'Freedom is in distress': Activists are being imprisoned over social media

'Freedom is in distress': Activists are being imprisoned over social media

During the tech boom of the late 1990s, idealists and optimists in Silicon Valley predicted that the internet would have a democratizing effect around the world. The internet, they argued, would make life more difficult for authoritarians, despots and dictators.

Those were, in some cases, the same techies who predicted that the internet and the digital revolution would create so many new business opportunities that the United States would never suffer another recession again. But just as the internet was not an economic panacea, it did not end political repression either.

In a column published on February 13, in fact, the Washington Post’s editorial board cites examples of the internet being used to crack down on civil liberties in Belarus, Saudi Arabia and other countries. The board lists specific examples of activists who are now in prison — or may end up there — because of social media posts that they either wrote or agreed with.

READ MORE:Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissent as ally threatens nuclear war

"Authoritarian regimes often work in the shadows, using secret police to threaten dissidents, censor the media, prohibit travel or choke off internet access,” the Post’s editorial board explains. "But when prisons are jam-packed with thousands who simply marched down the street or sent a tweet, the repression is no longer hidden; it is a bright, pulsating signal that freedom is in distress."

Under the far-right dictators who plagued Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s — Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, the military junta in Argentina — there were thousands of desaparecidos. In Spanish, desaparecido means "disappeared," and there were so many desaparecidos in Latin America back then that political rockers U2 famously wrote a song called "Mothers of the Disappeared." Their family members or co-workers had no idea where they were.

But what the Post describes is a very different type of repression — one in which activists publicly speak out online and are publicly made an example of.

"On February 27, 2022," the Post’s editorial board observes, "Danuta Perednya, a 21-year old university student, reposted a message on the social media app Telegram criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for the war in Ukraine. On December 28, 2020, a young Saudi woman, Salma al-Shehab, tweeted an appeal to release Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who was in prison for seeking the right of women to drive in the kingdom."

READ MORE: Belarusian president commits troops to aid Russia as Vladimir Putin renews attacks on Ukrainian cities

The board continues, "In October, a 19-year-old Russian university student, Olesya Krivtsova, posted an Instagram story criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine…. Ms. Perednya was arrested and sentenced to 6½ years in prison. Ms. Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison and to a 34-year travel ban."

Other activists the Post mentions include 28-year-old Marfa Rabkova, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence after helping organize demonstrations that were critical of Lukashenko. And another Belarus resident, 26-year-old Viktar Dzibrou was sentenced to two and one-half years in prison after criticizing Belarus’ pro-Vladimir Putin strongman.

Krivtsova is not in prison, but she is under house arrest in Russia and is facing the possibility of a seven-year prison sentence if she is tried and convicted.

"They are hardly alone," the Post’s editorial board laments. "The world’s political prisons are bulging. A string of popular uprisings over the past few years brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets, protesting against authoritarianism in Hong Kong, Cuba, Belarus and Iran; against the military junta that toppled democracy in Myanmar; and against strict restrictions on speech and protest in Russia and China…. Most of these protests were met with mass crackdowns and arrests."

READ MORE: A Jan. 6 Capitol riot suspect has been granted political asylum in pro-Putin Belarus

Read The Washington Post’s full editorial at this link (subscription required).

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