“Ten years ago, the Russian segment of the World Wide Web, ru.net, was the most free place in the world for independent journalism and social media,” Galina Timchenko, editor-in-chief of Riga-based Russian-language online newspaper Meduza, said during a panel titled “Digital Journalism – Is the Internet Really a Safer Place?” at the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 2016 World Congress in Doha, Qatar.
But after nearly a decade, the Russian authorities have come to realise the power of the Internet and now, after those working in television and newspapers, online journalists have become the third and biggest target for Kremlin officials.
Moderated by Shahzad Ahmad, country director of Bytes for All in Pakistan , the panel discussion featured Galina Timchenko; Asem Alghamdi, Saudi Arabia correspondent for the Al Jazeera Media Network; Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijan freelance journalist and blogger based in Turkey; and Zhang Jieping, editor-in-chief of Initium Media in Hong Kong.
Asked if the Internet is a safer place for journalists, all of the panellists painted a similarly bleak picture.
“What we see now is a caging of the Russian Internet,” Timchenko said. “After Putin’s return to the Kremlin, the State Duma approved dozens of new laws restricting and controlling the Internet.”
Bloggers with over 3,000 followers have to declare themselves as journalists, she noted, but “they have no journalists’ rights, just obligations”.
According to Timchenko, human rights groups have counted at least 50 new regulations and restrictions this year alone. There have been 2,000 cases of blocked sites and 200 criminal cases against activists, journalists and bloggers. Eighteen have been jailed, and two weeks ago one blogger was sentenced to five years in prison for re-posting videos of the Crimean crisis.
Commenting on the situation in China, Zhang Jieping said the main problem was censorship. China blocked Facebook and YouTube many years ago, she noted, and now many big international companies want to get back into China and are ready to play by China’s rules.
“So censorship is not a secret in China,” she said. “But the controlling system has become more and more sophisticated.”
She added that there has been a crackdown on social media opinion leaders, who have been replaced by the state with a younger and more fashionable face, and that the new generation who were born after the Great Firewall doesn’t even think it’s a problem.
In the MENA region, social media is being used as a political tool, Asem Alghamdi said. Dissatisfied with state-funded TV, which nevertheless is still the most popular medium in the region, more and more people are tweeting and posting news, even if they are not journalists. As a result, Alghamdi argued, it has become difficult to differentiate between activists and journalists in those countries who are living under dictatorial regimes.
In response, governments of the region have mobilized electronic armies – dozens of anonymous users who harass, send out threatening tweets, spam the hashtags and sometimes even hack people who write about taboo topics, such as political prisoners and regime change. Consequently, the credibility of the online platforms is suffering.
Alghamdi also pointed to the electronic army of the Islamic State group, which has its own social media unit and has tracked down and killed people because of their posts. But the government armies remain as dangerous, he said.
Speaking about the situation in Azerbaijan, Arzu Geybullayeva said the country has witnessed an unprecedented crackdown where the government has gone after activists, journalists and human rights defenders.
Azerbaijan has more political prisoners than any other Council of Europe member state, Geybullayeva said, but she cited the good news that 14 of these individuals were released a few days ago in a pardon signed by President Ilham Aliyev. But the bad news is that many others remain behind bars, including journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
“In an environment where persecution is common, the Internet has emerged as a free platform, but it, too, has become a tool in the hands of the government to target activists,” she commented. “We have seen a number of Facebook activists and bloggers go to jail on various charges and for various terms. What is interesting in the case of Azerbaijan is that often these people go to jail for hooliganism, drug possession and in more severe cases for treason, tax evasion, or abuse of power.”
In addition to persecution, Geybullayeva also pointed to legislative amendments. For instance, in 2015, changes were made to the media law making it possible for the government to persecute and shut down outlets that are deemed to have defamed officials or state agencies. Libel charges remain common and defamation committed online is prosecutable under the criminal code; a conviction can carry between six months to three years behind bars.
“So is the Internet a safe place? Yes and no,” she concluded. “You can still use it to disseminate your work but you have to be prepared and understand that the government can persecute you for what you say online.”
All of the panellists agreed that the Internet previously was a safe place, but that governments have caught on. But, they said, do not blame tools and technology for the current situation, such as the encryption app Telegram or the darknet, which is a main source of documents for many journalists, including reporters at the New York Times.
The panellists emphasised that technology is still a useful tool that can foster change and that the blame for repression must be placed on authoritative governments.