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Joel Simon

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Information Wars

Posted: 02/21/2012 12:00 am

In the last year the battle for press freedom has moved firmly into the digital front and while there have been notable breakthroughs the cost in lives and liberty has also been exceedingly high. This is not surprising considering what's at stake. Recent revolutions and political revolts -- successful, failed, and ongoing -- demonstrate that whoever controls the flow of information generally comes out on top.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that began approximately one year ago provide the best examples. Despite government efforts in both countries to thwart communication, protesters were able to use new information technologies to mobilize their supporters and inform the world about their government's violent response. The global visibility of the protests raised the cost of government repression to the point where it became unsustainable.

While this achievement was justly celebrated, governments from Iran to China also took notice and recalibrated their repression to deal with the emerging threat. In China, authorities spooked by the possibility of an online uprising, cracked down on dissent, arresting critics and imposing new controls on online speech.

In Iran, where critical journalism is largely confined to the Web, authorities rounded up dozens of bloggers and online reporters. By the end of the year, according to research compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran had topped China to become the world's leading jailer of journalists.

While technology can sometimes give an edge to dissidents and protesters it can also be effectively harnessed by governments. In Syria, security services arrested suspected dissidents and then tortured them until they gave up their Facebook passwords. They used the information to track down and dismantle their networks. Meanwhile the Syrian Electronic Army, a network of pro-governments hackers, has attacked Web sites critical of the Assad government, including Al Jazeera.

With international journalists virtually banned from Syria, these tactics have, until recently, been effective in keeping images of the Syrian brutality off the front pages and the network news. But the tide has begun to turn, as social media activists and a handful of courageous reporters have consistently helped bring to the world horrific images of the brutality being perpetrated in Homs. Four journalists have been killed covering the unrest in Syria, including a web videographer Basil al-Sayed gunned down at a Homs checkpoint in December.

In Russia, where Vladimir Putin is expected to win the March presidential election by acclamation the government seems to have made a serious miscalculation. The Kremlin's decade-long media strategy has been to control mass media like television while tolerating some dissent in newspapers and online because of what it viewed as the limited reach of these media.

Then, almost overnight, the Internet become a form of mass media in Russia and thousands of protesters have begun to using social networks and share their grievances and mobilize street demonstrations in Moscow. The Russian elections season just got a whole lot more interesting.

Increasingly, power belongs to those who control information. In the Internet age, this can be a formula for freedom. But it can also be a formula for mass repression. The last year has seen some impressive victories. But as the CPJ research makes clear, it has seen a large number of casualties, including a sharp spike in journalists jailed and killed around the world.

Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. This essay is adapted from Attacks on the Press, CPJ's annual survey of worldwide press freedom conditions, which will be released on February 21.