Reporters Without Borders publishes its annual list of countries that most suppress online free expression and launches its campaign : 24 hours against Internet censorship. Act now ! Vote against the Internet black holes and send a message to Yahoo!’s founder, Jerry Yang.
The list of 13 Internet enemies
Three countries - Nepal, Maldives and Libya - have been removed from the annual list of Internet enemies, which Reporters Without Borders publishes today. But many bloggers were harassed and imprisoned this year in Egypt, so it has been added to the roll of shame reserved for countries that systematically violate online free expression.
Countries in alphabetical order :
The government has a monopoly of telecommunications and does not hesitate to block access to opposition websites if it feels the need, especially at election time. Independent online publications are also often hacked. In March 2006, for example, several websites critical of President Alexandre Lukashenko mysteriously disappeared from the Internet for several days.
The Burmese government’s Internet policies are even more repressive than those of its Chinese and Vietnamese neighbours. The military junta clearly filters opposition websites. It keeps a very close eye on Internet cafes, in which the computers automatically execute screen captures every five minutes, in order to monitor user activity. The authorities targeted Internet telephony and chat services in June, blocking Google’s Gtalk, for example. The aim was two-fold: to defend the profitable long-distance telecommunications market, which is controlled by state companies, as well as to stop cyber-dissidents from using a means of communication that is hard to monitor.
China unquestionably continues to be the world’s most advanced country in Internet filtering. The authorities carefully monitor technological progress to ensure that no new window of free expression opens up, After initially targeting websites and chat forums, they nowadays concentrate on blogs and video exchange sites. China now has nearly 17 million bloggers. This is an enormous number, but very few of them dare to tackle sensitive issues, still less criticise government policy. Firstly, because China’s blog tools all include filters that block “subversive” word strings. Secondly, because the companies operating these services, both Chinese and foreign, are pressured by the authorities to control content. They employ armies of moderators to clean up the content produced by the bloggers. Finally, in a country in which 52 people are currently in prison for expressing themselves too freely online, self-censorship is obviously in full force. Just five years ago, many people thought Chinese society and politics would be revolutionised by the Internet, a supposedly uncontrollable medium. Now, with China enjoying increasing geopolitical influence, people are wondering the opposite, whether perhaps China’s Internet model, based on censorship and surveillance, may one day be imposed on the rest of the world.
With less than 2 per cent of its population online, Cuba is one of the most backward Internet countries. An investigation carried out by Reporters Without Borders in October revealed that the Cuban government uses several levers to ensure that this medium is not used in a “counter-revolutionary” way. Firstly, it has more or less banned private Internet connections. To surf the Internet or check their e-mail, Cubans have to go to public access points such as Internet cafes, universities and “youth computer clubs” where their activity is more easily monitored. Secondly, the computers in all the Internet cafes and leading hotels contain software installed by the Cuban police that triggers an alert message whenever “subversive” key-words are spotted. The regime also ensures that there is no Internet access for dissidents and independent journalists, for whom communicating with people abroad is an ordeal. Finally, the government also relies on self-censorship. You can get 20 years in prison for writing “counter-revolutionary” articles for foreign websites. You can even get five years just for connecting to the Internet illegally. Few Internet users dare to run the risk of defying the regime’s censorship.
Aside from a few sites linked to the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious movements, Egypt does little online filtering. But President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, displays an extremely disturbing authoritarianism as regards the Internet. Three bloggers were arrested in June 2006 and were held for two to three months for calling for democratic reforms. Others have been harassed, such as Coptic blogger Hela Hemi Botros, who was forced to close down her blog in August under pressure from the police. Finally, a Council of State administrative court recently ruled that the authorities could block, suspend of close down any website likely to pose a threat to “national security.” This could open the way to extensive online censorship.
Repression of bloggers seems to have declined in 2006. Whereas around 20 were imprisoned in 2005, only Arash Sigarchi is in jail at the moment. But Internet filtering has stepped up and Iran today boasts of filtering 10 million “immoral” websites. Pornographic sites, political sites and those dealing with religion are usually the ones most targeted. But since the summer of 2006, the censors have concentrated on online publications dealing with women’s rights. The authorities also recently decided to ban broadband connections. This could be explained by a concern not to overload the very poor-quality Iranian network, but it could also be motivated by a desire to prevent the downloading of Western cultural products such as films and songs.
