Monday, February 20, 2012
Around the world, online freedom is coming under more and more pressure. According to Free Press Unlimited Director Leon Willems, this also has major repercussions for press freedom in general. ‘With all the private-sector players and governments that are currently working to regulate the Internet, we need to step up our efforts to preserve its open character.’

Why does Free Press Unlimited actually concern itself with online freedom?

‘The importance of a free Internet cannot be underestimated, since virtually everyone around the world who is involved in disseminating, publishing and gathering information needs the Web to do so. In fact, it has become more or less impossible to imagine producing a newspaper or radio broadcast without the Internet.The Internet presently plays such a key role in spreading information in this globalising world that without online freedom, Free Press Unlimited would be unable to realise any of its objectives and spearheads – for example, promoting professional journalism and exposing social wrongs. Moreover, the diversity we currently achieve in our reporting would be more or less inconceivable without a free and open Internet.’

There seems to be an almost irrepressible trend among authorities to try to close off various channels with new regulations.’

Why now exactly?
‘Right now, it has become even more important to fight this development, as around the world, there is a fierce struggle going on between proponents and opponents of the further regulation of the Net. The Internet has been around for less than two decades: twenty years that have been characterised by a comparatively unrestricted – one might almost say ‘anarchic’ – openness. This has also led to less attractive developments. There seems to be an almost irrepressible trend among authorities to try to close off various channels that used to be open with new regulations. Many governments claim that the Internet is being used to spread terrorism. But organisations working for press freedom say it is used to put people behind bars. And human rights organisations say the Net is being used to track down people.’

It is possible to have press freedom without an open Internet?
‘Press freedom without online freedom has become inconceivable. The two are different things, however. The Internet is a platform, a communication channel that gives individuals a voice. While press freedom also means enabling a country to have a multiform media landscape that serves a variety of populations and communities. Press freedom is about quality – about not being persecuted for your views. Furthermore, a free Internet is of vital importance because it provides today’s journalists with the required infrastructure for delivering their reports. In Russia, for instance, journalists use the Web to report on an election that we would hardly have heard about otherwise. For this reason, the diversity of reporting that we currently enjoy can hardly be imagined without an open Internet.’

How did Free Press Unlimited become so strongly committed to this issue?
‘During one of our conferences, our partners indicated that the Internet, information technology and mobile telephony were playing an increasingly important role in the dissemination of information. If we don’t want to go back to the time when people had to smuggle out a letter to Amnesty International to let the world know there was a prison camp somewhere, we need to devise clever ways to ensure that the Internet remains accessible to everyone. That is why we are developing techniques that help people stay anonymous online and why we are helping to anonymise email traffic. So that people can no longer be thrown in jail for a simple email. These are but two of the projects we are involved in to support our partners – our heroes – who work to provide their own communities with information in some of the most difficult areas in the world.
We’ve been doing this for four years now, and today, we’re confronted with this whole regulation drive. It’s something of a stumbling block, you might say.’

‘Our longing for freedom is a basic, universal desire.’

What does Free Press Unlimited presently need in this area?
‘If we wish to continue fulfilling our mission, there are four crucial things that need to be done. Indeed, we have identified these spearheads in our Call to Action of December 2011, which was signed by 50 organisations from around the world and is aimed at the world’s leaders.

To start, the international community is paying insufficient attention to just how far governments are willing to go in using the Internet against their own citizens. They use the Net to track them down, imprison them – even neutralise or murder them. The methods and technology used for these activities are produced by the private sector. It is in our interest for these firms to pay more attention to this issue and develop codes of conduct ensuring that the technology they develop is not used for the wrong aims. We have called on European government leaders to draft European legislation that restricts the trade in this so-called dual-use technology.
In the second place, we believe that we need to conduct far more research into how governments in the world’s non-democratic states use this technology against their own citizens. At present, far too little attention is paid to this issue. Particularly in Europe, which has a booming market in such surveillance and detection technology – people are raking it in. This includes firms like Nokia Siemens, but also Dutch companies, which have made piles of money setting up the digital control centres of the Moroccan, Syrian, Iranian and Egyptian governments. We know this thanks to a number of incidents that have been reported on in the media, but the situation has hardly been studied after that point.
Thirdly – and we are eminently suited to do this – we believe we have to work together with other organisations to find ways to keep the Internet open. We need to use technology to actively protect journalists, human rights activists and so-called digital freedom fighters from oppression by their governments.
And the fourth thing we need to do is ensure that the coalition of countries that are lobbying for online freedom continues its work. We need to support this group; actively involve ourselves in the process and keep up the pressure.’

‘Companies like Nokia Siemens make a pile of money setting up government control centres.’

Do you think that a small organisation can successfully oppose increasing regulation?
‘I’m quite optimistic about winning this battle, because our longing for freedom is a basic, universal desire, which will continue to express itself in this day and age. If governments use increased regulation to close off the current Internet, a new Internet will emerge somewhere else. Our need for freedom of speech cannot be contained. Ultimately, all authoritarian regimes will disappear – it’s not that I believe in some kind of ‘perfect world’ on the horizon, rather I believe that the spirit of freedom is a core aspect of our existence, and that for this reason, people will never be satisfied living in a lie.
What fascinates me about the Internet is that more people than ever before have become aware of freedom. This is a force that cannot be contained: once someone has tasted freedom, he or she will never want to go back.’

‘Once someone has tasted freedom, he or she will never want to go back.’

Surely, you must feel some scepticism?
‘I head a team of people who work to support journalists living under repressive regimes, in developing countries, in totalitarian states and in war-torn areas, so we can’t keep scepticism completely at bay. For sure, you can feel very sombre about the umpteenth peace agreement in Darfur that you know from your experience as a journalist will probably not result in a lasting peace. But I do consider myself fortunate to have helped set up a radio programme that through the extensive use of online connections provides two million listeners every day with information on what is really going on in the region. And I am proud that Radio Zameneh still manages to reach people in Iran with their unbiased reports. These are the kinds of things that keep us going.
But occasionally, we do have to take some sad blows. For instance, we helped set up the online medium Caucasian Knot, a network of human rights activists in the Northern Caucasus. And to be honest, during the past five to ten years or so, a lot of the people we have known in Russia have been murdered. Recently, the man behind the Caucasian Knot initiative was presented with a human rights award – and justly so. But this recognition has come at the cost of a great deal of pain and misery. There’s a true sadness behind this acknowledgement. Every murdered journalist is one too many. That is why we need to continue fighting for freedom and for people’s safety on the Internet.’