One year ago, U.S. lawmakers discovered what happens when you mess with the internet, as Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and millions of ordinary users helped “black out” the net on January 18 to protest SOPA and PIPA—two controversial pieces of legislation that were designed to fight online piracy, but threatened instead to censor the internet and disrupt the way it functions. Since that day, there has been a rise in new laws around the world that restrict free speech online and prompt arrests of internet users, a key trend identified in Freedom House’s 2012 Freedom on the Netreport.
You’ve probably heard of the Great Firewall of China, which scrubs the web of any potentially subversive content for half a billion internet users. And you’ve definitely heard about the Egyptian government’s decision to switch off all internet and mobile-phone networks at the height of the uprising in 2011. But there are a host of lesser-known threats to internet freedom, some of which endanger the very nature of the net as we know it.
The current state of media freedom in Latin America was driven home in early May, when three journalists were murdered in Mexico within a week of World Press Freedom Day. This dramatic example underscores a larger trend identified by Freedom House in the recently released Freedom of the Press 2012 report, which noted that a range of negative developments over the past decade have left media freedom on the defensive in much of Central and South America.
Earlier this month, Chinese authorities were forced to temporarily suspend trading of shares in the online unit of the People’s Daily newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. The price had soared so rapidly since the website’s April debut on the Shanghai Stock Exchange—giving it a greater market value than the New York Times—that it triggered regulatory rules aimed at halting speculative manipulation. This development is just the sort of absurd extreme that comes shortly before an economic bubble bursts.
At a rally commemorating the ninth anniversary of the electoral victory of her late husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, President Fernández sang the praises of Argentina’s vibrant democracy and political progress. Under the slogan “United and Organized,” her fiery 45-minute speech was enthusiastically received by the estimated 100,000 supporters in attendance. However, most in the Argentine media would beg to differ with their president’s depiction of the current level of democracy in the country. Indeed, contrary to Fernández’s idealistic portrayal, freedom of speech in Argentina is in a dismal state, and is poised to worsen before it improves.
When news broke last month that Swedish telecommunications company TeliaSonera had collaborated with Eurasian dictatorships, it should have come as no surprise. The firm reportedly gave the security services of Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan complete access to their countries' telecom systems, thereby facilitating intercepts of telephone calls and text messages. This collaboration, sadly, fits a pattern.
Hungary’s descent into the Partly Free category in Freedom House’s just-released annual assessment of global media independence should set off alarms for those who believed the country’s press freedom was firmly established.
In a stunningly short period of time, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used his Fidesz party’s supermajority in the parliament to push through a raft of measures that are patently hostile to media independence. A controversial media law that came into force on January 1, 2011, drew sharp criticism from a range of international observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s special representative on the media, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission.
For much of the past decade, global press freedom has been in retreat. This may seem counterintuitive in an era marked by the constant development and refinement of new communication technologies. Yet even as the internet, blogs, microblogs, mobile-telephone videos, and other forms of new media are reshaping the information landscape, governments are finding new and more sophisticated ways to control news coverage and manipulate political discourse.
Burma’s parliamentary by-elections on Sunday were seen as a make or break moment for the reform process that has taken place over the last two years. The country, long ruled by one of the world most repressive authoritarian regimes, inaugurated a new parliament and a nominally civilian government in early 2011, though both are still dominated by the military and its allies. The authorities have since taken a series of other steps, such as the release of some political prisoners that were designed to improve relations with democratic powers including the United States. The international community in turn has sought to engage the new leadership and encourage further reforms.
Since late 2010, Freedom House has been publishing the China Media Bulletin (CMB), a weekly digest of press freedom and censorship news related to the People’s Republic of China. The CMB has built up a substantial readership among scholars, journalists, diplomats, and government officials who specialize in China affairs. But the stories highlighted in the bulletin should be read by a wider audience, as its material is relevant to anyone who cares about freedom and the constantly evolving methods employed by freedom’s adversaries.