Digital rights organization wants to map internet censorship affecting Latin American journalists

Researcher Olga Khrustaleva is looking for journalists and activists across Latin America to share their experiences with Internet censorship.

Her goal: to map types of Internet censorship in the region and to find out how journalists and activists are changing their behavior as a result.

Khrustaleva, a doctoral candidate at American University, is carrying out the exploratory project as a Google Policy Fellow with Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights), a nonprofit organization based in Santiago, Chile that focuses on “the development, defense and promotion of human rights in the digital environment.”

The first half of the project consists of an anonymous survey, available in Spanish and Portuguese, that is intended for journalists or activists who have experienced some form of internet censorship. It includes things like threats of violence, DDoS attacks, legal action, and more. People taking the survey can also add actions they believe constitute censorship, but are not on the list. It also asks about effects that censorship has on the respondents.

“It can give us an idea of what is going on in the region, what kind of things people are dealing with and how bad or not bad the situation with censorship is in different countries. Because the objective is to include as many countries as possible and as many people as possible,” Khrustaleva explained.

In addition to the surveys, the other half of the project will be composed of in-depth interviews carried out by Khrustaleva. There is a place on the survey to leave an email address if the respondents want to participate.

Juan Carlos Lara, research and policy director for Derechos Digitales, said Khrustaleva’s work will address constituencies the organization has not quite addressed as closely: journalists.

“She’s gathering a base of knowledge and a set of stories that we have not seen before as an organization that deals with human rights and the internet,” Lara said.

Derechos Digitales wants to understand what censorship looks like for media, “beyond the measurements, beyond the percentages or the indexes.”

“As we see it, this creates an environment where we have further knowledge, where we have more contact with the journalistic world and also where we can develop different strategies to address the problems that they have, whether they are from a security standpoint, whether they are policy-related, whether they have to do with how connected they are to human rights organizations that deal usually with internet subjects,” Lara said.

Though the project recently started, Khrustaleva said she has already seen responses that have made her think differently about what constitutes Internet censorship. For example, some responses have indicated that difficulty and cost associated with accessing the Internet and information is a form of censorship.

In terms of digital security, Khrustaleva said most respondents use some kind of protection, like end-to-end encryption on communications or Tor, a browser that enables anonymous movement on the internet.

“A lot of respondents say that censorship made them change their online and offline behavior, in the sense that they sort of opt out of electronic communication and prefer in-person meetings sometimes, so it does affect them,” Khrustaleva said.

The researcher said that, aside from mapping censorship in the different countries of the region, one of the purposes of the project is “to raise awareness about censorship in the region.” Changing awareness could mean helping to change the situation, changing behavior of governments or private organizations that sometimes act as censors, she explained.

Lara emphasized that Derechos Digitales is approaching the project also as a human rights organization rather than from just a journalistic point of view. They want “to try to see how this might be an environment that hinders freedom of expression, and therefore that creates an environment that is less fruitful for the whole of society when there is not enough freedom of expression by those who are usually more linked to its exercise, as in the case of journalism.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.