Earlier this month, Washington Post Executive Editor Baron participated in the Osher@Dartmouth Summer Lecture Series where he talked about threats to free expression and current challenges in journalism. The discussion, “America’s Power and Influence as Perceived by the Media,” included Chair of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Tom Blinkhorn as moderator and New York Times Editor Elisabeth Bumiller as a co-panelist. Video from the discussion is available from C-SPAN.
Baron’s full remarks on the freedom of expression are available below:
I’m delighted to speak with you today.
I’m going to discuss a subject that’s close to my heart, critical to my profession, and – I believe – vital for democracy, human dignity, and personal liberty.
The subject is freedom of expression.
The case for free expression was made long ago. Among the most eloquent proponents was John Milton, and his ideas helped set the course for our own principles today.
In 1644, Milton wrote this: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
Today, in much of the world, that liberty is either nonexistent or in jeopardy.
Let me start by telling you about two recent encounters of mine.
In January of last year, I spoke with a leading figure in the governance of the Internet. We talked about surveillance by the National Security Agency and how the agency had tapped so voraciously into international data networks.
This was a subject that we covered intensively at The Washington Post — and for which we, along with the Guardian in Great Britain, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.
I was interested in what this Internet official was hearing as he traveled the world in the aftermath of disclosures that originated with Edward Snowden. Snowden’s massive leak of highly classified documents had revealed some of this nation’s most sensitive national security secrets.
Much of the worldwide reaction until that point had fallen into the category of outrage. Rights activists and government officials had decried the U.S. government’s aggressive intrusion into the privacy of citizens of other countries.
Foreign governments protested that even the privacy of presidents and prime ministers in countries that were our allies had been breached. The NSA had listened in on their phone conversations.
But as this Internet official traveled Asia, outrage was not what he heard. What did he hear? Jealousy.
Leaders told him: “We have excellent computer scientists. Why haven’t we been able to do this?”
They aspired to monitor their own citizens as skillfully as the U.S. government had.
That’s Story No. 1. Now Story No. 2.
Early this summer, I was visited in Washington by the owners, editors, and legal counsel of El Universo, a leading newspaper in Ecuador. They sought to bring attention to the ways in which the government of Ecuador was strangling the press – dictating what it prints, threatening crippling fines, pressuring media outlets in hopes they would become docile, deferential, compliant.
This June, El Universo was fined $350,000 by the government on the grounds that it failed to satisfy all requirements for publishing a response by the government to one of its stories. A two-year-old communications law provides that individuals who feel their dignity or honor has been damaged by a media report have the right to respond.
In this case, El Universo had published a story about Ecuador’s health care system under the headline “1.7 billion in federal debt impairs health care system.” The paper had sought to interview health care system officials prior to publication, even sending a list of questions. The request went unanswered.
When the story was published, it was sharply criticized by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa. He even questioned the statistics – statistics that, as it turns out, came directly from the health care system itself. And then Correa’s Secretariat of Communications ordered El Universo to publish a rebuttal, which it then did.
But the rebuttal did not carry a summary also written by the Secretariat of Communications, and it did not carry a headline crafted by the Secretariat that accompanied its rebuttal.
The Secretariat ordered its summary published – and it ordered its headline published — and El Universo then complied. So the headline then read: “The health care system has made progress and will improve even more in the coming years.”
On top of that, the newspaper now had to pay a fine for alleged noncompliance with the law regarding rebuttals – a fine equivalent to 10% of its average revenue in the previous quarter. So the fine totaled $350,000.
With each recurrence of a particular offense, a fine is doubled. It can continue doubling without limit.
The fines and pressure are having what seems to be the intended effect: In 2014, four media outlets closed, largely as a result of this so-called Organic Communications Law.
In short, in Ecuador, the press will either buckle to the government, or the government will break it. El Universo calls these legal maneuvers “creeping expropriation” – and rightly so.
The two stories I’ve told show something about free expression: It can be threatened from many directions. And that is what is happening.
Not long ago, the world hoped for better. We seemed to be entering a new era of free expression, brought about by the Internet, social media, and smart phones. Some concluded that citizen communications would flourish in a way previously unimagined — and that governments, even the most autocratic, would be denied the tight control that kept them in power.
This idea took firm root during the Arab Spring, which began at the tail end of 2010 with the Tunisian revolution, and then spread through the Arab World.
With protests in Egypt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the world marveled at the impact of social media – how it could be used to organize and to facilitate free expression, how it might overcome repression.
It was a hopeful time for those who believed in the liberating power of technology over the traditional, too often tyrannical, powers of government.
“Truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable,” wrote BBC commentator Paul Mason in 2011. “Not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy, but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form.”
