November 23, 2013 | By Danny O'Brien

Free Expression, Surveillance, and the Fight Against Impunity

Journalists, bloggers and others who speak out against the powerful risk terrible repercussions for their work. Around the world, they face physical intimidation, violent attacks, and even murder for speaking out.

When such crimes are committed against those who exercise their right to free speech, the perpetrators all too often go unpunished. Those who are meant to enforce the law turn a blind eye. The oppressors can act with absolute impunity.

Every November 23rd, free speech organizations around the world draw attention to these travesties of justice in a Day To End Impunity. The number of uninvestigated crimes and unsolved murders of journalists makes for depressing reading—as does the slow but inexorable increase in victims who are targeted for their online work. Since 1993, the Committee to Protect Journalists have recorded the deaths of twenty-nine online reporters who were murdered for their work. Seventeen of those crimes went unsolved and unpunished.

But in a digital world, it's not just crimes of physical violence that can chill speech. The spread of surveillance technology means that crimes against privacy can be used to intimidate or limit the work of free speech, too.

Investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova has been a constant irritant to the ruling cliques of Azerbaijan, exposing corruption and graft in the very highest levels of government. Shortly after CNBC reported on her investigations into the wealth of the family of President Ilham Aliyev, intimate videos recorded by a surveillance camera hidden in her bedroom were distributed online. It was a clear attempt to discredit her.

Those who planted that camera were never punished. Instead, Ismayilova herself has forced by a local court to sweep the streets of her country, completing a 220 hour community service punishment for attending a peaceful protest in Baku.

In Venezuela and Russia, opposition reporters' private phone conversations are selectively played on the state media. In Russia, lawyer and blogger Alexei Navalny found a surveillance device in his home.

In the United States, PEN American Center has documented the effect of apparently uncontrolled surveillance on reporters and writers in the United States. Elsewhere, agents of the "Five Eyes" governments are apparently spying on the internet traffic of users in other countries, in direct contravention of local laws, and with complete impunity.

Crimes against privacy are a small but growing part of the selective lawlessness that is deployed against writers and creators in order to silence them. Surveillance is a more shadowy form of lawlessness than, for instance, the vicious and unresolved mass murder of 32 journalists in Sri Lanka in 2009, which the Day against Impunity memorializes. But, in a century where governments have conspired to weaken privacy protections online, and have chosen to diminish the illegality and immorality of ubiquitous surveillance, its specter will only grow in power and importance.

Free speech needs privacy. Unlawful surveillance against writers and speakers must be investigated and punished, and never excused or ignored. We cannot let a culture of impunity grow around crimes of surveillance.

To find out how you can help in the fight against impunity, see the Day Against Impunity website.


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