Tightening the net: governments expand online controls

internet freedom fhInternet freedom around the world has declined for the fourth consecutive year, with a growing number of countries introducing online censorship and monitoring practices that are simultaneously more aggressive and more sophisticated in their targeting of individual users,  a new Freedom House report concludes.

In a departure from the past, when most governments preferred a behind-the-scenes approach to internet control, countries are rapidly adopting new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent, according to Sanja Kelly, Madeline Earp, Laura Reed, Adrian Shahbaz, and Mai Truong, co-authors of Freedom on the Net 2014. 

As a result, more people are being arrested for their internet activity than ever before, online media outlets are increasingly pressured to censor themselves or face legal penalties, and private companies are facing new demands to comply with government requests for data or deletions….The growing restrictions at the national level are also changing the nature of the global internet, transforming it from a worldwide network into a fragmented mosaic, with both the rules and the accessible content varying from one country to another. 

Blocking and filtering—once the most widespread methods of censorship—are still very common, but many countries now prefer to simply imprison users who post undesirable content, thereby deterring others and encouraging self-censorship. This approach can present the appearance of a technically uncensored internet while effectively limiting certain types of speech. Meanwhile, physical violence against internet users appears to have decreased in scope.

In 2013, Freedom House documented 26 countries where government critics and human rights defenders were subjected to beatings and other types of physical violence in connection with their online activity; that number fell to 22 in 2014.

Key Reasons for Decline in Internet Freedom, 2013–14:

  • Proliferation of repressive laws
  • Increased surveillance
  • New regulatory controls over online media
  • More arrests of social-media users
  • Intensified demands on private sector
  • New threats facing women and LGBTI population
  • More sophisticated and widespread cyberattacks


Russia’s choice: liberalism or fascism, says Khodorkovsky

khodorkovskiyRussia faces the choice of reviving the European values that generated its launch into modernity or regressing “to the Middle Ages,” according to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos and the country’s leading political dissident.

“All that my country has today, everything that it considers truly ‘its own’, everything that has allowed it to become a great power and that is now its ‘calling card’: space exploration, the nuclear shield, literature and art, the high level of education and science – was created within the scope of the European cultural tradition,” he said, delivering the keynote speech at last night’s annual Freedom House Awards dinner.

“A break with the West, with its values and its knowledge, is a dangerous step, one that leads to Russia losing its true cultural identity,” he said. “The ‘Eurasianism’ that is being actively forced upon society as the new totalitarian ideology is nothing more than a verbose justification for militant ignorance and barbarism,” he argued.

Russia is fighting a war in Ukraine “not for the sake of national interests, not to defend their Fatherland, but in order to save power for a handful of plutocrats, who in this way are trying to extend life of the regime which is outdated already,” Khodorkovsky said:  

European choice, social justice and national mobilization

There is a legend about how nearly 200 years ago, the Russian political émigrés of that time asked the Russian court historian Karamzin for the news about what was happening in the Motherland. Karamzin thought for a moment and then replied with a single word: “Stealing”. Little has changed in Russia since those times.

khodorkovsky prisonThe worst thing that I discovered when I got out of prison was that those ten years had been stolen not only from me, they had been stolen from the entire country. …. Concealed behind a façade of outward prosperity is the fact that the country has stopped its development. Not only that, in most areas it has been flung back far into the distant past: politically, economically, psychologically.

But that is not all. It turns out that the regime has robbed not only Russia. It is trying to throw the whole world back into the era of the cold war (if not a hot one), when disputes are resolved at the point of a gun, while one’s superiority is proven not by rates of economic growth, but by military aggression. Russia and the world have come to a very dangerous point, beyond which looms a Third World War.

The return to Europe

A return to the European values that lie at the foundation of the Euro-Atlantic civilization, – a mental and political return – is the starting point for the new political course that could help Russia work its way out of the historical snare it is now in. ….

All that my country has today, everything that it considers truly “its own”, everything that has allowed it to become a great power and that is now its “calling card”: space exploration, the nuclear shield, literature and art, the high level of education and science (which even thirty years of “timelessness” were incapable of destroying) – was created within the scope of the European cultural tradition, in interaction with European culture and within the milieu of European culture. ….

A break with the West, with its values and its knowledge, is a dangerous step, one that leads to Russia losing its true cultural identity. The “Eurasianism” that is being actively forced upon society as the new totalitarian ideology is nothing more than a verbose justification for militant ignorance and barbarism. ….

