Free Speech
(Ben Heine © Cartoons)
Threats Increasing to Free Speech
on the Internet

By Judy Aita
United Nations -- The Internet is a key component of press freedom in the 21st century, yet Internet journalists and bloggers increasingly are coming under attack by repressive regimes trying to block the free flow of information and expression, say journalists and activists.

"Free thought, particularly expressed on the Internet is becoming more and more dangerous," says Bridget Johnson, Los Angeles Daily News columnist and blogger. "The Committee to Protect Journalists has been tracking the detention of Internet writers since 1997 and the 2006 figure is the highest the group has ever recorded. Now, one in three jailed journalists is a blogger, online editor, or Web-based reporter." According to CPJ, 134 journalists were jailed in 2006; of that number, 49 worked on the Internet.

U.S. efforts to promote the free flow of information range from monitoring Internet access in countries around the world and including the data in the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights to financing Internet projects in developing countries. Since 2004, the United States has given $250 million to projects that include assisting with Web site design, providing computers and training technicians to keep systems operating.

Johnson and other bloggers and activists discussed the growing challenges to free speech on the Internet at a World Press Freedom Day panel May 3 entitled "The Citizen Journalist: The Internet as a Tool for Freedom of Speech." The panel was hosted by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and included bloggers from countries with press restrictions and representatives of nongovernmental organizations ( NGOs ). The press fosters debate, provides a forum for expressing different points of view and keeps governments accountable for the decisions they make, said Jeffrey Krilla, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. "The increasing challenges the press face around the world are challenges to democracy and freedom."

One of the great opportunities for spreading freedom of expression is the Internet, Krilla said. "The Internet holds enormous promise particularly for the developing world and efforts to blunt the Internet's transformational power need to be countered by governments, NGOs, and by citizens worldwide."

Tala Dowlatshahi, New York director of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said that the ongoing debate among some media representatives and lawmakers over whether bloggers are journalists and to what freedoms bloggers are entitled "is a waste of time." "It is high time we set aside the blogger-versus-journalist polemic and acknowledge that they are there fighting side-by-side in many countries to defend freedom of expression," she said.

"In legal terms, a media professional is not entitled to better protection than a blogger," Dowlatshahi said. "Freedom of expression, at least in theory, is something everyone is entitled to regardless of their status. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underscores this basic principle."


The Internet has caused major upheavals in countries that do not permit freedom of expression, Dowlatshahi said. Bloggers can be pivotal in repressive environments where the media live in constant fear of the political leadership. In Egypt, she pointed out, it was a blogger who revealed that torture was being carried out in detention centers.

China is the worst place for cyberdissidents, but other countries --including Vietnam, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Iran -- are not far behind, Dowlatshahi said. Watson Meng, founder of Boxun News, and Drexel University marketing professor Frank Xie, a blogger on Boxun News, talked about the problems facing Chinese bloggers. In China, citizen journalists are important, said Meng. Official information is not reliable and people are looking for good Web sites with reliable information. Since Boxun was founded in 2000, it has been the Number 1 online Chinese news service.

Governments ( including that of China ), NGOs, journalists and ordinary citizens make up the audience for the Boxun Web site, which contains news and 1,400 blogs. But, Meng said, his big problem is "the great firewall" the Chinese government uses to block his site. Xie added that China uses the best technology for its firewall and is exporting it free to Cuba, North Korea and Sudan.

There are about 137 million Internet users in China ( 10.5 percent of the population ), according to Xie. One of the problems is the cost of Internet access, he said. Xie predicted that if the cost of access were reduced, the number of Internet users in China would surpass the 210 million people in the United States who now use the Internet.

Bloggers "need international support at this moment, on International Press Freedom Day," said Nora Younis, an Egyptian blogger and activist. "We need the international support of other bloggers, scholars, journalists, intellectuals and civil society."

With an estimated 8 million Internet users in Egypt, blogging has become an increasingly important means of expression for a country with a young population. Nevertheless, Younis said, new government restrictions are forcing young bloggers to censor their own writings -- which they never had to do before -- or quit altogether.

Echoing the sentiments of the other panelists, Younis said, "We as young people do not want to go to prison. We want to write, we want to engage."

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