Oct 16th 2021
DAKAR, DUBAI, ISTANBUL, NEW YORK AND SINGAPORE
ON OCTOBER 8TH two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, won the Nobel peace prize for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression”. The Kremlin congratulated Mr Muratov for being “brave”, which he is. Six of his colleagues at Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper he founded in 1993, have been murdered.
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Ms Ressa is brave, too. Her news organisation, Rappler, started as a Facebook page in 2011. It is one of very few in the Philippines that criticises Rodrigo Duterte, a president who urges the police to kill suspects without trial. At least ten journalists have been murdered since Mr Duterte came to power. In 2016, when he was president-elect, he said: “just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
The Nobel award recognises a sad truth. Globally, freedom of expression is in retreat. The bluntest methods of silencing dissent are widely wielded: autocrats and criminal gangs often use the sword against the pen (or bullets against bloggers). Many governments also lock people up for peacefully expressing their views.
But these old-fashioned forms of repression are increasingly reinforced with or replaced by newer techniques. Freedom House, a think-tank, reports that in the past year efforts to control speech online escalated in 30 of the 70 countries it monitors, and receded only in 18 (see map). Many autocrats and would-be autocrats look with envy at China, where the Communist Party has overseen the construction of a walled-off information sphere, within which criticism of those in power can barely be seen or heard. None can copy it exactly, but many are deploying digital tools to curate the information that reaches their citizens.
Some autocrats still believe that suspending internet services completely is a good way to stymie critics, particularly in an emergency. In 2020 there were at least 155 regional or national internet shutdowns in 29 countries, according to Access Now, an NGO. More than a hundred of those took place in India. But shutdowns batter economies and make strongmen look crude. In 2011 a panicked Hosni …….