Spring is arriving in fits and starts this year—sun, blue skies, cherry blossoms, rain, cold winds, sun, blue skies, cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms have burst all around Washington and just as precipitously will fall from the trees, leaving a pink and white carpet over the city for a day or two until the winds blow the petals away. This coming weekend as the blossoms peak, the city will fill with blossom watchers, the Jefferson Memorial in particular where the cherry trees ring the Potomac River. Whether the weather is warm, cold, rainy, snowy, or sunny, the cherry blossoms herald the official start of spring for Washington, D.C.
A year ago as the cherry blossoms arrived, we were in the throes of the presidential primaries. The debate then was whether words and ideals were enough from candidates, whether they would lead to effective action. Today we watch actions every day from the new administration. We wait to see how effective the actions will be for the economy, for education, for international trade, for peace. Unfortunately the capacity to report and investigate and evaluate government’s actions is increasingly hampered as newspapers around the country struggle to survive.
Last month Denver’s 150-year old Rocky Mountain News shut down as have 120 other US newspapers this year. The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune have all filed for bankruptcy. Approximately 16,000 American reporters have lost their jobs in the last year and even more losses are expected in 2009. Papers are closing bureaus, in particular their Washington bureaus. Even the great gray lady The New York Times is reported to be struggling and furloughing staff, cutting pay and laying off people. The Washington Post is buying out contracts of hundreds of its reporters and trimming its staff.
From China to Syria, repressive nations are cracking down hard on digital dissidents.
Washington – Eleanor Roosevelt never imagined the Internet.
Neither did the other framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago when they enshrined the right to freedom of expression. Yet they wisely left room for just such a development by declaring in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.
Last year became the first time that more Web journalists were jailed than those working in any other medium, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
China, Burma, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe have led the clampdown. They have arrested writers, blocked websites and Internet access, set strict rules on cyber cafes, and tracked writers’ work. In response, some writers have used proxy search engines, encryption, and other methods to try to get around censorship and detection.
“As in the cold war [when] you had an Iron Curtain, there is concern that authoritarian governments, led by China, are developing a Virtual Curtain,” says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “There will be a free Internet on one side and a controlled Internet on the other. This will impede the free flow of information worldwide.”