As governments cracked down on protesters across the Middle East this week, some eye-witnesses struggled to get word to the rest of the world. Disseminating accurate information from inside a repressive regime can be a challenge.
CBS reporter Lara Logan joined a list of dozens of reporters who were assaulted, detained or harassed while covering Egypt’s uprising last week. Protesters and outspoken government critics have also been intimidated or censored in Egypt and elsewhere. Here in New York and across the globe, human rights and advocacy groups have been working to keep the lines of communication open.
From its midtown Manhattan office, the Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual report documenting attacks on the press worldwide on Tuesday. But Attacks on the Press 2010 covers last year -- it does not include the more than 140 instances of harassment of journalists in Egypt alone during its 18-day revolution.
Now, with protests erupting in half a dozen other countries with repressive governments, CPJ’s Mid-East Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem said he was spending long hours at the office just to respond to journalists’ questions.
“Is this a safe area relative to this other area?” he said, listing some of the reporters’ queries. “What do we do if we’re detained? Very practical kinds of considerations.”
At the same time, Abdel Dayem said, he has been sifting through mounds of real-time reporting via Twitter and other social media outlets to determine whether and where journalists’ rights are being violated.
On one hand, he said, new media have given journalists expanded powers to make themselves heard. Repressive governments used to shut down the printing presses. Now they have to shut down websites, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, instant messaging and so on.
"It’s made these governments' jobs of stemming the flow of information not more difficult, but, frankly, impossible," he said.
In an office down the hall, CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon said his agency could never have collected so many reports of harassment of journalists so quickly without Twitter. Long before reporters filed full stories, they were tweeting.
Things like, "'Security has entered our room and is in premises removing our equipment,'" Simon said, "And we heard about these instances immediately from eyewitnesses, and we were able to respond to them."
But there is a flip side. Not only journalists make effective use of digital media – so do repressive governments.
“You’re a journalist and you get arrested and you have your Blackberry with you,” Simon said, “Think about that.”
Authorities would have access to all your sources, your friends, your calendar.
“A Blackberry is an absolute treasure trove [of information],” he said.
In Iran, during the post-election uprisings of 2009, Simon said, the government even used crowd-sourcing to its own ends.
“They would post pictures of someone and say, ‘Does anyone know who this is?’”, he said.
In Iran in recent weeks, activists hoping to draw people out to rally in solidarity with Egypt – and against the Iranian regime – encouraged people to take to their roofs and yell "Allah Akbar," "God is Great," or "Down with the Dictator." Many did, and some posted audio or video on YouTube and Facebook.
With foreign journalists banned from Iran and the government’s so-called ‘cyber army’ monitoring the spread of information online, activists around the world have been working to create secure digital spaces where Iranians could share information. In the United States, human rights advocate Bitta Mostofi said a small group of Iranian expats used Facebook to promote the February 14 protest.
"They created a Facebook page that they did security on to ensure that it wasn’t going to get monitored," Mostofi said.
A press release from the creators of the page -- 25bahman -- said in six days, the site garnered 55,000 users and more than 12 million hits, 91 percent from inside Iran itself.
“One of the best things they did was they were able to tell or educate people internally on ways to do things with some anonymity,” Mostofi said.
At the New York office of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a representative who uses the pseudonym Nima said the group often collects information from trusted sources in Iran via Skype – which has so far been more secure than other forms of communication.
“People are really scared,” Nima said, “The Iranian government has targeted numerous activists and human rights lawyers simply for doing interviews with international media or international organizations such as our own.”
The head of Human Rights at the United Nations said at the end of January that Iran’s rate of executions that month was three times that of January last year and those executed included at least three political prisoners.
To Bitta Mostofi, the risks people are taking in countries where governments threaten them are motivation to help by using whatever powers she has here in New York. “If somebody takes great risk to share that with me, then minimally from here, it’s my responsibility to make sure that voice is amplified as far and wide as possible,” she said.
This week, Hillary Clinton spoke at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., about the importance of upholding freedom of expression on the Internet.
"Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks," she said. "They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right 'to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.'"
According to Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the U.S. needs to back up its words with action and engage directly with repressive governments on issues of internet freedom.
The press release accompanying CPJ’s latest report urges international groups such as the United Nations to speak and act more forcefully in defense of a free press.