Mike Harris explains how modern authoritarian regimes censor their citizens
Autocratic, authoritarian and totalitarian states take it upon themselves to actively stifle freedom of expression. These states can look very different – “socialist” North Korea may seem very different to “theocratic” Iran, but even with vastly differing cultures and political landscapes, we can draw similarities between the methods used by these regimes to suffocate and in some cases entirely suppress free speech.
The three main methods authoritarian states use to curtail free speech are: the chill through direct intimidation; the chill through repressive laws and the chill online — using the internet to curtail free speech.
Threats, imprisonment, torture and even murder are used to curtail free speech, particularly that of regime critics and activists. This is particularly common in the most authoritarian countries such as China or Iran. The murder of journalists and political activists in authoritarian states remains frequent and the arrest and beating of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei changed the country’s political landscape by showing that no one, however famous or influential, was beyond the state’s reach.
States that inhibit freedom of expression often curtail a spectrum of co-dependent human rights: freedom of association (UNDHR Article 17), the right to privacy (UNDHR Article 12), even the right to life (UNDHR Article 3) and freedom from torture (UNDHR Article 5). And because these rights are co-dependent, the most active members of civil society place themselves in direct danger of reprisal: journalists attempting to document human rights violations are targeted by the state as they attempt to stop such information being diseminiated. Azeri journalist Idrak Abbasov, an Index on Censorship award winner, was beaten earlier this year by security guards for writing about the government of Azerbaijan’s demolition of private housing. States generally don’t attempt to hide these attacks, knowing that the fear they arouse in civil society is useful in dissuading others from challenging its power.
In autocratic states — those that at least attempt the veneer of democratic respectability — repressive laws are at the forefront of the state’s attempt to silence dissent. In Apartheid South Africa, the hated Publications Act banned any work “harmful to the relations between any sections of the inhabitants of the Republic”, which the authorities defended as an attempt to stop racial violence (like similar race hate legislation elsewhere). Every member of the ‘committee of experts’ on the censoring Appeal Board was white and part of the regime and the legislation was used to silence dissenting voices calling for change. Russia, which as a Council of Europe member must implement rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, has recently passed a series of strikingly repressive laws including legislation making protesting extremely difficult, a new law to restrict NGOs accepting foreign donations and the re-introduction of criminal defamation.
The most effective repressive laws mirror edicts also on the statute books of more democratic states. Russia can justify its position on criminal libel by noting that this legislation is still on statute in France and Italy.
Repressive laws in authoritarian states act to shut down the space for dissenting opinions: focusing on limiting independent media, the right to freedom of association (by banning certain NGOs) and the right to protest and organise. Restrictions on the free media may include laws that enforce the registration of newspapers; draconian libel laws, the offence of lese majeste, and laws that prevent whistleblowing or harm to “national interests”.
Legal impositions on free speech typically use a politicised judiciary to act as the censor within a restrictive legal framework that may also include tough laws on public order, hate crime, anti-terror legislation, blasphemy and the protection of public morality. These laws are often used against those deemed to pose the greatest threat to the stability of the regime – with the broader legal framework making it hard for opposition media to succeed commercially, or for civil society to operate legally.
Autocratic states are highly alert to the challenge they face online in the wake of the Arab Spring. Online freedom is increasingly under fire through server-side ISP blocking of particular websites, or even the use of national firewalls to create a highly sanitised state intranet. This prevents the spread of politically sensitive information from external sources.
In Belarus, the opposition news website Charter97 has been subjected to systematic DDOS attacks in an attempt to close the site down. These attacks often force the website’s webhost to pull the site as it causes their servers to fail. In many ways, this method is simply a continuation of the physical assaults and raids on newsrooms practiced by the regime against opposition journalists.
The internet is often seen as a force for good in these states, but it can be used against activists. State surveillance online has expanded dramatically in recent years, in part as the cost of equipment has fallen. Index has raised concerns over the export of surveillance equipment by Western firms, a failure of corporate responsibility that has allowed authoritarian states to exponentially increase their knowledge of the activities of civil society. As we are discovering, technology such as the integration of GPS into smartphones can be used in authoritarian states to track dissidents and monitor their movements to a single metre. The anonymity of the internet whilst generally useful as a tool for protecting the privacy of human rights activists, can also cloak the actions of states.
By understanding the methods of repression, democracies can act to prevent complicity.
Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship