Amnesty International yesterday reported the jailing of seven student activists and a beautician under two separate articles of the Syrian penal code after calling for peaceful political reforms online. Sentenced to between five and seven years for allegedly "taking action or making a written statement or speech which could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country...", their story is unfortunately an all too familiar one.
Syria is one of six states identified in a recent report by the Open Net Initiative as being the most pervasive in online repression. Along with Burma, Vietnam, Tunisia, China and Iran, the report found the Syrian government guilty of active internet filtering and surveillance of its citizens, and of developing tools of online repression.
Tools and methods of repression vary widely, and are deployed in very different ways. At an event earlier this month, I heard Iranian "cyber-dissident" Sina Motalebi, speak eloquently of his experiences of arrest and solitary imprisonment for running a personal blog. Given no official reason, Motalebi was told his arrest was intended as an example, to show the high costs of blogging, and underline that there was no such thing as "free" - in both senses of the word - expression. Having now sought political asylum in the Netherlands, he spoke of what he saw as Tehran's "moderation of the average". The fear that the Iranian government has successfully generated, he says, has left the country's cyberspace open to extremists. The ordinary, moderate citizen is no longer represented, having been driven to self-censorship by the regime.
This most recent news from Syria underlines once again the need to work together to protect and realize freedom of expression online for all. There are organizations developing software to circumvent firewalls, and to ensure safety, security and anonymity online. There are monitoring and research centres producing evidence of misuse and persecution by governments online, and there are millions of internet users worldwide who can stand together to help make the web a true free for all.