European values (or Euro-Atlantic, as it is now the common practice to call them) are first and foremost values of a strong and just state with effective institutions and laws that work. Russia needs these no less than any other people in the world do. Russia needs a law-based state and an open economy not because this will please Western Europe and America, but so it can work together with the Euro-Atlantic world – and if necessary compete with it as well – on equal terms. …..

Anti-Western hysteria is a manifestation of psychological insecurity and fear of competition on the part of those fringe elements who are today’s elite in Russia.

Restoring the “balance of fairness” is a top-priority task for all of the forces that have the transformation of Russia into a modern and dynamically developing state as their objective. If a solution is not found for this strategic task, society is not going to put its support behind any economic, social, or political reform. …..

The vector of development of Russian liberalism, which is exclusively political today, needs to be rethought. Producing draft constitutions and plans for radical political and economic reforms is a futile exercise until society begins to feel that the liberal idea is a fair idea…..

Society has enormous potential for self-organization when there is an idea around which a matrix can form. For Russia, such an idea can only be a socially oriented nation state. The only question is will this socially oriented nation state be liberal or fascist?

Russia is already making real war. those who send heroes to die not in the name of national interests, not to defend the Fatherland, but in order to keep in power a small group of plutocrats who are trying in this way to prolong the life of a regime that has already outlived itself.

National mobilization     

Russia has gotten stuck on a dangerous historical track, getting out of which is very complicated. In order to simply stop, and all the more so to switch to some other track, is going to require mobilization of all of the energies of the Russian people. The task of true Russian patriots is not in promising the Russian people smooth sailing but in telling the truth. Only if they understand the scale of the threat and of the historical significance of the moment can the people be moved to perform heroic deeds. And without heroic deeds, Russia today cannot be saved.

The heroic deed of the Russian people must consist of constructive labor, of inculcating discipline and moderation, and of developing the ability to work together and to help one another – in other words, of reviving all those moral skills that had helped Russian culture to develop and that have been lost to a large extent in recent years. In order to raise the people up to be able to perform this heroic deed, the pro-European minority needs to prove its moral soundness and its readiness to observe, not in word, but in deed, the principle of equality of all before the law. It is precisely this equality of all before a law that is the same for all, before an adversity that is the same for all, and for a common cause that is the same for all, that the true sense of liberalism consists.

The above excerpt is taken from the prepared text of a speech delivered by Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the 2014 annual Freedom House Awards held on the evening of October 1, 2014.


A Conversation With Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Founder, Open Russia

Stephen Sestanovich
George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Board member, National Endowment for Democracy.

Date: Monday, October 6, 2014
Press Registration: 8:00 a.m.–8:30 a.m.
Meeting: 8:30 a.m.–9:30 a.m.

Location: Council on Foreign Relations
58 East 68th Street, New York, NY 10065

Please note: Video cameras will not be permitted at this event. However, the event will be live streamed at www.cfr.org/live and available on our high-definition Waterfront circuit ID 4680.

Reply by: 10:00 a.m. on Friday, October 3, 2014
Reply to: NYPressRSVP@cfr.org
Open to accredited journalists only.

Press Contact:
Jake Meth

Freedom’s uneasy condition

FREEDOM FHIn recent commentaries on the bleak state of global freedom, analysts have used a series of labels to describe the trajectory of democracy: “stagnation,” “erosion,” “recession,” and even “decline” for those who view the trends with alarm, notes Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House. One label that has not been applied to current conditions is “reversal.”

This is worth noting. In his influential study of the democracy revolution of the late 20th century, The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington devoted considerable space to the reversals in political freedom that came on the heels of the first and second waves of democratization, he writes for the Freedom at Issue blog.

The sense of backsliding is increasingly palpable, leading many to ask, like the Economist, what’s gone wrong with democracy? A complete list of disheartening phenomena over the past several years would be a long one, but here are a few:

  • The lack of major breakthroughs: Aside from Tunisia, the Arab Spring has met with a grim fate across the Middle East, with antidemocratic forces dragging the region even deeper into repression and violence. Other persistent blocs of Not Free countries, covering much of Eurasia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, remain overwhelmingly authoritarian, despite significant ferment on their margins.
  • Worsening conditions in major authoritarian states: In 2000, many anticipated change for the better in China. Instead, political freedom remains a remote prospect, and civil liberties have been further curtailed. Russia was ranked as Partly Free in 2000; it is now firmly in the Not Free category. Nor have things improved in Iran, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, and the situation has gone from bad to worse in Venezuela.
  • Strutting dictators: Where previously a country’s democracy deficit would elicit apologies and pledges to institute reforms, today’s autocratic leaders, led by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, categorically reject democratic values and speak with disdain of Euro-American gridlock and decadence.
  • The economic factor: The democratic sphere’s clear superiority in growth, prosperity, and technological modernization played a huge role in discrediting both communism and military dictatorship during the late 20th century. While developed democracies remain atop the roster of prosperous countries, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has shaken their peoples’ confidence and—coupled with a continued boom in China—changed the calculation in many developing societies.

