Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

A Turkish police officer walks past a picture of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi prior to a ceremony, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the one-year anniversary of his death.

Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press

Marcus Kolga, Mariam Memarsadeghi and Kaveh Shahrooz are all senior fellows at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

A leading voice for human rights in Iran is targeted for kidnapping by agents of the Iranian regime from her home in Brooklyn, where she resides as a citizen of the United States. A Saudi commentator is dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A plane travelling from Athens to Vilnius is forced to land in Minsk so that a young Belarusian journalist can be arrested. These stories – of Masih Alinejad, Jamal Khashoggi, and Roman Pratasevich respectively – remind us that activism and journalism are both vital and dangerous. They also point to a growing international trend which human rights defenders are calling “transnational repression.” The message to democracy activists is clear: No matter where you are or which passport you carry, you are not safe anywhere.

In many ways, repression beyond borders is nothing new. Iran, for example, has carried out dozens of extraterritorial assassinations, killing military officials of the old regime, a former prime minister and even an entertainer. It recently kidnapped and killed Ruhollah Zam, an outspoken journalist. Facing no consequences for this gangsterism, Tehran has recently expanded its efforts, culminating in the recently foiled plot to kidnap someone on U.S. soil. Other countries have taken notice. The Kremlin, for example, has practically made the poisoning of critics abroad a pillar of Russian statecraft. China appears to have added a new twist by pressuring compliant foreign states to clamp down on those it wants to suppress.

Story continues below advertisement

Internet-based technologies have only added to the tyrants’ arsenal. Dissidents routinely suffer virtual intimidation and defamation, regardless of their physical whereabouts. A report from Oxford University shows a number of illiberal governments – such as those of Russia, China, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Syria and Turkey – target individual activists with threats, abuse and libel online. They do so through fake social media accounts and algorithm-fuelled propaganda that “amplify marginal voices and ideas by inflating the number of likes, shares and retweets they receive, creating an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance” for pro-dictatorship policies as well as individuals and groups attacking activists. The psychological effects of this strategy on activists cannot be overstated.

Targeted online attacks accompany cybersurveillance on populations at large. Beijing, for example, is increasingly relying on artificial intelligence to monitor civic organizing or protest and to promptly extinguish such attempts. Ominously, China is also exporting this technology to countries such as Egypt, Kenya and Uganda, creating an illiberal alliance and imperilling dissidents in more and more countries.

These tactics are intended to strike fear in anyone who dares speak out about repression or corruption. To fight for freedom now means being tracked, defamed and rendered physically and psychologically vulnerable, no matter where the activist or journalist lives. When autocrats cannot reach these individuals themselves, they intimidate and imprison their family members as a means to control their speech and actions abroad.

Dictators engage in transnational repression for one simple reason: to stay in power and continue enriching themselves. Sadly, the confluence of Western apathy and corporate greed have permitted tyrants to increase such aggression without incurring a cost. This harms not only dissidents, but gives autocrats incentive to undermine the rule of law and other democratic institutions in free countries. The only way to end this growing pattern is to impose a severe cost for such repression and hold officials to account.

This includes using targeted Magnitsky sanctions against rights violators and their corrupt enablers, invoking universal jurisdiction to prosecute criminal leaders on Western soil, increasing refugee visas for dissidents and employing our security forces to offer them more protection, grounding the flights of any state that takes its repression to the skies, and expelling diplomats who organize and enable transnational repression. Equally critical is the need to educate elected Western officials, police and intelligence services, media and citizens about the threats of foreign interference and influence operations.

But before implementing those policies, our governments must first recognize the scale of the problem. It is no exaggeration to say that if the free world does not see and counter these tactics, it will lose a war against illiberalism just as significant as the ones it won against fascism and communism. Only when we recognize that transnational repression is an existential risk to the world’s democracies can we institute strong deterrence for its use.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies