Imprisonment Used as a Form of Censorship

Throughout history, many governments around the world have wanted to control what people say about them within their borders. Now that we are all so interconnected by the World Wide Web and communications are instant, they seek to control the flow of information outside their borders as well. In some nations, we can clearly see these governments threatening outspoken individuals and using prison as a way to try and silence them. Below are just a few stories that the EFF has shared to show how the desire to censor the Internet has led to the imprisonment of journalists, programmers, hackers and anyone that poses a threat to the powers that be in a last ditch effort to keep them quiet.

As governments increase their efforts to control the flow of information, we have seen an increase in the number of outspoken individuals who have been thrown in jail. Journalists are the oldest victims of censorship because they are the traditional whistleblowers. More than half of all the journalists who are in jail today, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, are there because they have used the Internet to spread the word about certain conditions and activities that ruling parties have found undesirable. Reporters Without Borders says that in just twelve countries where they have conducted surveys, they already found 178 Internet users in jail for activities linked to privacy protection and online freedom, which have threatened the political order.

Ethiopia Jails Bloggers for Acts of Terror

In the restrictive nation of Ethiopia, several bloggers were jailed in April last year on charges of terrorism because they dared to speak their minds online. These brave individuals who endured almost a year and a half of jail time and interrogations are all members of the Zone 9 blog. Seven bloggers were accused of being part of a larger network where anti-government groups were financing the blog’s operations. Prosecutors claimed that these men possessed dangerous technical knowledge gained from foreign technologists. They were referring to encryption tools and information on digital security that was allegedly found in the bloggers’ possession.

Just before the US President Obama visited Ethiopia, three of these bloggers were released from prison. All charges were mysteriously dropped, an apparent gesture of appeasement since Obama had spoken against the detention of the bloggers. These bloggers have held free social media discussions on various topics, openly advocated for human rights and better infrastructure. This is what led to their incarceration and torture. Before they were released last month, they suffered solitary confinement and had been tortured into revealing their passwords and signing false confessions. And this is on top of the harsh persecution and physical violence that they had already been subjected to outside of prison.

The Zone 9 bloggers are finally out of jail, but the government in Ethiopia is far from finished with them and their kind. Social and political pressure may have forced the authorities to release these men, but other free thinkers are in constant danger of being persecuted and detained on bogus charges. One journalist Eskinder Nega has been in jail for four years. Almost 60 others have escaped imprisonment but endure harassment and are often kept under surveillance.

Syria Detains Technologist in Secret Location

Bassel Khartabil, a computer engineer and software developer, has been in prison since his arrest by Syrian Military Intelligence forces in March of 2012 for defending the freedoms of speech and information. His family did not even know where he was or why he was detained until December that year. Last month, he was moved to a secret location. His family believes that he has been sent to the Military Police base in Qaboun, one of the field courts notorious for prisoner torture.

One of Khartabil’s apparent crimes is being the founder of the chapter of Creative Commons in Syria. He is also considered a threat because he encourages a peaceful revolution and because of how active he has been in supporting a free and open Internet. Khartabil is not allowed to defend himself under the secret field court proceedings that defy all international human rights standards.

Iran Censorship Reform Changes Little

Iran has been undergoing a two-year period of reform on their Internet policies, but this has not changed very much from the perspective of those whose friends and family have remained in prison for social media offenses. Simply using social media is a crime in Iran since these platforms were banned some years ago. Just this year, twenty users were charged with intent to corrupt family values, attacks against ruling authorities, blasphemy, propaganda and other offenses. They were each given up to twenty years in prison for being caught sharing information and opinions on the banned site Facebook. This, although high level government officials including the president are known to use Facebook and other social media platforms.

President Hassan Rouhani promised reform during his term with regard to social media policies. He is now two years into that term and has yet to show us an act of good faith. Instead of working on, for instance, lifting some of the harsher bans or punishments, the Iranian government has been working to increase their censorship capabilities. It seems that the promise to reform Internet policies is not really about making concessions. It means better, more targeted censorship that allows the government to block any specific content they dislike and thus grant non-offenders permission to use these networks. Netizens are also of course going to be more closely monitored under this system and still face the threat of long prison sentences for speaking their minds.

At the end of June, one man sentenced to death for his activities on social media received a stay of execution. Soheil Arabi was convicted of insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad on Facebook. Many others also remain in jail for expressing their thoughts.

Mehdi Alizadeh Fakhrabadi is a blogger known for his satirical style who is now in the middle of a nine-year sentence, after which he will be exiled for two years and then stripped of his social rights for seven years. He also has to pay the rough equivalent of 4000 US dollars. He was arrested on his wedding day for offending the president and immoral conduct as well as seven other violations. This sounds very harsh, but a judge actually bumped up the sentence to execution two years ago, calling him God’s enemy on Earth. After a harrowing defense that landed his parents in hospital, Fakhrabadi’s sentence was reverted.

Saeed Malekhpour, Vahid Asghari and Ahmad Reza Hashempour were all working jobs in the online arena in 2008 when they were taken away without warning. All three were subjected to torture on top of having to endure horrible conditions in prison. Malekhpour and Asghari were sentenced to death but later got commuted sentences. Atena Daimi and Atena Faraghdani got prison sentences instead of death, but have to serve prison terms that are more than the maximum allowable sentence for the charges, which include insulting the president, anti-state collusion and propaganda, concealing crime evidence and posting content that criticizes the government.

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