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A man uses a computer at an Internet cafe in Beijing Dec. 28. China's new communist leaders are tightening controls on Internet use following a spate of embarrassing online reports about official abuses.

For journalists and Internet, 2013 must not repeat 2012

Record assaults on journalists in 2012 and official moves to censor the Internet show how much authoritarian regimes fear the truth. Perhaps in 2013, truth-tellers will start to win.

The world in 2012 saw exceptional attacks on truth tellers. The number of journalists in prison reached a record high. An unprecedented 132 reporters were killed, either for exposing misconduct or in the line of duty.

Most of all, 2012 saw a new treaty – supported by 89 nations – that sanctions official curbs on the Internet by 2015.

Oppressive regimes from China to Syria have seen how digital media can easily expose the lies, atrocities, and corruption that help maintain their authoritarian rule. At a December conference of the United Nations-affliated International Telecommunications Union, these governments won approval to stifle the Internet – even to create multiple Internets, one for each country with various types of digital walls at the border.

These kind of attacks on truth messengers, however, may simply be one of those darkest-before-the-dawn moments. Advances in digital technology generally have been able to overpower government controls. More to the point, these regimes are up against a rising hunger among their citizens for information, fairness, and openness. Officials themselves need the Internet to even track dissent.

Leaders who deny freedom can sometimes be felled mainly by exposure of their errors. Citizen journalists in Syria are weakening domestic and international support for the Assad regime with YouTube clips of massacres of pro-democracy activists. Western journalists in China have recently exposed corruption among top Communist Party officials (with those Western news sites then blocked).

The Internet has accelerated the effects of investigative reporting. In the 1980s, it took years for a Washington Post exposé of corruption under dictator Ferdinand Marcos to help create a mass uprising. Today, a “netizen” in China or Russia with dirt on corrupt officials can ignite a public protest in hours.

Leaders in China and Iran appear the most worried about the Internet. Iran is trying to create an “intranet” separate from the Web while China keeps reinforcing its “great firewall” between the Web and its citizens. The latest example is an order in December that requires more than 500 million users in China to register their real name to even gain access to the Internet.

Many Chinese woke up to the power of the Internet as a check on government after a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed thousands of schoolchildren. When officials tried to suppress parents protesting shoddy construction of schoolhouses, it helped inspire greater Internet activism.

Whatever the means – journalism or the Internet – the hard fact is that people are drawn to the truth and want to be governed by it. Poet Robert Frost said it best:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun...

Yes, 2012 was a low year for truth-tellers. But exposing even that fact alone could help make 2013 the turnaround year to spill sunlight on the boulders of official censorship.

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