A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press-freedom watchdog, illustrates a disturbing trend: Governments around the world are becoming more sophisticated in their efforts to censor expression.
One of the oldest forms of authoritarian repression—silencing dissent—is being aided by state-of-the-art communications technology. So while it’s never been easier for ordinary citizens to publicly express their political views, tools to surveil the masses are more precise than ever and available to any state that wants to track its detractors (or anyone else perceived to be a threat).
CPJ’s list of the 10 most-censored countries is filled with the usual suspects. But the most alarming aspect of the report is how governments are using internet resources—originally intended to make expression easier—to impose censorship on views they don’t like.
“The internet was supposed to make censorship obsolete, but that hasn’t happened. Many of the world’s most censored countries are highly wired, with active online communities,” said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ. “These governments combine old-style brutality with new technology, often purchased from Western companies, to stifle dissent and control the media.”
Few countries appear immune from the creeping urge to infringe on privacy and impede free expression. As democracies increasingly become more comfortable using these tools and tactics to exert greater control over political debates within their borders, repressive regimes have fewer reasons to respect Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all people have the right to seek and receive news and express opinions.
Predictably, Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan—three of the world’s most closed societies, which have never enjoyed basic freedoms — top the list of most censored nations.
But countries in the middle of the list are more worrisome for other reasons. Their stories show what is increasingly becoming the ominous norm in media landscapes around the world.
Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam and Iran hold places four through seven on the list. All are large and influential nations with populations that enjoy wide—but incomplete—internet access, and that rely on their global trade ties to keep their economies afloat.
In normal times, the United States could exert economic leverage over its allies to compel better adherence to freedom of expression, one of the key metrics of basic human rights. Instead, the Donald Trump era appears to have encouraged state censorship by governments with which the United States enjoys good relations.
Take Vietnam. It’s a country that the United States has worked with for decades to mend wounds and undo deep mutual mistrusts after a long and costly war. The United States was Vietnam’s top export destination in 2018, supplying nearly $50 billion worth of goods.
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Yet that massive trade relationship has not resulted in any meaningful commitment to human rights from authorities in Hanoi. In fact, the situation appears to be getting worse.
CPJ’s report cites a new Vietnamese law implemented at the beginning of 2019 that requires “technology companies to disclose user data and take down content viewed as objectionable” by the state. Restrictions on expression were already tight, after a 2013 law gave the government sweeping authority to censor blogs and social media. Now, however, a 10,000-member cyberwarfare unit run by the military contributes to an atmosphere of fear and growing self-censorship by critics of the state.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia — whose leaders claim it is undergoing a period of sweeping social reforms — continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism.
In 2018, Saudi operatives brazenly murdered Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. One of his home country’s most prominent journalists, he was also a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.
As the first anniversary of the assassination approaches, Saudi authorities — including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to have ordered the killing — have paid no meaningful price. Instead they have been allowed to continue purchasing large quantities of U.S.-made weaponry needed for their war in Yemen and have been given cover by statements from Trump and his top advisers that for all intents and purposes exonerate Saudi rulers of any wrongdoing.
If two such supposedly good friends of the United States feel no need to adhere to international norms around free expression, is it any wonder than our staunchest ideological rivals disregard calls to allow their populations to air their views?
Authorities in China and Iran have become global leaders in using the technology of today to maintain their long grips on power, undermining any and all social movements that call into question their leadership.
Developing domestic networks that provide a fast but heavily controlled experience is one way both governments are subtly stifling dissent with their populations.
While Tehran and Beijing are no newcomers to repressing expression, their evolution into powers that simultaneously allow and encourage widespread internet use, while using the public’s online activity to better track potential domestic threats, could foreshadow a dystopian future in which governments use the internet to track and shape our behavior.
Without active resistance from populations that value an individual’s right to unfettered access to information and the ability to share it, we will all continue to slide in that direction.