Silencing Across Borders: Digital Threats and Transnational Repression against Exiled Activists

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Session Lead by Marcus Michaelsen is a researcher at the Free University in Brussels

Marcus interviewed more than 50 activists and journalists from Syrian, Iran and Egypt, who were distributed across 12 host countries, looking at how regimes target dissidents who live abroad, ie are either exiled or live outside of their country. Specifically, Marcus was researching Transnational Repression and role of digital surveillance/censorship in it.

>> Check notes out notes from other sessions here


Transnational Repression is not a new phenomena. It has been happening for decades. Assassinations and kidnaps are the most violent forms of Transnational Repression but there are softer ways to target dissidents abroad. The most well known case is of Jamal Khashoggi.

Digital surveillance/censorship have become essential components of transnational repression. Regimes can now respond to diaspora activities, especially since activists in exile depend heavily on digital communications.

Regimes are doing this for two main reasons:

a) Restricted public attention that dissidents get to bring attention to human right problems/issues

b) Undermine ties the exiled dissidents have i their own countries.

Transnational Repression Strategies


  • Monitoring and surveillance digitally
  • Account and device hacking to get access to private correspondence. This can be done in many ways phishing, social engineering etc.
  • Slander, harassment and disinformation
  • Online publication hacking. We are seeing less DDOS attacks but you have alot of false reports to shut down facebook etc.

More Classical Methods

  • Threats from embassies and regime agents
  • Threats against in-country relatives
  • Threats against property rights


  • Encouraging self-censorship
  • Undermines ties to home country. This means they get less information out of their country, like rights violations or info from sources for journalists.
  • Causes tension and stress.
  • All of this can constraint impact and outreach of efforts of activists/journalists living abroad/

Thoughts Regarding Digital security

  • Most of the people he interviewed understood their need for digital security, but said they needed more advice on a regular basis.
  • They were unsure of the uncertainty about technical risks and adversary capacities. They were also unsure about tools to use.
  • Found it difficult to change routine and behavior.

Recommendations by Marcus

a) We have to build digital resilience. Go beyond digital security training. Lets reduce the dissidents uncertainty of what is technically possible.

b) Contain surveillance technology. How do we stop these technologies from developing.

c) Take care of activist well being. How do we stop culture of self-sacrifice that leads to burnout, paranoia etc.

d) How do we involve host government/societies. How do they protect political immigrants on their territories. How do activists use rule of law in their host countries.

Other thoughts, comments:

  • Sometimes the most powerful form of repression are in exile communities. People are implanted in communities to stew issues, or create chaos. Syrian and Egyptians have seen more of this, as recent arrivals. Iranian less, as they have more years living as a diaspora community. Some communities have begun organizing people in circles of trust. Maybe only sensitive conversations take place with certain trusted people.
  • Not everyone is aware of organizations or digital security support that exists. When you have more local organizations that help them with advice, it works much better.
  • How do they engage in host societies, depends on context. In some cases, host societies also have adversaries. For example, in Syrians have to deal with backlash in Germany. This includes hate groups, or having undocumented people in their network. Some how they have to get involved local domestic politics. There is also government linked adversaries on the ground in Germany that activists have to deal with.
  • Cross government cooperation happens where they are sharing intelligence. For example, Venezuela and Cuba, and definitely in MENA region.
  • In some cases, if you seem to have a closer relationship with your host country, you are seen as not trustworthy as more to some folks in-country.