What would happen if the Internet was shut down? Many of us may have played with the idea and perhaps despaired over the answer; in these past fifty years we have become dependent on the Internet no matter where we live.
Approximately 3.9 billion people use this modern form of media every day. It is a world within a world. From the beginning totally free and uncontrollable, but in time the Internet has become repressive states’ main weapon to silence and suppress its own citizens. Never before has the connection between democracy and the Internet been more contentious than it is today when things seem to be taking a wrong direction.
In November 2019 I personally experienced what happens when the Internet is shut down. While working with this issue—ironically about freedom on the Internet—it suddenly became unusually quiet from my relatives in Iran. Even if we do not have daily contact, we are still present in one another’s social media, commenting updates, liking pictures, sending hearts and a thumbs up. Their profiles suddenly claimed that they had not been logged in recently. On November 17 the regime in Iran had closed down the Internet to stop and control the extensive protests around the country—protests that had been inflamed by the substantially increased price of petrol.
Iran was effectively silenced. 83 million people were kept isolated from the rest of the world. The violent protests continued but nobody could report about them—neither journalists nor the Iranian citizens. An anonymous Iranian author writes for PEN/Opp: “Now the Islamic Republic knows what it is doing. If it wants to carry out a massacre of political prisoners in the same way as in the ‘80s, it will shut down the internet.”
We seem to have entered a new alarming era when more and more repressive totalitarian societies have taken one step further: from filtering, circumscribing, monitoring and regulating the speed of the Internet to simply shutting it down. We have seen this in India, Venezuela, Sudan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Iraq and now recently in Iran. The list can sadly be made longer.
The battle between censorship and a freedom of expression on the Internet in non-democratic countries has often been described as a cat and mouse game. When the regime finds ways of restricting the Internet, people find creative technical means to counter and dodge the censorship. And in this way the game has continued. But what measures can be taken when the leadership makes use of the ultimate restriction to secure its political power: to close down the Internet completely?
Has the game reached a dead end?
In this issue of PEN/Opp we return to one of our publication’s main concerns: threats aimed at the Internet and the various disguises of digital censorship. The issue includes texts and authors that describe the ongoing struggle for freedom of expression on the Internet around the world.
The Russian journalist Liza Aleksandrova-Zorina describes another global development these past few years, namely regimes that claim to be ‘protecting’ its citizens while creating laws that circumscribe the Internet. For example, in November 2019 the Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified new Internet laws that forbid people from spreading what the Russian authorities call ‘fake news’ on the web, and that also forbid them to ‘offend’ the Russian nation.
“Clearly, joking in the internet must be coming to an end: one activist was accused of extremism and convicted to almost a year of house arrest for a video-blog, and another was sentenced to five years in prison for a comment on Twitter, which was interpreted as a threat to policemen’s children,” writes Aleksandrova-Zorina.
Similar laws are in place in Uganda. In August 2019 the Ugandan writer and women’s rights activist Stella Nyanzi was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment for ‘cyber harassment’. Her crime? She had published a satirical poem on her Facebook page where she criticized Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and his politic. With her permission we have had her poems translated and are extremely proud to here publish two of them. This is exactly PEN/Opp’s purpose: to spread words and texts that on often non-existent grounds are silenced by frightened and cowardly people in power. To have Stella Nyanzi’s poems translated, published, read and spread is just what Yoweri Museveni fears the most. And that is precisely why we must do it. That is what PEN/Opp does.