In China, Zeng Jinyan is under house arrest, her husband a political prisoner. In Cuba, Yoani Sánchez is followed by state security and was beaten up by police officers. Meanwhile, Farnaz Seifi is forced to leave her native Iran after she is arrested, her family threatened and her friends attacked by government thugs. Their crime? Blogging.
Across the world, citizens of countries with severe state censorship have taken the flow of independent information into their own hands. Whether it’s publicizing government oppression, campaigning for justice, equal treatment or free speech, or fighting for the rights of political prisoners, rapidly developing technology such as camera phones and the internet has enabled brave individuals to step into the breach of what is often a toothless press.
Forbidden Voices tells the story of three such women, examining the fear and persecution they encounter, often daily, and tracking some of the causes that feature in their blogs. The section on Zeng Jinyan is perhaps the saddest of the three. The wife of a civil rights campaigner imprisoned for three and a half years, she is raising their young daughter alone, stuck in their apartment. A scene where a beefy security guard repeatedly body-checks the slightly built Jinyan, blocking her from leaving their complex, is a powerful symbol of the vulnerability of the individual in the face of state tyranny. Nonetheless, she doggedly pursues her campaign for her husband’s release and for the promotion of human rights in general.
Yoani Sánchez at least has some freedom of movement as she covers the case of a hunger striker who is seeking the release of political prisoners, and also tries to bring charges against the police officers who attacked her. However, her blogging has already earned her physical retribution, and one scene captures her distress as a Cuban TV report denounces her as a mercenary agent of Western oppression.
Farnaz Seifi’s strand of the documentary is less dramatic, as she is now safe in Germany. However, her sadness at living exiled from her family and friends, and fears of what may befall them, form another moving comment on the sacrifices that some bloggers make to bring the truth to the outside world.
Forbidden Voices is an important film. Though it makes the viewer despair at the state-sanctioned abuses still going on around the world, and the suffering and violence people endure for seeking the most basic of human rights, it also gives cause for hope. They might be lone individuals taking on vast and vicious state apparatus, but the documentary shows that such people can and do make a difference. Moreover, as internet technology becomes ever more pervasive, authoritarian states have fewer chances of hiding their misdeeds. They may still pursue and persecute their citizens, but someone, somewhere, is recording and relaying it.