- North Korea
Like last year, North Korea continues to be the world’s worst Internet black hole. Only a few officials are able to access the web, using connections rented from China. The country’s domain name - .nk - has still not been launched and the few websites created by the North Korean government are hosted on servers in Japan or South Korea. It is hard to believe this is simply the result of economic difficulties in a country which today is capable of manufacturing nuclear warheads. The North Korean journalists who have found refuge in South Korea are very active on the Internet, especially on the www.dailynk.com website.
- Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia does not hide its online censorship. Unlike China, where website blocking is disguised as technical problems, Saudi Arabia’s filters clearly tell Internet users that certain websites are banned. Censorship concentrates on pornographic content, but it also targets opposition websites, Israeli publications, or sites dealing with homosexuality. Blogs also pose a problem to the Saudi censors. Last year they tried to completely block access to the country’s biggest blog tool, blogger.com. But they backed off a few days later and now they just block the blogs that are deemed unacceptable. In June of this year, for example, the intimate diary of “Saudi Eve,” a young woman who dared to talk about her love life and criticise government censorship, was added to the blacklist.
Syria is the Middle East’s biggest prison for cyber-dissidents, with three people currently detained for criticising the authorities online. They are systematically tortured and subjected to inhumane conditions. The government bans access to Arabic-language opposition sites and sites dealing with Syria’s Kurdish minority.
In 2005, Tunisia had the honour of hosting the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a big UN event about the Internet’s future. Yet President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s Internet policies are among the most repressive in the world. All the Internet cafes are state-controlled. They filter web content and are under close police surveillance. It is, for example, impossible to access the Reporters Without Borders website from inside Tunisia. The security services also constantly harass independent bloggers and opposition website editors to ensure that self-censorship prevails. One cyber-dissident, Mohammed Abbou, has been imprisoned since March 2005 for criticising the president in an online newsletter.
With less than 1 per cent of the population online, this is one of the world’s least connected countries. President Separmurad Nyazov is a central Asian Kim Jong-Il, wielding total control over the media. Not only is the Turkmen Internet censored, it is also forbidden territory for the vast majority of the population.
Official censorship seems to have become even tougher since the bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy protests in Andidjan in May 2005. The iron-fisted government led by President Islam Karimov blocks access to most independent websites dealing with Uzbekistan, which are usually hosted on servers in Russia, and to NGO websites that criticise its human rights violations.
The Vietnamese government is negotiating its admission to the World Trade Organisation and is in the uncomfortable position of being squeezed by the international community. Unlike neighbouring China, it is unable to completely ignore the demands of foreign diplomats. It therefore seems to be tending to soften its control over news and information, and hesitates to crack down on dissidents. Several cyber-dissidents, the most famous of whom was Pham Hong Son, were released in 2005 and 2006. This relative forbearance seems to have breathed new life into Vietnam’s pro-democracy movement, which is making admirable use of the Internet to organise and circulate independently-sourced news domestically. A group calling itself “8406" even launched an online petition in the summer of 2006, signed by hundreds of people using their real names, calling on the government to begin political reforms. This use of the Internet by young democrats alarms the authorities, who are still often ready to use force to silence these cyber-dissidents. Ten people have been arrested this year for what they said on the Internet. Four of them are still detained.
Countries removed from the list
Reporters Without Borders confirmed, during a fact-finding visit, that the Internet is no longer censored in Libya. Furthermore, no cyber-dissident has been detained since Abdel Razak Al Mansuri’s release in March 2006. Reporters Without Borders nonetheless still regards President Muammar Gaddafi as a press freedom predator.
No cyber-dissident has been imprisoned in the Maldives since Fathimath Nisreen, Mohamed Zaki and Ahmad Didi were released between May 2005 and February 2006. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is still viewed by Reporters Without Borders as a press freedom predator but his policies towards the Internet no longer justify keeping his country on the list of Internet enemies.
Reporters Without Borders has observed a marked improvement in freedom of expression since King Gyanendra backed down and democratic rule was restored in May 2006. The Internet is no longer censored and no harassment or arbitrary detention of any blogger has been reported.