In a book entitled “Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring,” Philip Howard, a professor at University of Washington, and Muzammil Hussein, a doctoral student, noted:
“Social media alone did not cause political upheaval in North Africa. But information technologies—including mobile phones and the Internet—altered the capacity of citizens and civil society actors to affect domestic politics.”
To be fair, hopefulness came with caution. The authors of these commentaries recognized that the technology also gave governments the opportunity to monitor citizens and, ultimately, extinguish their voices and their movements.
Professor Howard noted in one interview that “authoritarian regimes have come to value digital media, too. Security services in Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria observed how democracy advocates were using social media in Egypt and Tunisia and developed counterinsurgency strategies that allowed for them to surveille, mislead and entrap protesters…”
Just the other week in The Washington Post, we published a series on threats to press freedom and journalists worldwide. Reporters documented how the security establishments of the Arab world now exploit sophisticated surveillance technology to suppress dissent:
“Egypt is implementing a Social Networks Security Hazard Monitoring Project that allows for keyword searching and trend analysis of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google, Viper, Whatsapp and other sites. At any time, a minimum of 30 analysts will monitor huge streams of data in both classical and colloquial Arabic, according to a 2014 Interior Ministry request-for-proposals leaked to the Egyptian media.”
The question now is this, and it is a big one: Who will prevail in a competition that has each side deploying technology as tool and weapon?
Will it be ordinary citizens and activists who aim to circumvent, undermine, and outwit autocratic governments? Or will it be the governments, which possess the capacity to monitor communications as never before?
In their outstanding book, “The New Digital Age,” Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen leaned toward optimism.
“Authoritarian governments,” they wrote, “will find their newly connected populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs.”
And yet they noted how authoritarian governments will have powerful weapons of their own, “derived from their position as gatekeeper” in a world of connectivity.
“States,” they wrote, “have an enormous amount of power over the mechanics of the Internet in their own countries. Because states have power over the physical infrastructure connectivity requires – the transmission towers, the routers, the switches – they control the entry, exit and waypoints for Internet data. They can limit content, control what hardware people are allowed to use and even create separate Internets.”
Regimes may compromise devices before they are ever sold, Schmidt and Cohen pointed out.
And individuals who use encryption software – to avoid censorship or surveillance, or simply to protect their most private information – will become objects of suspicion.
Authoritarian governments can apply enormous pressure. Schmidt and Cohen noted: “States will be able to set up random checkpoints or raids to search people’s devices for encryption and proxy software, the presence of which could earn them fines, jail time or a spot on a government database of offenders. Everyone who is known to have downloaded a circumvention measure will suddenly find life more difficult … ”
Schmidt and Cohen raised the prospect that countries will create their own domain name system. “No government has yet achieved an alternative system,” they write, “but if a government succeeded in doing so, it would effectively unplug its population from the global Internet and instead offer only a closed, national intranet.”
China – which, by the way, jails more journalists than any other country — already blocks and filters information and sites with gusto.
Turkey has blocked thousands of sites — and its prime minister once ordered Twitter shut down. YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan, and the government there has demanded many hundreds of times that Facebook remove content.
At Google Ideas, a company unit that exists to support free expression, government attempts to censor the Internet are seen as falling into basically three categories:
- Server-side censorship: This often consists of so-called Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks to knock inconvenient voices offline.
- Censorship on the wire: This primarily consists of national firewalls that block access to undesirable foreign content. This can also include states leveraging their control of Domain Name System (DNS) servers and Internet Service Provides (or ISPs) to try to hide content. Relatively few countries are doing this right now.
- Client-side censorship: This increasingly includes phishing and malware attacks to monitor independent journalists and activists. This is becoming a very popular technique for national governments.
At the core of the battle over the Internet is a philosophical and legal dispute over who has dominion over the Internet — and, thus, who should govern it and how.
Earlier this year, a visiting law professor at UCLA, Kristen Eichensehr, laid out the issue in The Georgetown Law Journal.
“Two competing visions of cyberspace have emerged so far,” she wrote. “Russia and China advocate a sovereignty-based model of cyber governance that prioritizes state control, while the United States, United Kingdom, and their allies argue that cyberspace should not be governed by states alone.”
In the early days of the Internet, its creators, advocates, protectors, and many of its users argued – with no small measure of bravado – that the Internet had superseded governments.
The Internet belonged only to its users, they insisted, and governments had no role.
In 1996, John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, issued a so-called Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:
“Governments of the Industrial World,” he proclaimed, “you weary giants of flesh and steel. I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
The vision collided with some inconvenient, physical facts.
This was noted by legal academics Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu, including in their book “Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World.” They took on the notion of the Internet as a “place” of its own.
