Cyber-Dissent and Power: Negotiating Online Boundaries in Repressitarian Regimes

Cyber-Dissent and Power: Negotiating Online Boundaries in Repressitarian Regimes

Brian J. Bowe (Grand Valley State University, USA), Robin Blom (Michigan State University, USA) and Eric Freedman (Michigan State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/jicthd.2012040101
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The expansion of access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) has provided new political organizing tools for citizens — a development of particular importance for individuals living under authoritarian regimes that rely on the repression of free speech to maintain power. Such repressitarian elites exert control over citizen online communications, but it is economically counterproductive for countries hoping to engage in the 21st century’s wired economy to crack down tightly on Internet. This article examines the struggles between maintaining openness and crackdowns in Iran, Egypt, China, and Singapore. These four countries are known to exert severe controls over free expression. However, Iran and Egypt have seen the rise of organized opposition movements despite the controls on media expression, whereas China and Singapore offer useful case studies on the economic dimensions of the balance between participating in the globally networked society and controlling citizen expression.
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Increased public access to media production tools has opened new questions related to freedom of the press and expression in countries whose governments could be classified as repressitarian — meaning both repressive in human rights practices and authoritarian governance (Freedman, Shafer, & Antonova, 2010). Information and communication technology (ICT) provides oppositional groups new opportunities to spread information in countries where free speech is normally curtailed, although those regimes undertake exhaustive efforts to block or remove critical messages from the World Wide Web.

Those crackdowns reveal the harsh consequences of online dissent. In the past few years, among the targets of criminal action in Iran were bloggers Hossein Derakhshan—nicknamed Iran’s blogfather—sentenced to 19½ years, and Hossein Maleki Ronaghi, sentenced to 15 years. Web designer Saeed Malekpour received a death sentence for purportedly designing and moderating adult sites, “agitation against the regime,” and “insulting the sanctity of Islam.” Blogger Omid Reza Mirsayafi, serving a sentence for propaganda against the state and criticism of Iran’s supreme leader, died in Evin Prison, although the cause of death is disputed. Some sentences include flogging, such as those of bloggers Omid Memarian, Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, Shahram Rafizadeh, and Javad Gholamtamimi, who were sentenced in 2009 to up to three years in prison (U.S. State Department, 2011).

The situation elsewhere reflects similar obstacles for users of the Internet and social media across the globe. These examples from 2010 are illustrative, as drawn from international media reports and human rights advocacy groups: The Ukrainian Security Service questioned a blogger for purportedly insulting and threatening the country’s president and removed some of his Live Journal posts. The administrator of “Troktiko,” Greece’s most popular social and political blog, was fatally shot in front of his home. Turkmenistan authorities hacked the website of a Europe-based Turkmen-language human rights organization. Acting under court order, Turkey banned YouTube for three years. Kuwait sentenced a blogger to one year for criminal defamation based on an article criticizing the prime minister. After finishing a 30-month term on trumped-up tax evasion charges, a Vietnamese blogger remained in custody pending investigation of a new charge of carrying out propaganda against the government. And the Palestinian Authority detained a man for supposedly criticizing Islam and other religions on Facebook and in blogs.

In contrast to such human rights violations stands immense progress in regards to free speech through computer-mediated communication. Consistent with Prensky’s (2001) digital natives concept, the generations of users who have grown up in the Internet age seem to be increasingly skilled at finding ways to circumvent government controls. Young, tech-savvy protestors throughout the world avoid censorship by creating proxy websites and servers to access illegal information (Iran Proxy, 2007; Samin, 2008). Additionally, youthful protestors try to outwit detectors in censoring software by replacing “forbidden” words with symbols and characters (Shuguang, 2008).

Social media users in countries such as Iran and Egypt have used such tools to organize mass protests outside of government scrutiny, while in China and Singapore they have bypassed the official gatekeepers at news media organizations handcuffed by government control. Groundbreaking news reports ignored by the mainstream press outlets have made their way to the public through the Internet in Indonesia, Myanmar, and Moldova, among many other nations under authoritarian rule. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, an advocacy blog provided a temporary alternative to official information and a shuttered independent newspaper in the run-up to the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” that ousted an authoritarian president (Kulikova & Perlmutter, 2011). A few years later, even Myanmar’s military government was unable to stop information about the violent crackdown of Buddhist monk protests from leaking out at the hands of bloggers (Deibert, Palfrey, Rohozinski, & Zittrain, 2010).

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