From the Alec Baldwin and Gabby Petito tragedies, to the infrastructure mud wrestling on Capitol Hill, to the struggle to convince otherwise sane people to get their freaking COVID vaccines, our headlines here and now fixate on American stories about American events. That this happens in our corner of the globe is myopic at best, xenophobic at worst. Either way, it takes for granted something that’s become an increasing luxury overseas: free expression online.
I’ve written about the media fascism that has come to define Belarus. China effetely quashed all voices of dissent in Hong Kong when its draconian National Security Law went into effect in June 2020. Now comes a piece in The Economist, “Governments are finding new ways to squash free expression online,” that digs deeper into autocracy vs. free press standoffs worldwide. (Lay your red-white-and-blue gossip rag aside; you can contemplate Lady Gaga’s navel later.)
On Oct. 8, the intrepid Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov won a Nobel Prize. Six of his colleagues at the Novaya Gazeta, which he founded in 1993, have been murdered. How exactly is difficult to say, though the Russian government has a cottage business in poisonings and the like. Vladimir Putin, who may or may not have a toenail’s worth of democracy in his body, is a former KGB apparatchik who apparently gets a kick out of such things, and then getting his lackeys to issue categorical, mocking denials that somehow blame the U.S. For example, Putin claims the global internet is a tool of the CIA. Strange. He didn’t exactly show a clumsy grasp of it when he meddled in our 2016 presidential election.
In a feat of double talk not even worthy of a third-grade snitch, the Kremlin praised Muratov, saying he was “brave.” Huh? That’s a bit like Stalin professing admiration for political prisoners left to pound boulders with a sledgehammer at the local gulag. In literally the same breath, the Russian government added that the Nobel would not afford Muratov any legal cover. This I can believe. Meanwhile, watch out for the friendly neighborhood Russian postman/double agent on his way to drop off cyanide-laced Fruit Loops at Muratov’s door.
As The Economist piece contends:
“The Nobel award recognises a sad truth. Globally, freedom of expression is in retreat. The bluntest methods of silencing dissent are widely wielded: autocrats and criminal gangs often use the sword against the pen (or bullets against bloggers). Many governments also lock people up for peacefully expressing their views.”
Deadline on arrival: press oppression around the world
Another fearless journalist captured a Nobel Prize on Oct. 8: Maria Ressa of the Philippines. Her news organization, Rappler, started as a Facebook page in 2011. It routinely goes after President Rodrigo Duterte, who recently delivered a line to make dictator Ferdinand Marcos blush: “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.” (Imagine The Donald nodding his head in agreement.)
Among the other sobering facts noted by The Economist:
- Today’s dictators and autocrats envy the “Great Firewall of China,” which blocks access to foreign social media and the Western press.
- Turkey has cut off nearly 470,000 websites, including 59,000 in the last year.
- All new mobile phones in Russia must be set to use Yandex, a Russian search engine.
- In January, 63-year-old woman in Thailand was sentenced to 43 years in jail for criticizing the royal family via podcast audio posted on social media. Thai officials applied a law instituted to curb months of anti-government protests.
- Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Vietnam and Bangladesh are all working on legislation that would require web firms to store user data in their countries, if generated there.
Speaking of the Saudis, Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based monthly columnist for the Washington Post and critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, was murdered at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018. The prince was in the midst of overseeing a crackdown on homegrown dissent. Remember Trump’s response? He stood by bin Salam. In other words, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
A world press community in the face of autocracy
A map featured in The Economist story details what are called “Internet Freedom Scores.” These are based on data compiled by Freedom House, a D.C.-based non-profit that dates to World War II and studies democracy, political freedom and human rights. It turns 80 years old on Oct. 31, and indeed it’s found out some scary stuff. Freedom House has determined that 45 countries have used spyware for citizen surveillance in the last 12 months.
Looking at it brought to mind a map Qwoted keeps in its files. Pictured above, it shows where the journalists who use our service are located. And yes, we’ve got a smattering of them in the nations mentioned in this piece, including China and Russia.
I’m not about to rip a page from Putin’s playbook and make up something preposterous about how we’re a bunch of brave souls determined to change the face of press freedom. But what we do have is a platform, one where reporters and sources spanning the globe can find information and ignite sparks of community.
Just as wildflowers can sprout in the cracks of deep concrete, the light journalists shine can penetrate some fairly dark places. Sharing information may be difficult, but not impossible. You can shut down the internet, kidnap journalists and roll out tanks in the face of honest dissent. But that will not stop people from being curious, and journalists are curious people who set out to inform, educate and inspire.
However it is that Qwoted continues to grow in the years to come, I’m glad we’re on the right side of this tug of war between press freedom and fealty, democracy and theocracy, open eyes and closed minds. Helping reporters find a source on deadline is what we do. If in some small way they find a source of inspiration as well, they will help us all become part of something larger.