According to Human Rights Watch, more than a 100 countries impose restrictions on Internet use, particularly on blogs and such social media outlets as Twitter and Facebook. The restrictions, they say, are almost always politically motivated and more countries appear ready to add their own restrictions.
In addition to countries that restrict access to Internet sites, other countries, including the U.S. and some in Europe, are increasingly conducting surveillance of users, also for political reasons, says Human Rights Watch. Based on available data, it is believed that more than 10 million U.S. citizens are currently be monitored by the government.
In recent months bloggers and social media users have been arrested in more than a dozen countries, including Ethiopia, China, Vietnam, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Malaysia.
In many other countries, access to Internet accounts has been suspended by the government.
In Ethiopia, nine bloggers and journalists were charged with terrorism and “related activities” before Ethiopia’s Lideta High Court last week. Arrested and detained in Addis Ababa on April 25 and 26, they since have been behind bars on informal accusations of “working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media.”
The defendants’ attorneys and families were not given prior notice about the hearing, and they thus had no legal representation present when the charges were issued.
Lawyers for a blog supporting Internet rights say that charges against the defendants include working with organizations branded as “terrorist” by the Ethiopian government; participating in an email encryption training; and “underground organization.”
The bloggers’ attorney says that the charges have no “credible substance.”
Enacted in 2009, Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terrorism law is unfortunately familiar for political journalists in the country. Journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu faced the same charge and have been held in Addis Ababa’s Kalaity prison since 2011. Prosecutors reportedly issued the charge based on accusations that the bloggers had received training and financial support from two Ethiopian political groups based in Europe and the US. Trial Tracker notes that the two groups are ideologically dissimilar.
In Vietnam, activists have found themselves suddenly unable to log in to their Facebook accounts. Their personal pages have been suspended for “abuse” even though there was no apparent violation of any Facebook policy.
According to Angelina Trang Huynh, who temporarily lost access to her Facebook account earlier this month, the culprit is the Vietnamese government’s online army, known as “opinion shapers” (dư luận viên). These opinion shapers used Facebook’s “report abuse” system to orchestrate an onslaught of reports that likely led Facebook to suspend the targeted accounts.
With 25 million Vietnamese users, Facebook is the social network in the country. Since Facebook took off in Vietnam in 2009, authorities have tried unsuccessfully to restrict its explosive growth and role as a medium for free expression.
Early attempts by authorities to block Facebook did not succeed and only encouraged netizens to learn how to circumvent and became versed in civil disobedience.
In 2013, 30-year old Dinh Nhat Uy was the first Vietnamese activist known to be arrested for his activities on Facebook. He was convicted for “abusing democratic freedoms” through status updates calling for the release of his younger brother who also used social media to express dissent. Uy’s arrest sparked widespread attention but did not temper enthusiasm for using the social network for political discussion and organizing.
It appears that Vietnamese authorities have given up on totally blocking Facebook. The country’s economy and image depend on authorities maintaining some semblance of an open Internet.
However, through “opinion shapers” authorities apparently hope to achieve their goal of stifling free speech. This online army has been blamed for creating an environment of intimidation and harassment, as evidenced by their tidal wave of toxic and profanity-laden comments.
Photo caption: Jailed Ethiopian bloggers Zelalem Kibret, Edom Kasaye, and Befeqadu Hailu.