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The Internet and Free Speech

October 31, 2012

Dictators and dictatorial governments everywhere are probably cursing the day the Internet came into play–at least when it comes to quelling dissenters and preventing anti-regime material from being read.  The usefulness of the internet in terms of berating and overthrowing a regime are endless: it’s a rapid fire way to reach out to others; papers and photos can be distributed quietly without being seen and, most importantly, activists remain anonymous. 

Or so they think, anyway. The questionably ‘democratic’ regimes of the world are taking amazing crackdowns on web dissent and the general spread of material that doesn’t meet their liking. Bolivia, China and Greece have all recently come down on what goes on in the electronic-and in Greece’s case, the printed-word.

Bolivia: Criticism against President Evo Morales and the regime has caused the Bolivian government to think twice about human rights and access to social media. “I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera is quoted in CNN as ominously saying. Really? Shouldn’t a vice president be occupied with more important things than sitting in front of a computer, writing down the names of people like they’re bad children being sent to the principals office? What does he do with  the names, anyway? Create a blacklist? Have police round them up and question them?

Bolivian President Evo Morales, sourced from time.com


Evo Morales has been president of Bolivia since 2006, but the moves being undertaken by his current government are more reminiscent of a dictator, not a president. Morales’ Movement for Socialism party is pushing for regulated use of social media, which brings up a good question: in short of blocking social media sites, how can one “Regulate” the web? Making sure people don’t write bad things about the government on, for example, on Facebook, is impossible unless one has monitors constantly deleting ‘negative’ comments. And even still, enough people will read the comments so that the damage is done. A more probable solution would be banning those who criticize Morales, which is probably what the vice president has in mind when he takes down names, even though this too is time-wasting and ludicrous.

China: If I was a journalist living in China I’d probably switch to a different profession, because reporting the news in China must be so boring, since the Communist government has it’s Big Brother eye on the media. After a New York Times article reported that Premier Wen Jiabao has made millions since coming into power (not to mention other top officials), China blocked the New York Times website, something they seem to do quite often with media outlets that report “unsettling” (read: the truth) about happenings in such a friendly state; the output of local news is also monitored, I suppose to make sure that the rest of the world doesn’t know what dirty laundry China doesn’t want aired. “It’s trying to blacken China’s image and has ulterior motives,” Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said of the Times, clearly misreading the fact that journalism is supposed to report the truth, and the truth is that citizens should know when their leaders grow fat and rich because of bribes and corruption.

Greece: Similar to China’s Times blackout, Greece’s tussle with free speech also had to do with reporting ‘sensitive’ finance information regarding one of it’s leaders: journalist Costas Vaxevanis is on trial (and facing up to two years imprisonment if convicted) for revealing the names of over 2,000 Greeks who have Swiss bank accounts in order to evade taxes in a country where no one knows where to turn next. Although I do not agree with Mr. Vaxevanis’ idea of “crucifying” those on the list-those who may have come by their money through legitimate business and not, say, through corrupt politics should not be blamed-I also don’t agree with the fact that he should go to jail. After all, what he wrote is not libel or slander: like the Times China article, he was simply reporting the truth. The truth is dangerous and inflammatory when it lands in the public hand, and governments around the world (even ‘democratic’ ones like Greece) apparently will do anything to stop the public from knowing what really goes on).

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CNN reader Bruinman86, commenting about Bolivia, put it best when s/he wrote: “So let me get this straight:  Limiting Facebook & Twitter will stop the criticism of the current regime? Guess again….” While the internet allows people to connect and the transfer of information to be spread like never before, people have been criticizing regimes long before widespread literacy was even the norm, much less the invention of computers. Thus, no matter how much governments might try to censor the press and written (typed) word, they must remember two things: one, those that write will always find a way to get their words across, and two, those that want to examine and discuss will always find a way to do so.

(Oh, and P.S.: great job Obama on using the internet to your advantage for your campaign, proving that internet presence is important more than ever?)

Links:

1. http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/25/world/americas/bolivia-social-media/
2. http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/26/world/asia/china-times-website-blocked/index.html?hpt=wo_mid
3. http://www.cnbc.com/id/49645772
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