Report Illustrates International Crackdown on Online Expression

Sherif Arafa cartoon

(c) Sherif Arafa

A new infographic from PEN, an international NGO that aids writers threatened with arrest, prosecution, or violence, shows that government repression of speech is increasingly focused online. PEN found 92 writers around the world currently imprisoned or in detention for something they published digitally — a figure that has more than doubled since 2008. But as anyone who follows CBLDF’s international coverage knows, it’s not just writers who face threats from authoritarian governments; it’s also artists, particularly political cartoonists.

While the Internet has enabled both artists and writers to share politically provocative work directly with audiences worldwide, authorities in many countries have caught on and instituted extensive monitoring of social media, as well as personal blogs and websites. In many cases, authorities can’t delete the offending content altogether because it is hosted outside the country, but they can block it locally and punish or intimidate the creator. Just last week, for example, Malaysian cartoonist Zunar lost an appeal of his 2010 arrest on suspicion of sedition. Even though most of his books are officially banned in his country, he manages to sell them online and also shares more timely cartoons via social media.

Here are some more salient statistics from PEN’s report:

  • Most of the increase in writers imprisoned for digital expression since 2008 is likely attributable to Arab Spring-related repression. Writers detained in the Middle East and North Africa went from 7 in 2008 to 34 in 2013.

  • Vietnam leads the way as a persecutor of writers, followed by China, Iran, Syria, and Eritrea.

  • The share of detained or imprisoned writers who used digital rather than (or in combination with) traditional media skyrocketed from 6.6% in 2000 to 49.2% in 2013.

  • 51 writers are currently on trial in 20 countries for their use of digital media. More than half of them are in Europe, followed by 13 in the Middle East and North Africa.

  • The most common charge against imprisoned writers is subversion, which accounts for 36 cases in Asia. Other charges include insult, blasphemy, hate speech, divulging state secrets, and threatening national security. Ten writers in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are held with no charge at all.

You can view PEN’s interactive infographics here. To see some of the actual cartoons that rouse the ire of authoritarian governments, check out Cartoonists Rights Network International’s collection of Art to Die For. A wealth of international political cartoons can also be found at Cartoon Movement.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.