In November 2009, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez was walking to a march against violence in Havana when three men drove up in an unmarked black car and told her to get in. When she refused, they dragged her into the vehicle and began beating her.
“They were saying, 'It's all over, Yoani.' I really thought they were going to kill me,” she said after her release.
The beating, which left her with broken teeth and a black eye, was one of the many attacks Sanchez has endured due to her work as a journalist and activist. Her blog “Generación Y” offers a critical look at daily life under Castro’s regime and gets about 14 million hits each month.
She is one of three female bloggers whose fight for freedom of speech is documented in Forbidden Voices, a new film directed by Barbara Miller.
Miller is a Swiss independent film director who worked in the past as Assistant Director and Editing Assistant on the Oscar-nominated documentary War Photographer. She recently screened Forbidden Voices at Citizen Jane Film Festival, a festival in Columbia, Mo., that showcases the work of female filmmakers.
The documentary follows the lives of Sánchez in Cuba, Farnaz Seifi in Iran and Zeng Jinyan in China. The three women have faced censorship, threats and violence to tell their stories.
“When I came across their blogs, it was really amazing to hear these voices from places where I haven’t heard any voices before,” Miller told Global Journalist in an interview. “I realized there are a lot of women blogging all over the world and that for women, blogging is really a tool in societies where they don’t have a voice.”
Miller said she was struck by the way these women made documenting their daily lives an act of political protest.
“They have a way of being political, not through shouting slogans or asking for revolutions, but by really trying to start a dialogue,” she said. “They really show a democratic way of changing things and creating awareness and creating space like their blogs where people can talk, discuss, and where people can start raising their voices and find their own voices and opinions.”
In 2003, Iranian journalist Farnaz Seifi began a Farsi-language blog called “Amshaspandan” in which she criticized the Iranian regime and called for women’s equality. When she began writing, there was very little restriction on content and the blogosphere in Iran exploded. However, six months after Farnaz started the blog, the government began to crack down on Internet activity, and even censored the word “women” from Google searches to suppress the country’s growing feminist movement, as the film shows.
Seifi received numerous death threats and her blog was heavily censored. In 2007, Iranian officials arrested her as she boarded a plane to a cyber journalism conference in India. They took her to Evin Prison, a notorious jail where activists have been tortured and killed in the past. She was blindfolded and interrogated for several nights until she was released after paying a substantial bail. Officials charged her with “subversion and collaborating with foreign powers” and she was forced to flee the country and shut down her blog for her own safety.
Seifi now lives in exile in Germany and blogs under a pseudonym to protect the safety of her relatives, who remained in her home country.
While Seifi’s work forced her to flee her home country, Chinese blogger Zeng Jinyan’s activity keeps her trapped in hers.
In 2007 Jinyan and her husband Hu Jia were both placed under house arrest for their political activism. The two used a small camera to document their experiences and smuggled the footage out to the Forbidden Voices film crew. The two lived together under house arrest for 200 days until Jia was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “incitement to subvert state power.” Jinyan was then left to raise their baby daughter alone.
“My keyboard is the only thing that helps me bear my sorrow and indignation,” she wrote on her blog from house arrest. Although Jinyan rarely blogs now, she still manages to send messages from her Twitter account using a proxy server.
Miller said the three women in the film come from very different cultures, but their passion for freedom unites them.
“I think they have in common a longing for freedom, and freedom of speech, where everyone can really say what he thinks and wants and that people don’t have to live in fear anymore,” she said. “I think they really want to make the world a more peaceful, more human, more democratic place for everyone”
Miller said the three women also share an incredible perseverance to speak out, no matter the cost.
“If you want to do something against injustice, there’s always a price to pay,” she said. “Often change doesn’t come without risk. It’s worth fighting for.”
Miller said the activists’ main goal is to inform and empower people within their own countries, but it is often easier to reach audiences abroad due to censorship at home. For example, Internet in Cuba is among the most censored in the world and is only accessible through private and expensive connections at tourist hotels. For that reason, Yoani Sanchez’ blog is much more widely read abroad than inside Cuba. However, she has developed alternative ways of getting her information to fellow citizens: She copies her blog entries onto paper, CDs and USB drives and distributes them throughout the country. Because Internet access is hard to come by and very expensive, often one person will connect to the Internet at a tourist hotel, save the text of a blog post onto a USB drive, and later share it offline with friends, who can then pass it on to others — creating an underground railroad of blogs without Internet connection.
Sanchez frequently hosts workshops at her home teaching Cubans these methods for getting information and telling them how to start their own blogs. She has also been able to access Twitter through SMS messages and can send tweets to her audience of more than 520,000 followers without censorship.
Miller said that Cuban government’s backlash against Sanchez has brought the blogger more recognition than she would have had otherwise.
“Yoaní says she has lost some friends because people are afraid to be seen with her, but on the other hand, though, she says most Cubans wouldn’t know much about her without the state television talking about her,” she said.
Miller said the more people in the international community who know about these bloggers and support them, the more protection they have at home.
“If they are just known within their country, the government can do whatever it wants,” she said. “But as soon as they’re known outside, it’s really a big protection for them.”
The film shows secret footage taken by Sanchez’ husband of her applying for a Visa to leave the country more than 20 times, only to be denied at the immigration office. Finally after a liberalized travel law was passed in January 2013, her application was accepted and she was able to leave Cuba. She completed a several month tour of more than a dozen countries in the Americas and Europe, where she spoke about press repression in Cuba and announced plans to launch a media company.
The film aims to amplify these women’s voices and show the power the Internet has given to people living under repressive regimes.
“Dictatorships’ most powerful weapons are fear and getting only the information that they want out,” Miller said. “They create a world where everything people know is filtered through the government.
“When people start getting informed about what’s really happening, you’re tearing down the whole system. I think a dictatorship that loses control of the monopoly on information loses its power. That’s why these governments try to restrict the Internet as much as they can — they know how powerful it is.”