The current situation can be viewed in two ways. It is not as bad as it may seem, in the sense that the great gains of previous decades have not in fact been erased. But it could be a sign of things to come, the cusp of a major reversal. To prevent a negative outcome in matters of such consequence, it is always best to prepare for the worst.


Rights groups probe Azerbaijani crackdown




Under pressure from human rights activists, a natural resources industry watchdog is reviewing whether to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership over Baku’s crackdown on civil society groups, Transitions Online reports”

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) has dispatched a delegation to Baku to investigate the government’s recent moves against human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations, according to the Financial Times.  A decision to suspend Azerbaijan would be a blow to the government, an early supporter of the decade-old initiative. EITI represents a coalition of governments, corporations, and civic groups that promotes open accountability of revenues from petroleum and other natural resources. …

Human Rights Watch has pressed the EITI to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership. “Azerbaijan’s government is squeezing activist groups to the breaking point while claiming to international audiences that it’s a leader on open civic participation and good governance,” Lisa Misol, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last month. “Azerbaijan is blatantly violating EITI rules, and EITI cannot afford to be complicit in this hypocrisy.” 


Freedom House

Freedom House

Three UN human rights representatives have also condemned Baku’s ham-handed treatment of activists and efforts to shut down critical groups. “We are appalled by the increasing incidents of surveillance, interrogation, arrest, sentencing on the basis of trumped-up charges, assets-freezing, and ban on travel of the activists in Azerbaijan,” UN special rapporteurs Michel Forst, Maina Kiai (right), and David Kaye said in a statement. …RTWT

You are cordially invited to a reception with special guest Maina Kiai, executive director of InformAction and recipient of Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom Award. He will give brief remarks about key challenges to human rights in Africa and globally. 

Maina Kiai has campaigned for human rights in Kenya and internationally for the last 20 years. He founded the unofficial Kenya Human Rights Commission and later served as Chairman of Kenya’s National Human Rights Commission, earning a national reputation for his courageous and effective advocacy against official corruption and impunity following the violence that convulsed Kenya in 2008. Mr. Kiai has directed Amnesty International’s Africa Program, led the International Council on Human Rights Policy, and currently serves as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly.


Autocratic model: Putin’s Russia enables repression

nations in transit

The findings of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report point to Russia’s role as model and enabler for Eurasia’s autocracies, according to Arch Puddington and David J. Kramer, vice president for research and president, respectively, at Freedom House.

Vladimir Putin is not solely responsible for this depressing state of affairs. But his actions have contributed mightily to the woes of his neighborhood, they write for the American Interest.

The grim facts are reflected in the findings of Nations in Transit, an annual report on the condition of democracy in the post-Communist world issued by Freedom House. Among the major conclusions:

  • Four out of five people in the 12 Eurasia (i.e., former Soviet) countries live under authoritarian rule;
  • 97 percent of the region’s citizens live in societies with major restrictions on press freedom;
  • Every country in the region save two (Georgia and Moldova) has experienced a decline in democratic standards over the past decade;
  • The past decade has seen major setbacks in judicial independence and civil society;
  • Azerbaijan and Russia have registered the most serious setbacks over the decade.

nations in transit2Again and again, however, the findings of Nations in Transit point to Russia’s role as model and enabler for the region’s fellow autocracies. We are increasingly witnessing a kind of copycat effect, where measures adopted by Russia for repressive purposes find their way into the legal and political systems of neighboring states.

This is especially the case concerning civil society. As early as 2005, Putin pushed through legislation to restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations, and this became a model for other regimes in the region. After Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, he launched a series of measures to further restrict NGOs, culminating in the law that brands groups that accept funding from abroad as foreign agents. In 2013 alone, some 1,000 civil society groups were investigated, harassed, or shut down altogether, as in the case of GOLOS, a respected election-monitoring organization.