The Internet, after all, relies on some fairly mundane things:
“Underneath it all,” they wrote, “is an ugly physical transport infrastructure: copper wires, fiber optic cables, and the specialized routers and switches that direct information from place to place.”
The fact is, governments do regulate the Internet. And we’re now faced with the question of how far they will go in asserting control.
Should the Internet be regarded like other domains that fall outside national boundaries — the high seas, outer space and Antarctica? In other words, should the Internet be regarded as a “global commons” subject to internationally agreed-upon norms?
Or, instead, should it be viewed like every nation’s own air space? That would put the Internet under each nation’s individual, total control.
In the absence of consensus, some countries aren’t waiting for one.
Russia and China are the leaders in treating the Internet more as an Intranet, an internal system that is theirs to rule.
That is emblematic of what has become of free expression in those countries. If there was once the spark of freedom, and there was at least that, it is now being snuffed out.
Today, most Russians get their information from state-controlled broadcasters disseminating propaganda, conspiracy, jingoism in ways big and small. A recent example:
After the shoot-down of the Malaysian Airliner in Ukraine, intelligence pointed to rebel troops as the source of the missile that took the lives of 298 people. But in Russian media, alternative explanations proliferated, each one more far-fetched than the next.
Russian media claimed Ukrainians shot down the plane. They claimed the CIA provided help. They asserted that the plane might have been mistaken for Vladimir Putin’s, making it a target. They claimed bodies on the ground were planted there.
At the time, the editor in chief of Russia 24 said this: “As state TV, our mission is to support the interests of the state. [Official] opinions are determinative for our programs, for our channel.”
State control and manipulation of television stations and newspapers is one thing. But the Internet in Russia had long been largely uncensored. That is no longer the case.
Early last year, Russian authorities were given the power to block web sites without any official explanation. Almost immediately, four Russian opposition web sites were blocked. By the summer of last year, speech on the Internet was constrained even further.
New rules required anyone with a daily online audience of more than 3,000 people to register with Russia’s Internet oversight agency.
Names and contact details were to be provided, and bloggers would be held liable for anything deemed misinformation, including in comments from members of the public.
Late last year, a new Russian law required that data about Russian users be stored on computer servers within the country. That way, Russia would have easy access to information about their use of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other services.
The Russian government already had an arsenal of laws it could use against those speaking freely. The new rules created additional risks. Bloggers were more likely to muzzle themselves for fear of fines and criminal prosecution. Many of the rules are considered vague and confusing. But ambiguity is often a weapon in the hands of government, and that is the case in Russia today.
As George Packer wrote in the New Yorker: “In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been masterful at creating an atmosphere in which there are no clear rules, so that intellectuals and artists stifle themselves in order not to run afoul of vague laws and even vaguer social pressure.”
Until this point, I have only talked about official suppression of free speech and a free press, but the threats are broader, more menacing than that. Non-state actors can be an even greater danger.
Two images last year cannot be forgotten. Those are the images of James Foley and Steve Sotloff, independent journalists executed by the Islamic State. Their fate made horrifyingly clear the risks that journalists now face in telling the world what they see.
This year, Islamist terrorists slaughtered staffers at Charlie Hebdo, a Paris satirical weekly, in reaction to caricatures of Muhammad.
And there is what happens behind walls – unseen, deliberately hidden from public view. I think now of The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran, Jason Rezaian — held in Iran’s worst prison, suffering physically and emotionally, for more than a year. He has been targeted with phony charges of espionage and other supposed offenses, for which there has been no evidence. And he has had to endure a sham trial where evidence and fairness and the basic principles of due process clearly don’t matter.
These are just the publicized incidents. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that, while most coverage of attacks against the press is focused on well-connected journalists, 9 of 10 killed are local reporters covering local stories.
In the past three years, violence against journalists has soared to record levels. An average of more than one journalist is killed every week.
In places like Mexico, reporting on drug cartels, crime syndicates, and corruption is a deadly business. In just the week of June 28 this year, three journalists were killed there.
Rarely are killers found and prosecuted. In much of the world, rarely are they actively pursued.
All of this imposes an obligation on journalists for news organizations in the United States, where – despite our own concerns – we enjoy freedoms unimagined in the rest of the world.
We are able to write what our professional colleagues in other countries can’t: Their lives, and those of their families, would be at risk.
Evan Osnos, longtime China correspondent for the New Yorker, put it well recently. So, in concluding, I’ll quote him.
“As correspondents who enjoy the freedom to write what we know, we have a responsibility to do it — not only for the sake of our readers, but for the sake of reporters who don’t enjoy the same privileges.”