Combating the Multiplying Challenges to the Right of Free Expression
We live in an age where news and information is flowing at a faster rate, to more parts of the planet, and via more channels—print, radio, television, Internet, social media, mobile phones—than ever before. Access to the tools of transmission and to a greater diversity of news and views has increased by most metrics, particularly in the realm of digital technologies. Nevertheless, what one might expect to be a golden age for free expression is anything but. Challenges posed to the right of freedom of expression are increasing at an equivalent rate, with cases reported daily of censorship, legal harassment, physical threat, and—only somewhat less frequently—the ultimate silencer, murder.
As I recently assumed a new position as Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America after more than a decade working to monitor and defend press freedom, it seemed a good moment to reflect on the vast changes that have led to such a seeming paradox.
Thanks to the rapid proliferation of information and communications technologies (ICTs), particularly in the developing world, Internet penetration has tripled in the last decade and 63 percent of the global population now uses a mobile phone, allowing more of the population to access vital sources of news and information from anywhere in the world. The diversification of broadcast media, previously limited in many countries to state-owned outlets, private ownership of terrestrial radio and television, coupled with an expansion of cable and satellite alternatives, has contributed to this positive trend. And in the legal sphere, a significant uptick in the passage of freedom of information laws—more than 37 in the last decade—has improved, on paper at least, the ability to access official information.
On the production side, the creation of news has been democratized from a relatively small group of media companies and professional journalists to include bloggers and citizen journalists. Avenues for individual expression have multiplied, enabling a single person to contribute to a global media landscape by composing a tweet or snapping a photograph.
This outpouring of expression has been met with a crackdown that is both multifaceted and widespread. Journalists—traditional targets of authoritarian governments who want to limit their watchdog role—are being killed in record numbers. According to statistics collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 61 were murdered in 2014 alone. The vast majority of perpetrators are never punished. Lesser cases of physical attack or harassment are increasingly common, with reporters and photojournalists who attempt to cover sensitive news like corruption or political demonstrations particularly prone to reprisals.
Although government security forces and militaries continue to be responsible for a significant proportion of the attacks, the growing role of nonstate actors—including militant groups, criminal gangs, and religious extremists—in carrying out such attacks is a matter of concern, as ensuring accountability for these crimes is all but impossible. The murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in January were a particularly horrific example, but recent months have also seen the murders of two bloggers in Bangladesh by perpetrators affiliated with Islamist extremist groups.
The number of journalists in jail over the past several years has also been at a record high, according to CPJ’s annual tally, with 221 behind bars at the end of 2014. Most have been tried or are being held under vaguely worded national security, terrorism, or sedition laws.
This onslaught extends far beyond journalists, bloggers, and prominent writers to encompass a range of dissident voices. While luminaries such as Ilham Tohti and Eskinder Nega are serving lengthy prison terms, cases of detention and prosecution are occurring more regularly among ordinary individuals who use social media to express themselves, including students in Thailand, housewives in Indonesia, and many more. Such cases are facilitated by a growing number of laws that penalize online content, as well as by the application of traditional media laws to the digital sphere.
Such legal and physical punishments for free speech are noteworthy not only due to their impact on the individual writer or creator involved, but also because of their wider chilling effect on expression. These attacks can provoke victim’s colleagues or friends to self-censor for fear of facing the same fate, thus leading to a diminishing diversity of viewpoints and content.
Additionally, the stifling influence of pervasive surveillance and loss of privacy poses an ongoing concern. Taken together with ongoing attempts by governments to subtly manipulate news content and reframe the narrative, these varied threats have replaced more traditional blanket censorship as the preferred means of controlling freedom of expression.
As activists committed to fighting such restrictions, our tools for learning about and publicizing such violations have likewise expanded. But the new methods of control also call for refined approaches toward protecting individuals at risk and advocating for change. As PEN America seeks to become a leader in defending the right of free expression both in the U.S. and abroad, we plan to draw attention to these novel threats as well as forge new partnerships to combat them. Leveraging the power of all types of writers—for example, our recent letter by sports writers on behalf of jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan—in support of their beleaguered colleagues will be a key step in this strategy.