access to software that allows them to get past the government’s firewall. Writers will also avoid sensitive words that could be picked up by government censors, or make modifications to the sensitive words by adding extra letters. “It’s a cat and mouse game,” Martin-Liao admitted, “but there are ways to survive.”
The panelists agreed that the protection of online journalists and the fight against internet censorship will require an international effort. “This is a political problem that ultimately needs a political solution,” argued Faris. Mahoney agreed, stating that, “The internet by its very nature is global. No one actor on its own can bring about the desired outcome.”
NED President Carl Gershman also addressed the nearly 100 attendees, and the discussion included remarks by Congressman Adam Schiff and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Both Representatives highlighted the important role that independent media play in building and sustaining democracies, and discussed the possibility of the U.S. government spotlighting countries engaged in internet censorship and suppressing independent voices online.