Last April, writer and historian Barbara Goldsmith announced that Nay Phone Latt was the winner of the 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” award, which honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression.
But Nay Phone Latt wasn’t there to receive his award. Like Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who last week received the Nobel Prize in absentia, the prominent Burmese poet and human rights advocate was back home in his native Mynamar, serving a 12-year sentence for distributing news and views via his blog.
Nay Phone Latt was arrested on January 29, 2008, following the monks’ protests in Rangoon and elsewhere in the country.
“He represents a younger generation of Burmese who are longing for freedom and willing to pay the cost of speaking out in its defense,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center.
“That he is a blogger reflects the global truth that Internet censorship is one of the great threats to free expression today.”
Nay Phone Latt’s treatment is emblematic of a deadly virus sweeping across the world and spreading its pathogens to any place where an authoritarian, totalitarian government holds power. These despots have quickly learned the contemporary Internet social networking techniques used by their subjects and have moved in with a heavy hand to suppress these free expressions.
Despite its faux non-military trappings, Mynamar certainly qualifies, but then, so do scores of other countries – most of them America’s “allies” and recipients of large sums of money and aid to help us wage “the global war on terror.”
The war on bloggers and other social networkers is probably fiercest in the Middle East, but a host of other countries participate with similar sinister gusto.
For example, in Iran, the world’s youngest detained blogger, 18-year-old Navid Mohebbi, is currently being tried behind closed doors before a revolutionary court in the northern city of Amol. His lawyer is not being allowed to attend the trial, which began on November 14.
Mohebbi is facing the possibility of a long prison sentence after being accused of “activities contrary to national security” and “insulting the Islamic Republic’s founder and current leader … by means of foreign media.” He has also been accused of being a member of the “One Million Signatures” movement, a campaign to collect signatures to a petition for changes to laws that discriminate against women.
Mohebbi is but one of many bloggers being persecuted in Iran. Another blogger there was sentenced to 14 years in prison for membership in the banned One Million Signatures campaign. He was also charged with acting against national security, propaganda against the state through connection with foreign media and insulting Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei.
A week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told heads of state gathered for the UN General Assembly in New York that his government does not jail its citizens for expressing their opinions, Iran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Hossein Derakhshan, an internationally known Iranian-Canadian blogger, to nineteen and a half years in prison.
The list of writers, journalists and bloggers currently in prison in Iran includes some of Iran’s most distinguished journalists, some of the country’s leading bloggers and Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American scholar and social planner who was sentenced in August 2009 to 15 years in prison following a mass trial of 140 activists, intellectuals and writers accused of fomenting a “velvet revolution.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists this month announced that the 47 journalists now in prison in Iran comprise the largest number of reporters that any country has imprisoned at any one time since 1996.
Egypt is still ruled by the aging authoritarian Hosni Mubarak under a “temporary” emergency law that is now 30 years old. There, a military court has sent a man to jail for starting a Facebook group to advise would-be army recruits, his lawyer said.
Ahmed Hassan Bassyouni, 30, was blogging advice on how to enter the armed services and to prepare the necessary papers, according to Agence France Presse (AFP).
They accused him of “spreading military secrets over the Internet without permission.” He was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 500 Egyptian pounds, a sum equivalent to 85 US dollars.
Amnesty International (AI) declared Bassyouni a “prisoner of conscience” ahead of his court martial on charges that he revealed “military secrets” by publishing information about military service already available in the public domain.
“The Egyptian authorities must end the practice of trying civilians before military courts. This is an abuse of the Egyptian judicial system and the right to a fair trial,” AI said.
In Kuwait, lawyer and blogger Mohammad Abdul Qadir Al Jasem was sentenced to one year in prison after he was found guilty of defaming Kuwait’s Prime Minister, Shaikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Subah.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Syria has detained a teenage blogger – a 19-year-old high school student – for nine months without charge.
The group charges that this is “typical of the cruel, arbitrary behavior of Syria’s security services. A government that thinks it can get away with trampling the rights of its citizens has lost all connection to its people,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.
Since the student’s arrest, the security services have not allowed her family to communicate with her and have not offered any explanation for the arrest.
Saudi Arabia’s most popular blogger, Fouad al-Farhan, has been detained for questioning, an Interior Ministry spokesman confirmed. It was the first known arrest of an online critic in the kingdom, though the Saudi government has waged an all-out battle against “Internet treason” for some years. It operates some of the world’s most sophisticated information technology to block dozens of web sites.
Farhan, 32, who used his blog to criticize corruption and call for political reform, was detained “for violating rules not related to state security,” according to the government’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, who responded to repeated requests for comment with a brief text message.
Farhan went to considerable trouble to thank the hundreds of people throughout the world who had shown interest in his plight.
My government put me in a solitary confinement for 137 days. My cell was 2×3 meters. I never saw anybody except the interrogators once every couple of weeks. The rest of the days I was alone. They didn’t allow me to watch TV, listen to radio, read any books or magazine or newspaper. I was not allowed to have a pen and a paper to write. I never saw the sun. I was completely cut off the world. All I had is our holy book (Quran) and prayer rug. So, I had a lot of time to think about my life.
