The People are the Press
We’ve now observed the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre — one of the most dramatic events in modern Chinese history where pro-democracy student protestors were slaughtered en masse by their own government.
But most people in China today do not even know that Tiananmen Square occurred — thanks to the power of China’s “Great Wall” of press and information censorship.
The verdict of history on whether the internet was a tool of freedom or oppression will hinge on whether we allow for censorship to take the most powerful communications tool of history out of the hands of the people. Nations such as China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea are committed to exactly this model of internet censorship. Such totalitarian regimes are what Reporters without Borders calls “Black Holes” in the global map of freedom.
Unfortunately, the Black Holes are growing. We need to be afraid of the world they will create if those who love freedom do not unite against the gathering darkness.
How real is that darkness? Just ask Hatice Cengiz whose fiancée was tortured and slaughtered in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in an act of medieval barbarism abetted (ironically) by a livestream internet video link so Saudi officials could supervise.
Just ask Gulchehra Hoja, a Chinese journalist who endured the horror of covering the government disappearance of her own family as punishment for her coverage of the extensive system of concentration camps set up to punish over a million Chinese Muslims.
The good news is that the digital media revolution is rapidly expanding the meaning of the pre-digital term “press” to include everyone — including bloggers and citizens posting digital videos online. So the power of the Digital Age is being harnessed by people outside the Black Holes of censorship in our world.
The bad news is that due to this blurring of the lines between professional and citizen journalists and commentators, many repressive regimes around the world are targeting and punishing citizens for their online activities with the same harshness previously reserved for campaigns to silence traditional media outlets deemed to be hostile or critical of those in power.
In repressive societies social media is being treated like traditional media — with the result that anyone’s social media activity can put them in danger. In the Middle East you can be arrested for tweets. In Mexico, a blogger was murdered for posting negative statements about the drug cartels on Facebook. China, Vietnam, and North Korea have increased their internet controls and clamped down on online activity within their borders — attempts to censor the internet and stifle free speech never take a break.
North Korea deploys squads to enforce its “wall of silence.” Vietnam’s decrees to suppress online dissent have grown increasingly tough in recent years. As for China, its “Great Firewall” of internet censorship is getting higher every day. The thought controllers in Beijing want to set the standards for a “new world media order” that can be copied by police states on several continents.
Freedom of thought and expression are hallmarks of the West and enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. But totalitarian regimes reject all such individual freedoms on the grounds that the interests of the ruling class and people are the synonymous. This is the Orwellian nightmare they are seeking to export to the rest of the world.
Astronomers know that Black Holes have a tendency to consume the matter and energy around them, making escape from their crushing darkness virtually impossible. So too with the “Black Holes” of censorship in our world. Once a society transfers all power to the state — including the powerful tools of digital media — the loss of freedom accelerates geometrically in ways that make resistance to tyranny increasingly futile.
This is why everyone in the free world should care about the suffering of those who are fighting the darkness of press censorship. Most of these heroes are oppressed, many are tortured and some are killed. But they are the light — for their societies and ours — and we must never let the light go out.
Matthew Daniels, J.D. Ph.D., Chair of Law and Human Rights at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. is the author of the forthcoming book, Human Liberty 2.0.