The world is currently in an age of unprecedented communication. In the past, voicing ones thoughts to the masses required manpower and resources many did not possess. Now, however, blogging and other forms of internet communication allows those who hold minority views in their religion or government to make their voices heard. But the danger inherent in that system is that it also allows those opposition to hear it and identify speakers, which can have terrible consequences. In a globalised world where viral activism is becoming more popular, a new landscape of pitfalls and dangers now exists for Internet Activists.
Late last year, Ensaf Haider, the wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, collected the European Parliament's Sakharov Human Rights Award on behalf of her husband. In her acceptance speech, she reiterated calls to release Badawi and suspend his sentence of 1000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine. His crime?: “insulting Islam through electronic channels”.
Elsewhere, bloggers and journalists are facing similar issues. In China, references that allude to the Tienanmen Square massacre of 1989 have been scrubbed out, with terms such as "June 4th" or "Tank Man" excised from search engines. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, eleven Chinese students studying overseas wrote an open letter to students still in the country criticising the government for their silence over the incident and their refusal to allow for open discussion. The letter, published and shared on social media, was roundly condemned by nationalist organs such as The Global Times. Gu Yi, the principal signatory, has since said in interviews that should he return to China he would almost certainly be detained.
This is a pattern seen around the world. In November, a Brazilian reporter (and the sixth this year) was shot and killed following death threats relating to his work on exposing corruption. A year ago, Hong Le Tho, a political blogger in Vietnam, was arrested for “anti-state” comments. In the U.K., repeated attempts have been made by local councils to shut down resident bloggers by bringing crippling legal charges against them.
A key nation of note during these budding difficulties is Bangladesh, where in the last year alone five high-profile murders of secular bloggers have taken place, many in broad daylight with numerous witnesses. Not to mention wide-scale intimidation and attempted violence against those in the blogging community, much of which can be linked back to 2013's "anti-God" bloggers list. The list includes 84 names, and was submitted to the Bangladeshi government with the intention of having those listed arrested for criticising God. Bangladesh's internal divisions mirror those seen around the world in largely religious countries. That is to say that despite having a constitution that is secular, the country's sizeable religious community pushes back, locally and governmentally.
One of the most striking scenes in related political conflict recently was the violent counter-protest by hardline Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami in reaction to the largely secular Shahbag demonstrations in 2013. Shortly after the protests, Jamaat was banned from political participation, but despite that action, secular bloggers feel as if the brazen street attacks against them are still tolerated, if not supported, by a Muslim government. Caught in between is the principle of free speech.
What these bloggers have in common is a sense of promoting a fairer and more balanced society. In a interview with the Sampsonia Way, a social justice advocacy website, Bangladeshi blogger Siddhartha Dhar detailed his reasons for continuing to write in a hostile climate.
“I was born in a Hindu family, and we were a minority group in Bangladesh... From the moment I started going to school, I realized that I was not being treated the same (way) my Muslim friends were treated.” Religious intolerance spurred his sense of social justice, and the internet allowed him a means of embracing and subsequently sharing his goals. “When I first got access to the Internet, I started visiting blog sites where I came across some bloggers who thought like me. I found the Secular Humanist blog site Mukto-Mona, which had a tremendous influence on my cognitive thinking; suddenly I was viewing the world from a different paradigm... We were trying to complete something that will be one of the greatest advancements that our country has ever achieved, a secular society based on Science, Reason and Rationality."
The same can be said for the journalists targeted in Brazil, the Chinese students taking a stand over Tienanmen Square or indeed, to some extent, the political bloggers of the UK. They may face different degrees of risk, or different forms of injustice, but they are united in their belief that making the world aware of the challenges they face is the only way to bring about change. Siddhartha Dhar continued, “The international community can put more pressure on the Bangladesh government so that it takes necessary steps to protect the constitutional right of its citizens of expressing their opinions. At the same time, they can also provide temporary sanctuary to the bloggers whose lives are vulnerable. There should be much more open discussion over this issue from the global perspective as threats to people’s rights to express their opinions continue to rise.”
The notion that bloggers can bring about significant change to the political landscape of a country has prior form. The Arab Spring was aided and facilitated by expression on the internet. In the 2015 activist documentary “We Are Many”, director Amir Amirani put forward the case that the anti-war sentiment of 2003 may have waned in the west, but in North African and Middle-Eastern countries, that sentiment transformed into a desire for real, democratic change. Fostered by a developing internet with access to anti-establishment blogs, often via encrypted or proxy servers such as Tor, young people were beginning to exert local pressure on leaders to step down. By some it was called the "Facebook Revolution", due to the high volume of information passed on the network. The images of protesters clashing with police and acts of repression and violence carried out in Cairo might never have surfaced were it not for the current age of communication. Without those images, international pressure from states around the world calling for Hosni Mubarak to step down peacefully would have been greatly reduced. This is the power the internet can have when a politically aware and socially active generation begin to share ideas and communicate in a way never before possible.
In Syria, blogging and internet access also fostered an uprising against the Assad regime, leading to a swing away from a stabilized society that many fear even more than the political movements that precede it. States have seen it happen before, hence why in some areas those who are similarly trying to push scenes of repression or corruption into the spotlight are being targeted.While this has painted a grim picture, there are currently ways to aid these activists through their own mediums. Participation is key. Blogging about current issues and taking part in Amnesty International or Reporters Without Borders campaigns all add to the climate of social change. In countries that severely restrict internet access, there are apps available to circumvent the censorship and allow messages to go out. This isn't an issue of religious vs. secular or man vs. state. This is an issue of highlighting injustice where it is seen and bringing about a more equitable society. Citizen journalists, those who criticise or create dialogue in an environment that condemns such actions, often do so not for money, but out of principle.