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Saturday 1 November  
The battle for  free speech continues
Klaas den Tek's picture
Hilversum, Netherlands
Hilversum, Netherlands

The battle for free speech continues

Published on : 26 December 2011 - 12:27pm | By Klaas den Tek (Photo:RNW)
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2011 won't go down in the history books as the year of free speech; censorship is still the weapon of choice for oppressive regimes across the globe. Journalists, activists and dissidents are still muzzled and fear for their lives in many countries. However, there has been some progress.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide has highlighted five of the positive and five of the negative developments in the quest for freedom of expression.

The positive developments first:

1 - The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring will probably be on everyone's list of remarkable events in 2011. In a scene repeated across much of the Arab world, people took to the streets and demanded freedom, dignity and democracy. They called on the dictators and monarchs to step down and make way for freely elected governments.

Bloggers, including Egypt's Asmaa Mahfouz and Libya's Mohammed Nabbous - murdered by the Kaddafi regime - exposed the cronyism, corruption and brutality that so often go hand in hand with totalitarian regimes. It’s far too early to say whether the Arab Spring will bloom into a glorious, free summer.

2 - Myanmar

The Myanmar regime surprised many people when it freed hundreds of political prisoners earlier this year. The move prompted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit the country that has been in self-imposed isolation for decades.

It was the first visit by a US Secretary of State for half a century. Secretary Clinton met opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released from house arrest in late 2010.

3 - Uganda's Nabagesera

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people (LGBT) are criminalised and persecuted in Uganda but that hasn't stopped Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera from calling for the rights of sexual minorities to be respected.

Even though she was forced to flee her country after a national newspaper called for her murder, Nabagesera remains a dedicated LGBT rights activist and was awarded the Martin Ennals Award, a prestigious prize for human rights campaigners.

4 - Cuba's social media

The number of Cubans using social media such as Facebook and Twitter has risen dramatically over the past year and has led to some remarkable confrontations. The clash between blogger Yoani Sánchez and Mariela Castro - the president's daughter - was a real eye-opener for Castro. She was told in no uncertain terms that everybody is equal on the internet and attempts to silence others are futile.

5 - The case against Geert Wilders

It was the court case of the year in the Netherlands: the trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders on charges of inciting racial hatred, insulting foreigners and discriminating against Muslims. His controversial opinions about Islam landed him in the dock; his supporters said it was an attempt to silence him. He was cleared on all charges and Wilders said his acquittal was a victory for freedom of speech and expression.


The negative developments:

1 - Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat

Opposition voices are ruthlessly silenced by the Syrian authorities. The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the protests against the Assad regime started in the southern town of Deraa in March.

In August, the prominent Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat became the regime's latest victim. Security forces brutally beat the elderly cartoonist and deliberately broke several of his fingers. Photographs of the bloody, beaten and bruised man shocked the world. Farzat was awarded the prestigious Sakharov prize in 2011 for his decades of dedication to freedom of expression in Syria.

2 - Beijing's stranglehold on bloggers

Although people do manage to slip information through every once in a while via the micro blog Weibo, the great firewall of China ensures that information is tightly controlled and censored. Over the past year, the government has intimidated, arrested and imprisoned hundreds of bloggers and activists.

The artist Ai Weiwei, a well-known critic of the communist regime, was arrested and held in a secret location for 80 days before being released and sentenced to house arrest. The blogger Ruan Yunfei was sentenced to six months in prison for subversion.

3 - The murder of journalists in Mexico.

Mexico again has the dubious honour of being the most dangerous place to be a journalist. They are regularly targeted by drug gangs and journalists who publish stories on crime or corruption are frequently threatened or murdered in particularly brutal ways.

4 - Swedish journalists in Ethiopia

Freedom of expression and press freedom are severely limited in Ethiopia. In July, two Swedish journalists were arrested; they were attempting to make a report about the Ogaden National Liberation Front. Addis Abeba considers the ONLF to be a terrorist organisation and the journalists are now facing 18-year sentences.

Since March, the authorities have arrested 114 opposition members and journalists for criticising the regime.

5 - Arrests in Turkey

Ankara has arrested 18 journalists over the past few months and it is highly likely that they will spend a long time behind bars - without being charged or tried for any offences. The government claims the journalists have connections with terrorists.

However, Reporters without Borders is extremely concerned about press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey. More than 80 journalists are held in Turkish prisons.



Keith Perron 27 December 2011 - 5:20am / Republic Of China (Taiwan)

Beginning January 1st some major point to China's internet laws are changing as well as 3G mobile internet access. Fell free to contact me for the details.

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