Coming from the United States, it can be easy to take our freedom for granted. Yes, our country is far from perfect, but we have freedom of speech, freedom of information, and laws that, for the most part, allow us to do what we want, as long as it is not hurting anyone.
However, there are many countries (and in some cases, entire regions) where such freedoms are not granted. This may be due to religious or traditional reasons, socioeconomic reasons, or political reasons. Whatever the case is, you need to be aware of how to negotiate these places.
Living in this digital age, though, means more than just taking care of your physical safety (though, obviously, that’s still the most important thing!) but of what you do with your laptop, tablets, smartphones or any other device with a basic internet connection. Places like China, in particular, are much more complicated in the digital sphere than the physical, what with the country being very open to foreign traders but still having strict laws about what can be accessed on the web.
You should always be sure to have your device protected by using an antivirus for iPhone and Android, as well as any other operating system you may be using, but this is doubly true in countries where the Wifi connections tend to be less than 100% secure. Although companies like Apple and Microsoft offer excellent safety features, a good antivirus will give you that extra layer of security needed in countries where internet security is less guaranteed.
You will also need to download a VPN. This makes it possible to access websites and apps that are otherwise banned. Furthermore, you’ll need to know when to hold back your opinions or reactions, even when it seems like injustice is being committed.
Here are 5 things you need to know before you visit a repressive region.
1. The internet is not safe
In countries such as China and Russia, many websites and services are blocked or banned. But they are far from the only countries with such measures in place. In religious countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, gay websites are blocked, as well as sites like Reddit. In countries like North Korea and the UAE, criticism of the government or state is silenced. In Singapore, pornographic websites are banned.
Unfortunately, repression of the internet goes beyond censorship. Many of these countries surveil what citizens and visitors are doing online. And this is where you need to be extra careful. Reading about criticism of the country is fine before you get there, but when you’re there you must put certain measures in place.
A virtual private network (VPN) is essential. This software hides your location and identity, meaning you can access any websites safely. Download a trustworthy VPN before you leave on your trip, as in some places, the websites of VPN services themselves are blocked. You should only look at content that criticises the government when your VPN is switched on.
2. Be careful with social media
In the same vein, you need to be extra careful with what you post on social media. Ideally, you should increase your privacy settings so that only your friends and approved followers can see your content. If you don’t want to take this step (even temporarily), then don’t post certain stuff while you’re there.
For example, if you see injustice being committed, you might want to expose it to the world. Don’t do this while you are there. Chances are, your social media is being surveilled. The authorities of the country know who is visiting, and it is not difficult for them to add your social media accounts to the algorithms that check for certain content.
Even reposting an article that you found online which criticises the government is not worth the risk. You can do so when you get home.
3. Acknowledge your limits
It will be difficult at times to keep your opinions to yourself. It will be difficult not to join protests or attend certain events. For example, in a country where gay people have fewer rights, you might feel compelled to become part of the resistance. You probably want to fight alongside those who are suffering.
Unfortunately, when you are in a foreign country, you need to acknowledge your limits. If the government does not like what you are doing, it is all too easy to kick you out. Even if they don’t kick you out, you are putting yourself at risk and probably gaining little. Yes, you’ll have shown your support, but it is going to be much more effective if you carry on your support in tangible ways – through donations and raising awareness – once you are home.
4. Not everyone thinks like you
When you spend your time with like-minded people, it is easy to begin to believe everyone thinks like you. Taking this attitude to a repressive country is unwise. Many people think that even though a government is repressive, its citizens will be more open. This is often not the case.
Remember that not everyone thinks like you and it is not your place to try and change their opinions. In a country where the government does not accept criticism, don’t criticise them to a cab driver or a local you befriend. They may well be uncomfortable with this, whether or not they agree with your opinions.
It is difficult to accept that people who are just like us may hold opinions that seem harmful. However, that is the reality, and you’re not going to change their minds with one conversation.
5. You might miss the bigger picture
Finally, it is always important to take a step back and try and see the big picture. The country you are visiting is more than its problems. I know many people who have come back from a country where all they saw was repression, missing out on the fact that people live normal lives in spite of it.
The same is true when you visit a country with significant humanitarian issues. Seeing children begging is always difficult, but try and remember that they are more than their poverty. Seeing filthy streets is disheartening, but try and remember that the people living on them are not as fixated on that as you are.
The big picture is easy to miss, but if you want to truly appreciate a place, you can’t focus only on its flaws.