Summary: This item contains information on the World Press Freedom Day, the opportunities created by new media for civil society and human rights advocates, and a toolkit to bypassing State-imposed restrictions on online freedom of expression.
Every year, May 3rd is an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom – a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, information is censored, fined, suspended and closed down; while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.
World Press Freedom Day is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in promotion of greater freedom of the press, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide. This year's theme looks at new forms of expression and participation, including Internet-based applications, such as social networks and blogs, among others.
With recent events in the Middle East and North Africa having been driven by the use of new media, it is an appropriate time to look at how such technologies have been employed around the world, but also to reassert the inalienable right of people, including children, to access information and freedom of expression.
Here at CRIN, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are core to our work and values. Accordingly, we have begun to monitor restrictions imposed on children’s rights defenders around the world as part of our Transparency Campaign. Last year on this day we also highlighted the importance of freedom of expression for children. And more recently, we have been monitoring events in the Middle East and North Africa and how children have been affected, including by publishing a special editorial on children's right to freedom of assembly.
Precisely in Arabic-speaking countries, which are currently experiencing massive civil unrest and violent government clampdowns on civil freedoms, new forms of electronic media such as social networks, blogs and video posting websites have become a last, albeit effective, resort to challenging State repression.
With international news networks blocked, reporters detained and foreign press denied entry to countries where uprisings and State violence are taking place, social media has emerged as a means of binding disparate demonstrations together, relaying information that keeps protesters and the international community informed. Indeed, social networkers have transformed into new citizen journalists and have proven key to keeping the civilian protests, and their repression, in constant view. Even users of mobile phones have become informal broadcasters, as they micro-blog, post videos online and send information via text messages to news and radio stations.
Precisely because of its capacity to “spread the word” and rally the masses, not to mention the resultant international condemnation, authoritarian regimes have desperately tried to silence all communications, in some cases even resorting to cutting off Internet and telephone services nationwide and electricity to entire cities. Yet cyber activists have still managed to bypass such restrictions, and make full use of the resources available. As one Egyptian activist tweeted, "we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world."
New media has indeed created a new frontier for activism against dictatorial regimes, and has been recognised as such. This year, for example, Reporters Without Borders awarded its annual Netizen Prize for promoting online freedom of expression to the Tunisian blogging group Nawaat.org for its important role in rallying anti-government protesters in the country which eventually led to the end of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year regime. Additionally, check out CNN's 10 must-read blogs from the Middle East.
Some authoritarian regimes, however, are still refusing to accede to civilian demands, and are intent on quashing opposition at any cost. Specifically concerning new media, government tactics to rein journalists, cyber activists and human rights organisations range from sophisticated censorship and blocking mechanisms such as denial-of-access and malware attacks, as occurs in Burma and China, to brutish forms of oppression such as intimidation, imprisonment and even murder, as occurs in Libya, Russia and Syria.
To challenge Internet restrictions, civil society and media organisations around the world are developing new ways of bypassing them, in support of freedom of expression for journalists and human rights activists and citizens’ access to information.
In order to raise awareness on existing forms of Internet oppression, for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists has compiled The 10 Tools of Online Oppressors, which lists the most prevalent tools for online oppression and the States guilty of employing them.
Similarly, Reporters Without Borders annually releases its Press Freedom Index which ranks countries according to their press freedoms record, as well as having an Enemies of the Internet List which covers country-specific issues related to online freedoms and restrictions.
Yet there are copious ways of bypassing existing restrictions, some of which are examined by Freedom House's report entitled ‘Leaping Over the Firewall – A review of Censorship Circumvention Tools’, which provides a comparative analysis of the principle circumvention tools by focusing on their technical and practical merits and drawing on users’ experiences from Azerbaijan, Burma, China and Iran.
The Economist has also looked at innovative ways of circumventing politically motivated shutdowns of the Internet, such as how to build a makeshift directional antenna with a tin can and copper wire. Also, be sure to check out readers' comments at the bottom of the page for extra insight into strengths and drawbacks of such tactics.
Specifically on denial-of-access attacks suffered by independent media and human rights organisations, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University has published a research report on the effects of such attacks, and provides initial recommendations to fend them off and mitigate their effects.
The International Freedom of Expression eXchange has written a short guide to using Facebook for the purpose of campaigning, including its advantages and limitations and important points to keep in mind when setting up an account.
Of particular interest to journalists in Arabic-speaking countries, Article 19 published in 2007 a 'Manual for Arab Journalists on Freedom of Information and Investigative Journalism', which looks at how to better access public information to strengthen investigative reporting, including valuable sources of information and key methods of research.
Article 19 also has an array of training manuals and campaign packs covering freedom of information-related issues. To access them click here.
Likewise, the Tactical Technology Collective offers toolkits and campaign strategy guides as part of various projects, including how to turn information into action, understand the risks associated with using digital media for advocacy, and protecting against cyber attacks, among other things.
One such project is Security in-a-box, which addresses key questions such as how to protect your information from physical threats, how to recover from information loss, how to use mobile phones as securely as possible, and how to protect yourself and your data when using social networking sites.
On the issue of online protection, the ONO Project provides a series of animated films to raise awareness about the often unknown or misinformed risks involved in using new media, including those faced specifically by human rights advocates and independent journalists working on sensitive issues.