In Iraq, a country the US is fond of saying it has “made safe for democracy,” a 33-year-old blogger and medical doctor, was arrested, imprisoned and subjected to torture because of her writing on a blog.
The Iraqi Government, which had previously denied the existence of Dr. Hanan Al-Mashhadani (aka Hiba Al-Shammari), finally allowed a telephone conversation between her and her lawyer, Karim Ahmed Al-Asadi.
The charges revolve around the “Terrorism Act” – an act that has been known to take the shape and form of its implementing parties. The specific charges include: supporting terrorism through written articles described as “confidential”; encouraging terrorist attacks on police and army by terrorist elements; prejudicing symbolic national and religious figures; impersonating the character of an existing Iraqi writer (although they have not disclosed who that writer might be).
Dr. Hanan says she was subjected to harsh treatment and verbal assault, and that she was detained in solitary confinement and given poor food.
Other parts of the world are equally guilty of persecuting bloggers. For example, the Azerbaijani government has jailed two bloggers who have been detained since July 2009 as the result of a staged fight designed to frame them, according to Human Rights Watch.
“[The] ruling is yet another setback for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The case is blatantly part of a pattern of prosecutions in which the authorities have brought trumped-up charges against outspoken journalists and activists in Azerbaijan.”
In Cuba – recent releases of political prisoners notwithstanding – the authorities are using brute force to try to silence Yoani Sanchez’s only weapon: her ideas.
On November 6, Sanchez, Cuba’s most prominent blogger, together with blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, was abducted by three men.
Sanchez and Pardo were forced into an unmarked vehicle, beaten and threatened by their captors before being released onto the street.
In 2008, Malaysian blogger Raja Petra was arrested in his country. The reason, as the Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Ismail Omar, put it: “This arrest was made after our investigations showed that he did certain things which could cause unrest among the citizens of various races in this country.”
Petra was sentenced to two years in jail under Malaysia’s draconian internal security act (ISA).
There is enough anecdotal evidence to strongly suggest that the harassment and persecution of social networkers – be they bloggers, or users of Facebook, My Space, Twitter or other social media – is increasing exponentially abroad as it is here at home. This trendline is unlikely to reverse course any time soon.
If we had any doubts, they should have been quelled by the way social media told us all we’d ever need to know about the Iranian uprising, with citizen journalists taking to the streets following that country’s fraudulent election.
On the side of the angels in all these countries is a phalanx of informed, articulate, smart and courageous human rights groups. They, like those they represent, work under the most miserable conditions – subject to unannounced raids on their offices, arrests without warrants, beatings at police stations and all the other nefarious tools that authoritarian leaders have learned to use so well.
So now come the inevitable questions: Does the United States – by virtue of its place among nations and what we like to think of as our advanced morality – have an obligation to try to make things better? And, if so, what actions can we take that won’t do more harm than good to human rights defenders on the ground – people whose only crime is speaking out?
Thankfully, we’ve given up regime change and preemptive invasions. That was more a pragmatic than an ideological decision: those strategies simply didn’t work.
We’ve also pretty much given up on running so-called pro-democracy programs in these countries. The local organizations that participate with us in these programs often become the targets of government harassment; sometimes the organizations themselves ask us not to designate them for funds, lest they be accused by their government of illegally taking foreign grants or, worse yet, being under US control. As Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel laureate, said, “Being seen to take program money from the US is perceived as our being in the pockets of the Americans.”
Still, there are a few things we can do, although they will actually satisfy no one.
Our government can insist in making these subjects front-and-center on our agenda in the normal course of diplomacy. Again and again. Our president can use his bully pulpit much more forcefully and frequently to call out the worst of the miscreants.
And, lest we forget, to most nations of the world we are the Wal-Mart of military hardware and economic aid. We used to think that it was banal – somehow beneath us – to be seen to be gaining from that role. But there are many ways to use this leverage.
However we choose to affirm the centrality of the human rights issue in addressing persecution of bloggers and social networkers, those who profit from our beneficence need to understand that we won’t write blank checks. And we need to leave the dictators and despots we assist with no doubt that respect for human rights is central to our way of governing – and that our patience is not infinite.
One of the most effective ways to lead is by example. We could set one such example by disavowing both direct and indirect interference with the freedom of the Internet, so that the rule of law – and not the politics of secrecy – can determine the ultimate fate of Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
But the responsibility is not limited to the government. Businesses, both here and abroad, also have substantial influence, albeit of a different variety. For example, a management team with a vision has the possibility of transforming a factory or a farm or an office into a living laboratory for participatory democracy. Most firms that give their employees a real voice in company affairs are surprised that the practice is not only good for morale; it’s also good business.
But, as I said, these solutions will satisfy no one. They particularly won’t satisfy a lot of Americans, who have a short attention span and want positive results quickly. Those folks need to understand that building responsible government and effective institutions is never quick. It’s always slow and messy.
But it’s what we can do.
If you feel there’s more we can do, I’d be happy to hear from you. Leave me a message.