New Barriers: Online Blocking, Censorship, Surveillance, Safety of Journalists and Bloggers

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), nearly 2 billion people—over one-quarter of the world’s population—use the Internet. Its advent has substantially changed the media landscape and information flows. With its participatory capabilities, the Internet has opened new horizons for freedom of expression, and this trend is most likely to continue in the future.

One of the most widespread uses of the Internet is blogging. The number of blogs worldwide increased from 22 million in 2005 to more than 100 million by 2010. Among the most distinct features of blogs are their decentralized nature and the speed at which information is disseminated. Lacking established forms of gate-keeping, such as editors or pre-determined professional standards, bloggers are able to publish information quickly. Furthermore, being decentralized, bloggers are sometimes better positioned to report first-hand accounts of an event happening locally than are the big news agencies.

Bloggers also face some of the same risks and threats as professional journalists, as accounts of the arrests of bloggers, the filtering of content, and the disconnection of users has made clear. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that in 2008, for the first time, there were more jailed “online reporters,” such as bloggers, than traditional media journalists. As individual or freelancing bloggers continue to become a staple of news media, there is a need to provide protection to bloggers who perform the same responsibilities and face the same risks as professional journalists.

At the same time, the growth of the Internet has also notably increased governments’ surveillance power, creating new threats to professional news media and citizens, as well as raising concerns over the difficulty of guaranteeing free and unhindered flow of information. Popular social networking and micro-blogging sites, while giving ordinary users a voice, can also be used by governments to identify and locate or even arrest citizens. As a 2010 UNESCO-commissioned report, Freedom of Connection—Freedom of Expression: The Changing Legal and Regulatory Ecology Shaping the Internet, has shown, with growing access to information in cyberspace, the rise of censorship and filtering can be carried out not only by governments but also by private entities.

The ability of powerful entities, both government and non-governmental, to use digital media platforms to the disadvantage of free press also has implication on investigative journalism. Investigative journalism, long held as the epitome of the watchdog function of the fourth estate, has normally enjoyed strong protection especially in mature media markets. It is a powerful instrument to counter any attempt to mantle the truth through unveiling of matters that are concealed either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances—and expose them to the public. In this way, investigative journalism contributes crucially to freedom of expression and freedom of information. Will investigative journalism prosper or be weakened by the profusion of digital media?

Food for Thought:

  • How are governments using digital tools to track down and arrest or silence bloggers?
  • How can citizen reporters protect themselves and evade censorship and surveillance?
  • How are organizations dedicated to the defense and protection of journalists and freedom of expression affected by the rise of digital media? Are they operating any differently now than they were 20 years ago?
  • All over the world, journalists continue to be subjected to physical attacks, murders, and imprisonment. What do trends show?
  • Many countries have criminal libel and insult laws. Are they being used to prosecute professional and citizen reporters? Do they lead to self-censorship among news organizations?
Back to top