U.S. human rights monitors have documented a global crackdown on Internet freedom in the past year, with more than 40 governments restricting access to the Web and many using cyber-tools to spy on political opponents, the State Department said in a report Friday.
The department’s annual report on human rights practices also found evidence of increased suppression of civil society groups throughout the world, even as millions of people in the Middle East continue to press for greater political and economic freedoms.
The successful and relatively peaceful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were viewed as among the most hopeful events in a year in which civil rights activists were imprisoned, beaten and even murdered in scores of countries, the 7,000-page report said.
“Societies flourish when they address human rights problems instead of suppressing them,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who unveiled this year’s compilation of country-by-country reports at a news conference.
The annual report assesses human rights conditions in 190 countries — the United States is excluded — focusing on government efforts to stifle political freedoms or engage in practices such as torture or extralegal detention. Each year, it is one of the documents most heavily downloaded from the State Department’s Web site. It also is a recurring source of diplomatic tension with trading partners and allies.
As in past years, Clinton singled out Iran and Venezuela for systemic repression of opposition groups, but she also chided Moscow and Beijing for what she said were worsening human rights records over the past year.
Russia’s record has been marred by crackdowns on civil society groups, including “numerous attacks and murders of journalists and activists,” Clinton said.
China in recent months has stepped up arrests of human rights lawyers and artists, including renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, she said. “Such detention is contrary to the rule of law, and we urge China to release all of those who have been detained for exercising their internationally recognized right to free expression,” Clinton said.
She also singled out Pakistan because of recent murders of government officials who sought to change the country’s blasphemy laws, which make defamation of religion a capital offense. Two officials were targeted by a religious fatwa and assassinated.
The growing crackdown on Internet freedoms comes at a time when young pro-democracy activists in the Middle East have relied on social media to organize and share information, the report notes. Dozens of governments have begun censoring Web sites for political reasons, while others have discovered the Internet’s utility as a means of surveillance and intimidation, Clinton said.
“In a number of countries, democracy and human rights activists and independent bloggers found their e-mails hacked or their computers infected with spyware that reported back on their every keystroke,” she said. “Digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords and implicate their colleagues.”