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Opinion

The intensifying battle over Internet freedom

From China to Syria, repressive nations are cracking down hard on digital dissidents.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman / February 24, 2009



Washington

Eleanor Roosevelt never imagined the Internet.

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Neither did the other framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago when they enshrined the right to freedom of expression. Yet they wisely left room for just such a development by declaring in Article 19: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.

Last year became the first time that more Web journalists were jailed than those working in any other medium, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

China, Burma, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe have led the clampdown. They have arrested writers, blocked websites and Internet access, set strict rules on cyber cafes, and tracked writers' work. In response, some writers have used proxy search engines, encryption, and other methods to try to get around censorship and detection.

"As in the cold war [when] you had an Iron Curtain, there is concern that authoritarian governments, led by China, are developing a Virtual Curtain," says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "There will be a free Internet on one side and a controlled Internet on the other. This will impede the free flow of information worldwide."

In the past year, writers in general have been arrested and imprisoned for such alleged charges as "inciting subversion of state power" (China), "insulting religion" (Iran), "threatening state security" (Burma), "defaming the President of the Republic" (Egypt), "storing cultural products with contents against the Socialist Republic" (Vietnam), and "spreading false news" (Syria).

"The Internet is reshaping society from the ground up," notes Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write program at PEN American Center. "For instance there are two new novels from girls who are housebound in Saudi Arabia, but these were published on the Internet." The question remains whether the writers can maintain their freedom in cyberspace, which they do not have in their physical space.

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