2009 was a bad year for freedom of speech across the world, with journalists and bloggers getting the worst of it.
According to a report (pdf) released last week by internationally respected organisation Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), journalists bore the brunt of the crackdown – but there was also a sharp rise in action being taken against bloggers.
On the journalistic front, the raw figures speak for themselves: in 2009, 76 were killed (vs. 60 in 2008), 33 were kidnapped, 573 were arrested and 1456 physically assaulted. The most dangerous places to be a journalist were war zones and disputed elections.
At the end of the year, at least 167 journalists are known to be in prison around the world – a figure not equalled since the 1990s. Whilst the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression has repeatedly stated that imprisonment is a disproportionate punishment for press offences, laws that allow the jailing of journalists continue to be passed – and abused.
Lest we become too blasé about the UK: also last week, photojournalist Andrew Handley from Milton Keynes won over £5,000 in damages for being unlawfully held in a cell after trying to take photographs of a car accident while working for the MKNews.
Mr Handley was arrested, cuffed, cautioned and had his DNA taken – before spending 8 hours locked in Milton Keynes Central police station - for the "crime" of attempting to explain to a police officer that he was legally entitled to take photographs.
Meanwhile, the spotlight is increasingly falling on bloggers, as 2009 was the first year that more than 100 bloggers and cyber-dissidents were imprisoned.
In a number of countries online dissent is now a criminal offence: authorities have responded to the internet as pro-democracy tool with new laws and crackdowns. A pair of Azerbaijani bloggers were sentenced to two years in prison for making a film mocking the political elite.
China was still the leading Internet censor in 2009. However, Iran, Tunisia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan have all also made extensive use website blocking and online surveillance to monitor and control dissent. The Turkmen Internet remains under total state control. Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer remains in jail, while well-known Burmese comedian Zarganar has a further 34 years of his prison sentence to serve.
However, the Report also notes that democratic countries have not lagged far behind, instancing the various steps taken by European countries to control the internet under the guise of protection against child porn and illegal downloading. It also notes that Australia intends to put in place a compulsory filtering system that poses a threat to freedom of expression.
Above and beyond this, regular readers will be aware of other straws in the wind. Throughout 2009, rumblings have continued in the Italian courts, following a ruling that blogs were officially "newspapers" – and therefore almost without exception, illegal. A senior EU politician declared that freedom of speech on the internet did not need to be protected – and toward the end of 2008 senior Labour politician Hazel Blears attacked bloggers in general for lowering the tone of political debate.
How bloggers are treated depends in large measure on the nature of the regime they attempt to blog under, but as RSF documents, the war against bloggers is hotting up everywhere – and there is little reason to expect a cooling off in 2010. ®