The Battle for Press Freedom Moves Online

Half the journalists in jail work online, and most of them are freelancers.

Iranian protesters

From Tibet to Tehran, more and more front-line reporting is being carried out by freelancers and published online. But the revolution in newsgathering—brought about by new technology and the downsizing of traditional media outlets—has a down side. For the first time, half of all journalists jailed around the world worked online as bloggers, reporters, or Web editors. Most of them are freelancers with little or no institutional support.

These are the key findings of a report released Dec. 8 by the Committee To Protect Journalists. The annual census of imprisoned journalists was conducted on Dec. 1 and includes every journalist who was in jail on that day. All told, there are 136 journalists on the list, an increase of 11 from the previous year. Sixty-eight of them worked online, the vast majority of them freelancers.

For the 11th year in a row, China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 24 behind bars. It is followed closely by Iran, where 23 journalists remain in jail, out of dozens rounded up in the aftermath of the disputed June 12 election. Cuba, Eritrea, and Burma round out the top five.

A closer look at the numbers in China reveals just how dramatically the Internet has transformed both newsgathering and the dissemination of critical commentary in repressive societies.

A decade ago, when China first topped the list, most of those jailed were print reporters for mainstream media outlets who had gone too far in their criticism of government officials. The Chinese media are much more open today, but there are still clear limits, and journalists who displease the authorities face consequences. The difference is that they are more likely to be fired than thrown in jail.

But online journalists can’t be fired, blacklisted, or, in most cases, bought off precisely because most work independently. They don’t have employers who can be pressured. Chinese authorities have few options when it comes to reining in online critics—censor them, intimidate them, or throw them in jail. This explains why 18 of the 24 journalists imprisoned in China worked online.

In Iran, there’s a similar dynamic. The 23 reporters jailed there fall roughly into two camps—those who worked for print media outlets allied with opposition candidates and those who worked independently online. Under the reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami, 1997-2005, the Tehran intelligentsia famously spent hours in cafes perusing dozens of newspapers and magazines, reformist and conservative. A crackdown on the print media that accelerated under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad closed many newspapers and forced top journalists and commentators online, fueling the rise of the Farsi blogosphere. Today, many of these journalists are in jail or in exile.

Unquestionably, the rise of Web-based reporting provides exciting new opportunities. An adventurous young freelancer can head out to cover the world armed with a laptop and a digital camera. Government critics from Burma to Vietnam are able to circumvent the censors and get their views out to the world.

But the sharp increase in the number of imprisoned online journalists highlights new vulnerabilities. They are utterly alone when authorities knock on the door to take them away. Freelancers face jail without legal assistance or the backing of an employer who can provide support for their families.

Even more alarming is the vulnerability of the Internet itself. The utopian notion that the Internet is impossible to censor or control has given way to a new reality. Even as new formal and informal news organizations emerge on the Web, traditional media—text and broadcast, public and private, partisan and nonpartisan, for-profit and nonprofit—are all converging online. The convergence creates an “information chokepoint” that repressive governments can shut down when a story gets out of control. Whereas governments used to have to close dozens of newspapers and shut down individual radio stations, now they can simply halt the circulation of information by pulling the plug on the Web.

In China, for example, the government shut down the Internet and even the cell phone network when riots broke out in Xinjiang province earlier this year. In Iran, citizen journalists’ reports about the post-election violence were eventually silenced as the mullahs shut down Internet communication and began rounding up critical bloggers. On Saturday, Iranian authorities did it again, shutting down the Internet and the cell system to disrupt planning for student protests held Monday. The shutdown was also intended to limit coverage of the events through the Web and social media sites.

This is why the battle for press freedom around the world has moved online. It’s no longer about keeping the presses running and unblocking the airwaves. Ensuring that people around the world have access to diverse news and information means keeping the Internet free.

In order to defend press freedom in this new environment, press freedom groups like CPJ need to change tactics. Traditional advocacy—protest letters to heads of state, detailed reports chronicling government crackdowns—will continue to be relevant, but there will also be a technological component to our advocacy that involves navigating around firewalls, circumventing censorship, and outflanking government efforts to control the Web. In order to better carry out this kind of advocacy, CPJ is adding a new specialized program dedicated to the defense of online journalists.

But technology has its limits, and the freedom to express ideas and disseminate information through the Internet cannot be taken for granted. Like all freedoms, it must be actively defended. While there are highly effective organizations like the OpenNet Initiative and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, media companies and journalists are just beginning to understand that they have a huge stake in preserving Internet freedom.

Internet and technology companies also need to do more. So far, they have a mixed record. It’s true that people in repressive societies benefit from access to the Internet, but not when companies collaborate in censoring content or exposing government critics, as Yahoo did when it turned over to Chinese authorities information used to arrest journalist Shi Tao in 2004.

Fortunately, these companies are taking steps to address the issue. CPJ is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, an organization of human rights groups, academics, socially responsible investors, and Internet leaders such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. These companies have agreed to a set of principles that will help them push back against censorship.

Traditional media companies and Internet service providers have complex commercial arrangements that make them partners in some realms and competitors in others. But they should be natural allies as the battle for press freedom enters this new phase. We need to form a united front to push back against government censorship, confront repressive regimes, blend traditional advocacy with technological innovation, and stand up publicly for journalists of all kinds who seek to report the news online.