As the bloody crackdown on Burmese democracy activists unfolded earlier this year, the world was able to watch thanks to the Internet and other modern technologies used to disseminate eyewitness accounts, photos and video clips.
The military junta’s attempt to impose a blackout on news of the turmoil taking place inside Burma resulted in most foreign media, particular television, being forced to rely on these dispatches from so-called ‘citizen journalists’.
In common with those organising and participating in the demostrations, those reporting on the uprising faced grave danger of arrest, imprisonment , torture and worse. A number of journalists were attacked, harassed or detained by the security forces during the crisis and at least one – the Japanese video reporter Kenji Nagai – was killed, almost certainly by the gun of a Burmese soldier.
Anyone, journalist or campaigner, caught taking photos, video – or crucially – accessing and uploading information onto the Internet faced an immediate, brutal beating and arbitrary arrest.
As the ’saffron uprising’ continued, the Burmese authorities shut down the country’s main Internet server, closed Internet cafes and severed mobile phone and landline connections in an attempt to stem the wave of electronically transmitted evidence of the atrocities taking place in Rangoon and beyond.
But Burma is not the only country where the Internet has become the frontline of the struggle against human rights abuses and for freedom of expression, or where using such technology carries a deadly risk.
Activists and journalists in China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Tunisia and Jordan, amongst others, face persecution for using the net to distribute material deemed unacceptable by the ruling authorities. Such is the extent of the problem that Amnesty last year launched a major global campaign to highlight and tackle the issue.
The group used the case of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist sentenced to ten years imprisonment for ‘ illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities’, to launch irrepressible.info and expose the scale and severity of Internet repression.
Tao’s crime had amounted to emailing a US campaigning group about Chinese government warnings to news jourrnalists not to cover protests marking the anniversary of the Tiannamon Square massacre. According to Amnesty, Tao has been sent to a forced labour camp to carry out his sentence, and his wife and family harassed and threatened by state officials.
Part of the reason for such harsh repression of those using the Internet for information and awareness raising, say campaigners, is that oppressive regimes such as in China realise the potential power such technologies provide to dissenters and ordinary people alike.
“The internet has become one of the [most important] new tools for activists involved in non-violent resistance – alongside other technologies like mobile phones and desktop publishing,” Matthew Collin, author and specialist on youth and democracy movements, told Ecostorm.
“They use it to promote their message, to network and organise clandestinely, and to evade censorship and communicate with the world in situations where the government controls the media or shuts down alternative outlets.”
Over the last decade, the Internet has indeed radically transformed the nature of activism and campaigning and, correspondingly, resulted in widespread but under-reported human rights abuses.
An early example of the Internet being successfully used by activists came when Mexican peasant group the Zapatistas used email and websites to alert the world to government troops’ violent assaults on peasant held land, in the mid-nineties.
The Zapatistas actions not only garnered unprecedented international support that pressured the Mexican authorities to cease their attacks, they, for the first time, dramatically linked up a powerful mix of activists from both first and third world nations.
In the Balkans, during the Kosovo war in 1999, Father Sava Janjic, Archdeacon of Kosovo’s Decani Monastery, caused a similar stir after his constant email dispatches from inside the conflict zone uniquely galvanised opposition to war from a surprisingly diverse range of people and political groupings.
Dubbed the ‘cybermonk’, Fr Sava had shown – as the Zapatistas, and similar resistance groups in East Timor, Indonesia and Brazil had done so previously – how the relatively new medium of the Internet could be used to reach out to huge new audiences at the touch of a button, with dramatic results.
In the following months, as NATO planes bombed Serbia, the Internet also became a vital lifeline to the outside world for anti-Milosevic campaigners after independent radio station B92 was forced to broadcast online as the Belgrade authorities moved to close down transmissions.
Similarly, youth resistance group Otpor – widely recognised for helping to destabilise the Milosevic regime from inside Serbia – successully used the Internet, email and text messages to help organise opposition actions against Belgrade’s rule following the conflict, often in the face of brutal reprisal’s from the Serbian security forces.
Otpor’s pioneering use of the Internet also saw the dissemination of rare pictures and information from inside the closed country to the outside world and is credited with inspiring democracy movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the years following Milosevic’s fall from power.
In the build up to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, youth resistance groups used a website named Maidan to post leaked information and documents from government sources – encouraging anger and further dissent – and for organising so-called ‘flashmob’ instant protests.
In Belarus, prior to the presidential elections in 2006, one youth movement used similar methods in an attempt to oust the government – but was raided by the authorities, its computers seized and website closed down.
Although the use of the Internet and other modern communication technologies by pro-democracy activists is widely documented, commentators are keen to point out that others, with less democratic ideals, have also been quick to utlise the net .
Matthew Collin highlights one such instance: “In Kyrgyzstan, before their uprising, a youth resistance group discovered that government loyalists had created a similar website to theirs, with a similar name, but full of pro-government propaganda. It was a canny trick to try and undermine them.”
