To combat online censorship, Reporters Without Borders is unblocking access to 9 news websites in order to make them available in the 11 countries where they are currently banned. Collateral Freedom: how we thwart censorship In an original initiative designed to circumvent website blocking by governments that violate human rights, Reporters Without Borders is using […]
Foiling censorship in 11 anti-Internet countries
The Kazakh authorities demonstrated the extent of their know-how during their brutal crackdown on rioting in Zhanaozen in December 2011, when they cut off the region’s Internet and telecommunications and filtered Twitter and the leading independent news sites throughout the country. This is now legal. Since April 2014, the government has the power to block any website within hours without a court order. It just has to see “harm to persons, society or the state” or “calls for participation in extremist activities, mass disorder or authorized demonstrations.” In such circumstances, it can also disconnect any network or means of communication. Many independent news websites that used to be subjected to intermittent filtering are now permanently blocked. The totally paranoid authorities systematically shoot the messenger whenever there is bad news. In recent months, they blocked Fergananews.com for mentioning inter-communal clashes in a southern village, Kloop.kg for mentioning the presence of Kazakh children in Islamic State training camps, and Meduza.io for investigating pro-Russian separatism in the north. And critical bloggers are increasingly likely to be jailed for a few days or weeks.
Kazakhstan is ranked #160 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
A 2007 cyber-crime law is widely used to silence dissent in Saudi Arabia. Article 6 says: “participating in the production, preparation, circulation or storage of content that undermines public order, religious values, public decency or privacy, by means of information networks or computers (…) is punishable by a prison sentence, fine or other penalty.” It was under this law that blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced in September 2014 to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” Since 2011, online media, the websites of traditional media and sites offering audio and video content have to apply to the culture and information ministry for a licence that must be renewed every three years. Applicants must identify themselves and the company hosting their site, and must produce “documents testifying to good conduct.” Forums, blogs, personal websites, distribution lists, online archives and chat services all have to be registered. In February 2014, the authorities added the stipulation that bloggers must use their real identity.
Saudi Arabia is ranked #164 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
The level of online censorship in Turkmenistan, ranked 178th out of 180 countries in the 2015 press freedom index, is what you would expect from its extremely authoritarian regime. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has himself called “Arkagad” (Protective Father), protects his people so well from outside influences that barely 10 percent had access to the Internet in 2013. These pioneers surf a highly censored version dubbed the “Turkmenet” and have to show ID to visit an Internet café. State-owned TurkmenTelekom’s monopoly of Internet access makes a connection prohibitively expensive for most people. It also gives the regime full control over online content because TurkmenTelekom owns the only point of access to the World Wide Web and blocks all sites that its masters want censored. The criteria determining what is blocked are secret but they must be very broad because so many sites are inaccessible. They include most independent and foreign news websites and even the main blog platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and other Internet giants are also often blocked.
Turkmenistan is ranked #178 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Ever since the riots in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005, Islam Karimov’s autocratic regime has done everything possible to incorporate the Internet into the absolute control it exercises over the traditional media – creating state agencies, passing laws and acquiring cutting-edge technology to ensure that the Internet poses no threat. Since 2011, all commercial Internet Service Providers have to go through state-owned Uztelecom to access the Internet, which makes blocking websites even simpler. Most independent, opposition and human rights sites cannot be accessed in Uzbekistan and do not show up in the national search engine, www.uz. Access to censorship circumvention tools is also increasingly blocked. The Commission of Experts on Information and Mass Communications hunts for potentially “negative or destructive” content. And the regime does not worry about legal niceties when it wants to silence bloggers or online journalists. Several languish in appalling conditions in prison on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking or corruption. Uznews.net, a leading news website based abroad, had to shut down in December 2014 after its editor’s email was hacked and confidential information was used to smear independent journalists and put them at risk.
Uzbekistan is ranked #166 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Still quite free until recently, the Internet has been brought largely under control since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. The Internet had played a key role in the major protest movement that rocked Russia in the preceding months and the Maidan uprising in Kiev reinforced Kremlin paranoia. Created in 2012 to “protect children,” the blacklist of blocked websites keeps on getting longer. Since February 2014, sites deemed to be transmitting “calls to participate in unauthorized demonstrations” can be blocked without a court order. As a result, the news and information websites Grani.ru, EJ.ru and Kasparov.ru were rendered inaccessible one month and a half later. Since the summer of 2014, influential bloggers have to register under their real names and comply with requirements similar to those imposed on the media. And they are now criminally responsible for the comments that visitors post on their sites.
