When you log onto Facebook, you might expect to hear from long-lost friends or to see pictures from the latest family reunion. Maybe you follow Amnesty on Facebook or Twitter, read and comment on this blog, or keep a blog yourself.
But when you log off at the end of the day, you probably don’t expect the police to come knocking on your door. For people in some countries, that’s exactly what can happen. A 2011 study by Freedom House examining 37 countries found that 23 of them had arrested a blogger or internet user for their online posts. These encroachments on internet freedom – regardless of laws – come at a time of explosive growth in the number of internet users worldwide. Governments are clearly terrified because they know that information is power.
Here we highlight five countries and cases (although there are many more than just 5!) where your online activity, no matter how peaceful, can land you in jail:
China: Online activists have long been at risk in China. But following the revolutions in the Middle East earlier this year, government fears of a “Jasmine Revolution” have led to dozens of government critics, lawyers, activists, bloggers, artists and “netizens” arrested or missing since February, some for as little as mentioning ‘Jasmine Revolution’ on Twitter.
One of those activists is Ran Yunfei, a writer and blogger who gained notoriety for his internet “guerrilla” tactics – appearing and disappearing on as many online account names as possible to keep the censors confused. He was held last February on suspicion of “subversion of state power” and later put under “residential surveillance”. Other internet activists remain detained and at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. This massive clampdown shows that the Chinese government is rattled by the example of people’s movements abroad using the internet to fight for their freedoms.
Azerbaijan: Authorities in Azerbaijan have a history of using trumped-up charges–from drug possession to tax fraud–to jail those critical of the government. Last February, Jabbar Savalan, took to Facebook calling for protests against the government. Hours after posting, then 19-year-old Jabbar Savalan told his family he was being followed. The next evening, police brought him to a police station where they “discovered” marijuana in his outer coat pocket. Questioning him without a lawyer for two days, police reportedly hit and intimidated him to make him sign a confession.
If there was ever a need for a “Dislike” button on Facebook, this is it. Register your “Dislike” of Jabbar’s imprisonment by signing the petition demanding his freedom. [Update: After thousands of you took action, Jabbar was freed from prison on December 26th!]
Egypt: Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was arrested last March at his home in Cairo, tried in a military court and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for publicly insulting the army through comments he made on Facebook, and for allegedly spreading lies and rumors about the armed forces on his blog. This wasn’t the first time Sanad was arrested for speaking out online. He was arrested in November 2010 for posting a statement in favor of conscientious objection on his website.
Sanad is one of thousands of Egyptians tried for “political activity” (some for as little as commenting to Facebook!) before military courts since the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Syria: Freedom of speech and association are strictly controlled in Syria. Human rights defenders and government critics face constant harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention. Young people in particular have been targeted in recent years for what they say and do on the internet, including Kareem ‘Arabji who served time in prison for moderating an internet youth forum. Another person caught up in the crackdown is Tal al-Mallohi, a high school student and blogger sentenced to 5 years in prison for “revealing information to a foreign country.”
Since pro-reform protests began in mid-March the situation has only gotten worse with the government detaining people on even the slightest suspicion of opposition to the government.
Vietnam: Freedom of speech, association and assembly are severely restricted in Vietnam. Dozens of people, including bloggers, lawyers, writers, labor activists, business people, and supporters of opposition groups, are serving long prison terms under legislation which criminalizes peaceful dissent.
Take Nguyen Hoang Hai, co-founder of the independent Free Vietnamese Journalists’ club who has written articles critical of China’s foreign policies with regard to Viet Nam and taken part in peaceful protests. His articles and blog posts led to imprisonment on trumped up charges and how he faces further charges for “conducting propaganda” against the state.
So next time you post something online–a comment on this blog, a status update on Facebook, a link on Twitter–be grateful you can do it without fear. And take action for those who can’t!