Similar games are currently being played out online by pro and anti Serbian groups over the future of the disputed territory of Kosovo.
As first uncovered by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, savekosova.org and savekosovo.org – the first set up by the American Council for Kosova and the second by the American Council for Kosovo – are virtually identical websites.
But despite similar layouts and overall design, the content of the two portals is radically different. One supports independence for Kosovo and the second backs continued Serbian rule over the region. To add to the potential confusion for web users, both sites use global paranoia about Islamic terrorism as an argument.
Such ’smoke and mirrors’ campaigning by activists over the Internet is not unique to Eastern Europe. In the US anti-activist websites such as Activistcash.com, created by the Centre for Consumer Freedom, have sprung up to counter the growing popularity of environmental, safe food and animal rights organisations all using the web to expand their supporter base.
Such counter initiatives began to appear following the rise of online activist news services such as Indymedia. The portal, which now has numerous editions in dozens of countries globally, grew out of the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle, London and Genoa, and provides what activists describe as “an antidote to the mainstream media.”
Indymedia enabled, for the first time in an semi-professional fashion, campaigners and citizen journalists from virtually any viewpoint or pressure group to upload and publish online reportage, comment, photographs and video – bypassing what they saw as official censorship and misrepresentation by the mainstream media.
In the UK, the Undercurrents video news network was at the centre of efforts by activists, particularly road protesters, hunt saboteurs, anti GM and arms trade campaigners, to use video on the Internet to expose and highlight environmental, animal welfare and human rights abuses.
Larger, less grassroots, campaigning organisations have too utilised the Internet to advance their positions. Greenpeace was amongst the first to fully explore the potential of e-campaigning, encouraging its members to lobby government and business leaders about ecological destruction via email.
In the US, the WildAid organisation – which has the single aim of ending the global illegal trade in wildlife – successfully pioneered the use of the Internet to deliver high (TV) quality video adverts, or Public Service Announcements, to an audience of millions.
With the advent of so-called web.2 technology, new, interactive and highly populist web portals including Facebook, You Tube and MySpace have also assisted, in varying capacities, in disseminating the messages and activities of activist and pressure groups. At one stage, You Tube was carrying over fifty different clips during the recent Burmese uprising.
Although US and European activists involved in utlising the Internet for change have been targeted – Otpor members were brutally assaulted and imprisoned by Serbian police, and Indymedia reporters attacked in a notorious raid during the Genoa protests in 2001 – it is campaigners and reporters elsewhere in the world who have, and are, sufffering some of the most serious repression.
In June this year, Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Vu Binh was finally released from the country’s Ba Sao prison after serving five years of a seven year sentence for using the Internet to criticise the Communist authorities and being convicted of ’spying’.
A former journalist, Vu Binh was also planning to set up a new political party in Vietnam, which is illegal as the communist authorities state that only one political party is allowed.
Although the Vietnamese government was praised for releasing Vu Binh early, campaigners point out that at least eight other political and ‘cyber’ activists have been jailed recently for ‘conducting propaganda against the state’ .
Similarly, in Tunisia, human rights activist Mohammed Abbou was released from prison earlier this year after being punished for publishing several news articles critical of the Tunisian authorities on the Internet. Abbou was forced to carry out hunger strikes to help highlight his position and was reportedly harassed and ill treated during his detention.
In Jordan, Ahmad Oweidi, a scholar and political activist, was recently imprisioned for ‘heading an illegal organization, harming the government’s reputation and violating the country’s e-mail laws’ after sending e-mails discussing alleged corruption and human rights violations in Jordan to officials and newspapers.
Many other dissident voices who’ve exploited the Internet remain in prison globally.
In China particularly, dozens of activists charged with offences arising from using the Internet to further their opinions and causes are currently in prison – or in hiding – after repeated crackdowns by the authorities on Internet freedoms. Amnesty says China and Vietnam head the list of countries most heavily involved in Internet repression.
But it is not only such direct targeting of individuals, say campaigners, that poses a risk to Internet freedom. According to the Open Net Initiative (ONI), a project that aims to document global patterns of Internet content filtering and surveillance behind national firewalls, many governments are secretly blocking web sites containing content deemed unsuitable and some are attempting to avoid widespread Internet use in general.
In Iran, for example, g-mail and Facebook have been periodically unavailable after being ’switched off’ by the authorities; in China, many external sites – particularly those carrying evidence of human rights abuses inside the country including Tibet – are simply unavailable. A similar situation exists in Burma and several central Asian countries, amongst others. In some, such as Turkmenistan, the number of Internet users is minimal.
Ian Brown, an ONI researcher based at Oxford University, told Ecostorm: “For many governments the Internet as a whole represents economic potential so they are keen in general, it is more of a case of controlling what [users] see rather than trying to curtail its usage completely.”
Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen argues that unless action is taken on a global scale to highlight all forms of Internet repression – covert and overt – there is a danger of the world creating two Internets, “one that is an arena for free and peaceful exhange of ideas, and another that is a tool for repression.”
A version of this report appears in Index On Censorship