Russia is ranked #152 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Mass blocking of foreign websites, spying on cyber-dissidents, using social networks for propaganda purposes and “digital bonfires” of Uyghur sites – China continues to have one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of Internet surveillance and censorship. Its mechanisms for filtering and monitoring online content are collectively known as the Great Firewall of China. Launched in 2003, it can filter access to foreign sites and block keywords such as “human rights,” “Tiananmen” or “Liu Xiaobo.” Its surveillance mechanisms are integrated into Chinese social networks and chat services such as Sina Weibo and QQ, and even into VoIP. Commercial companies are required to guarantee censorship on their networks. In some parts of the troubled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, Internet speed is less than half what it is in the major coastal cities. Nonetheless, the rapid growth of the participative Internet and its impact on social and political debate are making the censors’ job more and more complicated. An increase in monitoring and persecution of online activists and their methods is symptomatic of the regime’s nervousness.
China is ranked #176 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Vietnam’s government tolerates no online political debate and relentlessly gags bloggers and cyber-dissidents who dare to question its legitimacy or policies. Its determination to control online content is reflected not only in its censorship of blogs and social networks but also in its surveillance of citizen-journalists and its judicial harassment of them and their families. Firewalls block independent news sites and blogs, and site owners are often subjected to arrest or a great deal of harassment if content strays from the Communist Party line. Most Internet companies and service providers are state-owned and provide the first level of Internet surveillance, using domain name blocking to silence errant sites. Passwords are often hacked and connections are slowed on days when dissidents are arrested or tried. Mobile Internet browsing is also closely monitored as the state controls the three main operators.
Vietnam is ranked #175 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
United Arab Emirates
In the United Arab Emirates, it is the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority that decides what may or may not be posted online. The list of blocked websites is long, as is the list of grounds for blocking, which include “violating ethics and morality,” “expressing hatred of religion” and posing a “direct or indirect risk to Internet users.” Whether they just report the facts or question the established order, media outlets have little chance of being read within the UAE. And the judicial system does not hesitate to impose heavy sentences when deemed necessary. For tweeting about the mistreatment of detainees, online activist Osama Al-Najjar was sentenced to three years in prison and a heavy fine last November on charges of insulting the state, inciting hatred and violence and spreading false information. He was tortured for four days after being arrested without any explanation in March 2014.
United Arab Emirates are ranked #120 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
In Cuba, Internet access is still restricted because of its prohibitive cost and is still closely controlled. Officials often blame the low Internet penetration on the US embargo but this excuse ceased to be valid after the ALBA-1 fibre-optic cable linking Cuba to Venezuela became operational, leaving a political desire to restrict access as the only possible explanation. Independent Cuban journalists and bloggers are rarely read by their compatriots inside Cuba. Slow Internet connections and the risk of hacking make it difficult for them to update their websites in Internet cafés or hotels. They go to embassies to post their stories on websites based abroad. As a result, they are forced to go embassies to post their stories on websites based abroad. They are constantly spied on by the security agents patrolling the street, who harass them with threats of arrest and delete material found on memory cards and USB sticks.
Cuba is ranked #169 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Bahrain’s Information Affairs Agency has had the power to censor websites since 2002. Posting content that criticizes Islam or the king, or incites violence or the overthrow of the government, is punishable by up to five years in prison. The government’s control of the Internet is facilitated by its majority shareholding in the kingdom’s leading Internet Service Provider, Batelco, which monitors and filters traffic. Officials cite the need to protect the public from pornography but many sites are targeted for their political content. Since the pro-democracy demonstrations of February 2011, news sites such as Bahrain Mirror and the daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi have been banned for posting articles critical of the government. Online censorship includes going after dissidents. Human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, blogger Ghada Jamsheer and Maryam Al-Khawaja, co-president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, were all arrested in connection with online posts at the end of 2014.
Bahrain is ranked #163 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Although still working towards the creation of a restrictive national or “Halal” Internet, Iran continues to develop its Internet infrastructure for economic reasons. With 49 percent Internet penetration and 36 million Internet users, according to official figures, it is one of the region’s most connected countries. And according to Tehran chamber of commerce figures, Iran’s imports of mobile phones and IT equipment from China and the United Arab Emirates totalled nearly 4 billion dollars last year (2.3 billion from China and 1.6 billion from UAE). Nonetheless, the authorities block many news sites, mostly those that support the reformists but also conservative ones. The grounds given are often the same – anti-government propaganda, immoral content, attacks on national security or sacrilege. The reasons are above all political and it should not be forgotten that it is easier to access porn sites than independent news sites in Iran. According to the government media, more than 50 online activists are currently detained and 20 are serving sentences ranging from one to eight years in prison. Most of these arrests are carried out by the Revolutionary Guards, with whom the justice system cooperates at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s bidding.
Iran is ranked #173 over 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.