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Freedom going viral means trouble for dictators

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Charles C. Haynes
April 23, 2011

More than 2 billion people across the globe have Internet access, and there are some 5 billion mobile-phone subscriptions, according to the 2010 Human Rights Report released this month by the U.S. Department of State.


As we saw in Tunisia and Egypt, connective technologies have revolutionized revolution. Millions of angry and motivated people—many of them very young—are using the virtual public square to exercise their right to follow their conscience, speak freely, publish their opinions, assemble peacefully and petition for redress of grievances.


These five freedoms (protected in our country by the First Amendment) are the human rights most needed to advance democracy and justice—and therefore the most feared and denied by authoritarian regimes.


Of course, tweets and mobile videos alone won’t trump tanks and guns in the struggle for freedom. But new technologies make it increasingly difficult for dictatorships to keep a lid on the demand for change.


That’s why more than 40 governments are “using a combination of regulatory restrictions, technical controls on access to the Internet, and technologies designed to repress speech and infringe on the personal privacy of those who use these technologies,” the State Department said.


Among the worst examples cited in the report is Saudi Arabia, where over the past year the government has monitored email and Internet chat rooms and blocked disfavored websites. China is identified as another major offender, controlling content and access to the Internet—and detaining those who dare to dissent from government policies. Re-tweeting a post or operating a website where others post comments can lead to arrest for “subverting state power.”


In Vietnam, the government arrested 25 dissidents in 2010 and forcibly entered homes to remove personal computers and cell phones. According to the report, the Vietnamese government also organized attacks against critical websites and spied on dissident bloggers.


Not surprisingly, the report finds that freedom is most often denied to the most vulnerable members of society, especially racial, religious and ethnic minorities. In 2010, for example, Christians in Pakistan and Uighur Muslims in China were two of the many religious minorities who suffered severe repression.


Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were especially at risk in many places, including Honduras (an upsurge in killings) and Uganda (increased intimidation and harassment).


Despite the bleak outlook for human rights in many countries, the current upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa are stunning reminders that tyrants, no matter how entrenched, are vulnerable to the organizing power of the Internet.


The report describes the recent growth of human-rights organizations throughout the world as “dramatic,” despite the harsh measures taken by many governments to control debate and stifle dissent. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, ordinary citizens are able to mobilize for freedom in greater numbers than at any time in history.


Repressive regimes keep pushing back. In Belarus, hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, including seven presidential candidates, were arrested after highly suspect elections in December.


“In the weeks that followed,” states the report, “the offices and homes of civil society representatives, independent journalists, and political activists were raided as part of an effort to stifle independent political activity and free expression.”


Beyond the Middle East and North Africa (where the outlook for free expression is still in doubt), the report cites several countries—Colombia, Indonesia, and Guinea—where conditions for freedom have actually improved in the past year. The presidents of both Colombia and Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation) took steps to improve protections for human rights in their fragile democracies.


And in Guinea, the first democratically elected president since independence from France in 1958 was inaugurated in December, raising hopes that basic freedoms would finally be won in that conflict-torn nation.


The Internet, of course, can be used for good or ill. The character of people using or abusing the Internet determines the outcome of revolutions—not the technology itself.


As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in a recent speech, people in Egypt, Iran and elsewhere “stood and marched and chanted, and the authorities tracked and blocked and detained them. The Internet did not do any of these things. People did.”Nevertheless, Clinton added, the Internet is the town square of the 21st century. Keeping it open and free gives advocates for liberty and justice a chance to change the world.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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