Movements Monday: Passport Edition
As part of Movements.org’s ongoing work to amplify the voices of digital activists fighting for basic human rights in closed societies, each Monday we’ll highlight critical events from the past week, trending cyber activism tactics, or growing movements that you should know about. Occasionally, we’ll also provide an opportunity for you to directly engage with the activists on the front lines of the struggle for their rights. We hope you share and discuss these updates widely and we look forward to hearing your feedback!
This week, it's the Movements Monday Passport Edition. So grab your passport and let’s get traveling!
Though, if you’re a human rights defender from Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China or any number of other authoritarian countries, you probably won’t be able to join us since the government has probably taken away your passport and your right to travel freely. It’s a trick authoritarian governments play on many prominent critics that’s as old as border restrictions themselves. And it’s becoming an increasingly popular way to stifle dissent. Given today’s substantial air travel and border crossing restrictions, the task of keeping dissidents trapped in-country is often as easy as taking away their passport.
If you’re a dictator, by taking away the passports of a few dissidents, you can keep them close enough to monitor their every movement, with the added benefit of preventing them from airing out your dirty laundry and telling the nasty truth about your regime while they’re abroad. While loosing the freedom to travel is only one of many consequences faced by activists who dare to challenge a repressive authority, it’s one that has significant spillover effects.
Control of information is the most important job of any dictator who wishes to keep his head from being paraded around the capitol. And one of the primary ways the leaders of countries like Cuba or North Korea have maintained their iron-fisted monopoly over information is by tightly managing their citizens’ ability to travel. In North Korea, those who leave without official permission from Pyongyang face harsh interrogation, torture, and the possibility of a lifetime labor camp sentence upon returning. (If you missed our Reddit Ask-Me-Anything last week with a DPRK defector, go here).
This is also one of the reasons human rights groups and international bodies like the United Nations often have such a difficult time getting up-to-date information on the conditions in closed societies. In countries where communication via ICT means is highly restricted and dangerous, word-of-mouth info and the assistance of expatriates can be vital for coordinating and raising support for international action against rights abusers. Travel restrictions also tend to go unnoticed internationally, where imprisonment of activists often ruffles diplomatic feathers, but less obvious subversion of dissent doesn’t make headlines. To shed some light on the prevalence of this tactic, we've compiled a few prominent travel ban cases that you may want to know about:
Yoani Sanchez (@yoanisanchez)
Earlier this year, Cuba passed new regulations easing travel restrictions on its citizens, allowing some of them to travel abroad for brief periods. However many of the regime’s most outspoken critics, including the young blogger Yoani Sanchez, were still blocked from leaving. According to Yoani, she was denied access to a passport over 20 times before finally being granted permission to leave Cuba earlier this month.
For several years Yoani has been a vocal opponent of the totalitarian Cuban regime, primarily reaching audiences through her blog, “Generación Y,” as well as regular contributions to the Huffington Post and other international media. Her writing gives a very personal account of life in one of the world’s most closed-off societies, and Yoani has received numerous international awards for her courage and writing prowess. In 2009, after meriting critical acclaim domestically and abroad— alarming censors within Cuba who rarely tolerate free expression—Yoani’s blog (as well as the blogs of her colleagues hosted on www.desdecuba.com) was blocked. Despite periodic arrests and government threats since then, Yoani has continued to publish through an extensive “citizen network” of friends living inside and outside the Island who smuggle her words using Email, CDs, and other technology.
Yoani is using her 80-day furlough from Cuba to launch a global speaking tour and connect with new audiences around Latin America, Europe, and the United States. Her first stop in Brazil has already raised suspicions that Cuban regime loyalists are systematically monitoring her moves and attempting to disrupt her talks. At her first public appearance, a well-organized organized group of demonstrators heckled Yoani and forced her to stop speaking. “My government does this to,” Yoani responded. See the video below for more:
While Yoani has been granted permission to travel, Cuba has maintained its travel ban on many other Cuban dissidents, many of whom do not enjoy Yoani’s relative celebrity. According to a recent Tweet from Yoani, the regime has upheld its refusal to grant a passport to activists Angel Moya (@JAngelMoya) and José Daniel Ferrer Garciá (@JDanielFerrer), who were imprisoned in 2003 with 75 other Cuban dissidents. Yoani writes: "#Cuba [has the] flavor of bitersweetness, hope, and disappointment with #ImmigrationReform. I travel but @JAngelMoya and @JDanielFerrer are denied their passport"
Khaled al-Johani, the “Bravest Man in Saudi”
This video, taken March 11, 2011, is not the raving of a madman. Rather, it’s a courageous protest of an unjust system of repression by a man who has had enough:
Two years ago, Khaled al-Johani was one of only a handful of protestors who heeded a call on Facebook for a “Day of Rage” demonstration against the Saudi government. He was the only person who spoke to international reporters that were there to document the events, and he was quickly rounded up by Saudi security forces upon returning home. While al-Johani was released on July 25, 2012, he was recently brought back to a secret court hearing and last week was sentenced to a year and a half in prison and a three-year travel ban. Authorities also confiscated his electronic devices, ostensibly in an attempt to cut off al-Johani’s communication with the outside world.
Al-Johani is one of many Saudi activists facing increasingly harsh crackdown from the regime as demonstrations and more public forms of protest have taken place online and in the streets. Many activists are launguishing in detention, prison, or other administrative no-man's-lands awaiting trials that may never come. Those who are released from jail are often subject to severe movement restrictions and are often never allowed to travel abroad. Movements.org has documented the growing Saudi human rights movement here, here, and here.
China, the Travel Ban Leader
Though it has significant competition, China may be the most proficient passport-snatcher of all. A recent New York Times article profiled the extensive use of travel bans on opponents of the regime, including 79-year old retired economics professor Sun Wenguang. As Sun explained:
“I’d love to visit my daughter in America and my 90-year-old brother in Taiwan, but the authorities have other ideas. I feel like I’m living in a cage.”
Sun is one of many activists who have been prevented from leaving China due to public comments and writings critical of the regime. Between Mao’s revolution in 1949 and a gradual opening of restrictions in 1991, almost no Chinese citizens were allowed to leave the country. By 1993 however, many Chinese were granted passage to destinations around the world—except for those deemed a threat to the regime. Tibetans or Uighurs, minorities in China who hail from restive territories in the interior of the country, continue to face particularly daunting obstacles to international travel. According to the Times article, Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser explained it like this:
“For the Han, getting a passport is as easy as buying a bus ticket. But for Tibetans it’s harder than climbing to the sky.”
Dissident artist Ai Weiwei is another prominent regime critic who is facing an ongoing battle with the government to travel freely. Despite (and perhaps in no small part due to) numerous invitations to speak to audiences around the world, the man who helped design the Olympic Stadium in Beijing and the creator of countless works of internationally acclaimed art has been prevented from leaving China since 2011. Ai is profiled in another recent Times article and is featured in a documentary produced last year, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (airing on PBS in the United States Monday 2/26).