By Katrina Lantos Swett, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Katrina Lantos Swett is the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Fifty years ago today, on June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood in West Berlin and condemned the newly erected Berlin Wall. Twenty-four years later, President Ronald Reagan traveled to West Berlin and challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
In the decades between these speeches, human rights and religious freedom advocates behind the Iron Curtain defied the walls of tyranny by relying on the samizdat, a clandestine system to print and distribute government-suppressed material. Today, many use the internet in much the same way, raising both challenges and opportunities as the forces of repression and freedom clash in the virtual and physical worlds.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the internet as “the public space of the 21st century.” The challenge is to keep this space free, open, and secure – a global platform to express ideas and exchange information, not a tool to repress people.
Information is power, and because the internet conveys information, those in power often use it to suppress freedom. Indeed, while 2 billion people today are internet-connected, more than half of the world’s population faces restrictions and potentially severe repercussions for seeking to use the internet freely. Governments that prohibit or limit its usage not only violate freedom of expression, but affect the entire spectrum of related rights.
Among these rights is the freedom of religion or belief. About 75 percent of the world’s population lives in nations that severely restrict this liberty. Dictatorial governments view religion as a formidable rival for their citizens’ allegiance and obedience. In such states, religious freedom is often the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the first of many rights – including those of expression, association, and assembly – taken away.
These governments often view the internet as a dangerous vehicle, empowering people to express and exchange thoughts, ideas, and information of a religious nature outside of government’s purview. Such governments often crack down hard on internet. And sadly, there are plenty of examples to illustrate the point.
In Bangladesh, the government arrested Asif Mohiuddin and three other bloggers in April for “derogatory comments about Islam.” They face harassment and threats of violence after being labeled “atheist” for questioning politicians from religious parties.
In China, Gyitsang Takmig was reportedly sentenced in January 2012 to four years in prison for distributing 2,500 VCDs about Tibetan history that were downloaded and distributed because of internet censorship, thus highlighting the government’s harsh restrictions on peaceful religious expression and expanding religious ideas on the internet.
In Egypt, Alber Saber received a three-year sentence in December 2012 for “offending” religion because he administered an atheist Facebook page. Since the revolution, the government has increasingly restricted religious and other forms of expression online and in the print and broadcast media.
In Iran, at least 10 Baha’is have been imprisoned since 2011 for providing higher education to Baha’i students, including through an online university. In January 2012, the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for web programmer Saeed Malekpour, who was convicted of “insulting and desecrating Islam.” In the lead-up to this month’s presidential election, the government effectively silenced all forms of dissent.
In Kazakhstan, Aleksandr Kharlamov, a blogger and a human rights activist, was arrested in March for allegedly “inciting religious hatred” through articles posted on his blog and other social media in which he discussed Christianity and Jesus’ personality. In a chilling throwback to the Soviet era, he was detained in prison and a psychiatric clinic prior to his criminal trial.
In Saudi Arabia, 24-year-old Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari remains detained amid possible apostasy and blasphemy charges for comments he allegedly posted on Twitter. Saudi officials assert his online statements have “disturbed the public order.”
In Vietnam, the government routinely blocks religious websites and blogs viewed as vehicles for organizing public protests, including the blog of imprisoned Catholic journalist Paulus Le Son, and censors websites about the Montagnard and Hmong indigenous peoples containing information on religious freedom conditions.
These are just a few examples, yet they reveal how the forces of tyranny respond to the internet’s enabling of freedom. They spotlight how dictators target religious freedom in cyberspace just as they do in physical space, and how, in their fight against religious liberty, despotic forces seek to shut down other rights – from expression to association. And they underscore how, for those who cherish liberty and democracy, a free and open internet is vital.
A generation ago, the fall of a physical wall in Berlin signaled the end of the Soviet Union and the samizdat system. It is time for the walls of internet suppression to meet a similar fate.