Tag Archives: free speech

Free isn’t easy

As I study Internet use and human rights in different parts of the world, I am routinely struck by how difficult it is to make speech truly “free,” even when policymakers and citizens seem to agree that this is a good choice.

Last spring I wrote about a video interview conducted by journalist and fellow blogger Tracey Eaton with John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for developing respectful diplomatic and political relationships between the US and communist/post-communist countries.

"Your URL is blocked!" Screenshot by tonystl. CC BY-ND.

McAuliff spoke of how we must understand rights not as static illustrations of what is good or moral, but rather as products of history. As he spoke to Eaton about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, he invoked the Civil Rights movement in the US, pointing out  that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society. He said to Eaton:

“If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.”

Many of us think of free speech as an unquestionable good—it sits at the level of ethics or morals and it seems indestructible as an idea. But clearly it’s not. Yesterday, Global Voices, Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other websites participated in a strike in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two very bad pieces of anti-piracy legislation in the House and Senate. If passed, these bills could severely hinder free speech and innovation online, in the name of protecting copyright holders. I think it’s fair to say that since the First Amendment was written, lawyers, policymakers, and the US judicial system have worked very hard to interpret, protect, and apply this law as time has worn on and technology has evolved. We have come a long way. But the bills currently in Congress show that we may still have a long way to go.

As I juxtapose SOPA and Cuba’s limitations on free speech, it may sound like I’m comparing apples and mangoes—on several levels, this is true. But my point is that high-level political rights don’t come easy, and that even when you have these rights, you have to work hard to uphold them. For Cuba, it is hard to imagine when free (or even free-er) speech will become a possibility. The good news for people in many other parts of the world is that we have the power to act in support of good laws. If you vote in the US, and you want the Internet to stay open and free, visit americancensorship.org and give Congress a piece of your mind.

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Filed under Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

In Mexico, government is only part of the problem

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been involved in discussions on and offline about the growing role of blogs and social media in covering drug-related violence in Mexico.

CPJ reports that thirty journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since  2006. Journalists covering drug activity in Mexico’s northern states have proven to be at the greatest risk for threats and acts of violence in retribution for their work. As a result, print news coverage of drug violence in the region has diminished, and in its absence, community blogs and online forums like El Blog del Narco and Mundo Narco [NSFW/graphic content] have become important spaces for sharing information about drug violence. Contributors to these sites typically write about incidents that they’ve witnessed firsthand, or repeat accounts that they’ve gotten from friends or other sources they trust. These reports are explicit, and often very scary.

Last month, a reporter and active blogger who wrote about drug violence on the site Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, under the pseudonym “La Nena de Laredo” [The Girl from Laredo], was found decapitated in Nuevo Laredo. Beside her body lay a sign that read:

“Nuevo Laredo en Vivo y redes sociales / Yo soy la nena de Laredo y estoy aca por mis reportajes y los suyos” [Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites / I'm the Nena de Laredo and I'm here because of my reports and yours.]

Many digital rights activists responded by urging social media users in Mexico to begin posting anonymously (or pseudonymously) and using technical anonymization tools such as Tor and HTTPS.

This is an important measure for bloggers to take in any situation in which they may be at risk of harm. But it is not a silver bullet.

In Cuba, few bloggers write anonymously—this fact tends to surprise people. A blogger I spoke with in Cuba told me he believed that even if bloggers there were to use pseudonyms, or blog anonymously, authorities would still have little trouble identifying them. Most bloggers there seem to have made a similar calculation. If there’s one thing that works in Cuba, he said, it’s state security. .

Yoani Sánchez has made the point that within a democracy, in a real civil society, there would be nothing wrong with having a blog like hers. This is the kind of society that she says she’s “practicing” for online, until the real thing comes along. In that society, she should have no reason to mask her identity.

Yoani has spilled a lot of kilobytes writing about the connections and disconnections between life in the on and offline worlds, and part of her point here was that she is a participant in what she writes about. She is trying to build a civic dialogue, as fractured, inaudible, and imperfect as it might be. As much as I’ve come to question her persona over time, I think some of the things she says are very smart.

In broad terms, the bloggers in Mexico are doing something similar to those in Cuba. They are participating in an online conversation about what is happening in their communities. But they are not playing cat-and-mouse with the soft social control mechanisms of Cuban state security.  They are writing about acts of crime, violence, and corruption that are happening where they live, and they’re often writing about drug cartel workers—a group of people who have gained substantial immunity from law enforcement in certain parts of Mexico, and who are, as most accounts have it, incredibly well-connected and very aware of the obstacles they have to overcome in order to make a profit.

Many members of the digital activist community rightly focus their energies on how governments limit the rights of their citizens, and the ways in which technology can help circumvent these limitations. But Mexico’s case is different. There is much to be criticized about how the Mexican government has handled the drug war, particularly since Felipe Calderón took office, but the government is not the source of the problem. Rather than working against injustice at the hand of their government, these bloggers and citizen journalists are speaking out against (and trying to protect their communities from) a very powerful criminal organization that has little incentive to hold itself accountable to anyone, other than its clientele (nearly all of which, by the way, is in the U.S.) How do you work to protect free speech when it is being threatened by a criminal organization?

There are many ways that citizens can advocate against what is happening in Mexico—they could demand that the government experiment with different strategies for combating cartels, or even begin supporting drug legalization movements in the U.S. But this won’t change the fact that by writing what they know and putting their voices into public space, some of these bloggers are putting themselves at a real risk.

This is a very hard question to sit with. There is no clear solution, and there are clear limitations to what technology can do to help. As much as possible, I do think that it is important to listen and participate in the conversation about what’s happening in Mexico. Locally and internationally, awareness does matter, and can have an impact. But it is hard to know what to do beyond this.

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Filed under Cuba and Latin America