I got an email last week from a woman from Uzbekistan who is now living outside the country. She had read my Atlantic article about Gulnara Karimova, liked it, and decided to post it on her Facebook page. She then got an email from her brother, who was about to go back to Uzbekistan, asking her to take it down so he wouldn’t get into trouble. The woman wasn’t sure what to do, so she wrote to me and asked what I thought. I told her to take down my article for her brother’s safety.
It is strange and sad to recommend that someone censor your own work, but even more so when that person is part of the very audience you hoped you would reach. But that is the reality of Uzbekistan.
I often get asked how people can use the internet safely in authoritarian states, and what they can do to protect themselves while expressing their political views. There are a lot of familiar responses. You can tell people to be open and brave, you can tell people to be clever and circumvent detection. But that’s not what I did. I told her to back away.
I’m writing this so people will understand the position of political dissidents and ordinary citizens in places like Uzbekistan. Media portrayals of dissidents tend to emphasize the personal struggle, the lonely heroism of an individual against an inhumane system. But every dissident tells me their greatest fear is not what will happen to themselves. It is what will happen to their loved ones, and whether they will feel responsible. And this holds true for people who have no interest in politics as well.
We can talk about access, and openness, and freedom of information. But no abstract principle can trump the vulnerability of a human being. No policy recommendation can compete with the repercussion for following it, or the responsibility inherent in advocating it.
Recently online activists drafted a Declaration of Internet Freedom outlining core principles: don’t censor, promote access. These are good ideas. I support advocacy for internet freedom – I write about it and speak about it and back others who do. I have great respect for people who speak out against corrupt governments and for the organizations which try to protect them.
But when confronted directly about someone’s safety, I fold. Suddenly nothing I write seems worth it.
I know a lot of people who have been censored in Uzbekistan. But I know even more people who self-censor. And now I’m one of them. Because there is sadness behind that beautiful cliche of the internet: the knowledge that we are all connected.