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World Press Freedom Day 2011: 21st Century Media - New Frontiers, New Barriers

Protesters hold
Protesters hold "f"s in recognition of social networking site Facebook's role in the Arab Spring, during a protest in Rabat, Morocco, in March 2011


Last month, Egyptian blogger and activist Maikel Nabil Sanad was sentenced to three years in jail for insulting and publishing false news about the military. His crime was writing a recent blog post that criticised the lack of transparency in the military.

This month, more than 800 participants from around the world are converging in Washington, D.C., to explore the idea that just as new media is being used to promote freedom, regimes are creating ways to suppress online voices. The occasion is UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day, held annually on 3 May, and the theme this year is "21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers". Many IFEX members are in attendance.

"We enjoy unprecedented opportunities for expression thanks to new technologies and media. More and more people are able to share information and exchange views, within and across national borders. This is a blessing for creativity, for healthy societies, for including everyone in new forms of dialogue," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, and Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, in a joint statement.

In a new report for 3 May, ARTICLE 19 runs with UNESCO's theme and gives us stories of how barriers have crumbled when it comes to free speech and information flow.

For example, 2010 was the year of WikiLeaks, which "revolutionised transnational whistleblowing," said ARTICLE 19. Yes, Twitter was used to organise protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but ARTICLE 19 also points to a group of journalism students in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who used Twitter to tell the world that 42 people died in a recent drug raid. @vozdacomunidade provided the only reporting from within the favela.

Thanks to new media, "outrage and embarrassment spread in equal measure, corruption is magnified, people-power amplified, and governments fall," said ARTICLE 19.

But at the same time, "many governments, fearful of this lack of control, are trying hard to restore or fortify barriers to trace, block, target and censor those who champion the truth," said ARTICLE 19. Its report also highlights cases of governments fighting back, from the authorities banning YouTube in Turkey to controlling mobile phone ownership in North Korea.

In a special World Press Freedom Day report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) assessed the 10 prevailing strategies for online oppression and named which countries lead the way. The techniques go well beyond web censorship. There's state-supported email designed to take over journalists' personal computers in China, the shutting down of anti-censorship technology in Iran, monopolistic control of the Internet in Ethiopia, and carefully timed cyber-attacks on news websites in Belarus.

CPJ says what is most surprising about the 10 online oppressors is not who they are - they are all nations with long records of repression - but how swiftly they adapted old strategies to the online world, like Syria jailing online writers, and violence against bloggers in Russia. As of 1 December, 69 journalists whose work appeared primarily online are in jail, constituting nearly half of all journalists in prison, reports CPJ.

According to Human Rights Watch, Nabil's three-year sentence may be the worst strike against free expression in Egypt since the Mubarak government jailed its first blogger, Kareem Amer, for four years in 2007. The sentence is not only severe, but it was imposed by a military tribunal after an unfair trial.

A new coalition of rights groups in Egypt, including the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), hopes the transitional government will break with these kinds of military trials and other repressive practices of the past. The National Coalition of Media Freedom is using the occasion of World Press Freedom Day to unveil a "Declaration of Media Freedom" - its vision on how to develop and liberate the Egyptian media.

Preparing a defence is the right thing to do, according to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, especially as we savour recent advances. "For the moment, the forces of freedom have the upper hand. But vigilance is essential before the inevitable reaction," he said.

Roth is urging Facebook and Twitter to join the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct developed by Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft in conjunction with Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organisations, including IFEX members CPJ, Index on Censorship and the World Press Freedom Committee. The initiative makes it easier for companies to resist demands from governments to reveal the identities of anonymous users or to block discussion of certain topics.

Sympathetic governments also have a role. "Social media companies could better resist repressive demands if acquiescence were prohibited by law," said Roth."These governments should also fund a broad range of technologies and initiatives for circumventing censorship."

"Governments might also look for creative ways to fight censorship, such as including Internet freedom in trade agreements, much as labour rights are now," he added.

On this World Press Freedom Day, "the media revolution is triggering new debates about freedom of expression, about the nature of regulation, about the balance between expression and responsibility," said the UN."We must not shy away from exploring all angles of these questions. We must all rise to the occasion and accept the responsibility of change."

Find out on IFEX's special 3 May website how IFEX members accepted the responsibility and commemorated World Press Freedom Day.

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