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.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) defends freedom of expression, association and assembly in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf, understanding this region to encompass Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq. It decided to include Syria in its mandate in 2013 on the grounds that it was vital to document human rights violations in a country whose conflict was having a major impact on its neighbours.
The GCHR is not welcomed in the UAE, where its website has been blocked since January 2015 or in Saudi Arabia, where it has been repeatedly blocked. It is believed that the reason for the blocking is the unconditional support that the GCHR has given to the human rights defenders in particular Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, Dr. Mohammed Al-MansoriDr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, Waleed Abu Al-Khair and Raef Badawi and other detained human rights defenders.
The GCHR speaks out internationally in defence of the region’s journalists and human rights groups. In December 2013, it joined nine other NGOs including Reporters Without Borders in asking UN special rapporteurs Frank La Rue (freedom of opinion and expression) and Juan Méndez (torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) to investigate the cases of three journalists – Mohamed Les Hassan, Hussain Hubail and Qassim Zain Aldeen – who had been arrested and tortured in Bahrain for covering anti-government protests in 2012 and 2013.
The Centre has offices in Beirut, Copenhagen and Istanbul. Several of its staff have been arrested in Saudi Arabia and are still being held.
The Bahrain Mirror was launched on 13 May 2011, at the height of a wave of anti-government protests. Its very first editorial explained that it was created to offset the decline in media freedom in Bahrain. The site was blocked a month later.
For the past three years, its staff have been playing a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The addresses of new mirror sites are often posted on Twitter and Facebook and are just as often blocked. Whether based inside Bahrain or abroad, its journalists all use pseudonyms for safety’s sake. Those who have been identified have had to flee abroad. Some have even been stripped of their nationality.
Despite the government’s determination to silence it, the Bahrain Mirror has established itself as one of Bahrain’s few independent news outlets. As well as its journalistic reporting, the staff have posted many reports about the human rights situation and, from their Beirut headquarters, organize workshops and discussion forums on political and civil society movements in the Gulf.
The Cuban government maintains a complete monopoly on news and information and tolerates no independent media aside from a few Catholic magazines. Internet access continues to be restricted because of its prohibitive cost and is tightly controlled.
Founded in 2009, Hablemos Press is an independent news agency that covers a range of subjects including human right violations by the authorities. Thanks to its 30 correspondents in Cuba’s 15 provinces, it has established itself as a key source of online information about Cuba. Blocked by the government and inaccessible in Cuba since 2011, its website is hosted abroad.
Its journalists and contributors are hounded by the regime. Their equipment is confiscated. Their mobile phones are disconnected. They are summoned by the department for internal security and told to change their editorial policies. Like other independent journalists and bloggers in Cuba, they are exposed to death threats, intimidation, smear campaigns, arrest, arbitrary detention and physical violence. But they continue to work to “reinforce the process of democratization.”
“Pluralism” is the quality that best defines Gooya News, an offshoot of Gooya.com, one of the first and most important Farsi-language online portals. It offers news and analyses by journalists and civil society activists of all political tendencies, and takes content from both the Islamic Republic’s official website and opposition sites. It also has a section for the Iranian news coverage of such international media such as BBC Persian, Radio Fara and Radio Zamanaeh.
Because of its pluralism, the Iranian authorities began blocking Gooya News a few years after its creation at the turn of the millennium. In 2009, it played a major role in the protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, posting documents and photos of demonstrations that the government media were not publishing at the time.
The website’s claim to offer “Unbiased Iran News” is a fair assessment of its editorial policies. This editorial independence has a price, of course. Its employees are banned from Iran so the site has to be run from abroad. But it is based on a network of contributors throughout the country.
Founded in December 2007 by a group of Tibetan journalists in exile in Dharamsala, in northern India, Tibet Post International (TPI) is a trilingual news website (English, Tibetan and Mandarin) that aims to promote democracy and free speech within the Tibetan community and to cover human rights violations in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. In December 2012, TPI launched a bimonthly in English that is targeted at the Tibetan community in Dharamsala.
Nowadays, TPI is one of the leading sources of news about Tibet for both the international community and readers inside China, whose numbers have grown steadily although the Chinese authorities block access to the site.
With the help of its network of sources inside China, TPI covers censorship and suppression of freedom of information by the Chinese authorities and often has exclusives about Tibetans who try to inform the outside world about their situation and about police and army attempts to control the flow of information within the region or spy on the population.
Dhondup Wangchen and Jigme Gyatso, two Tibetan citizen-journalists who were arrested for shooting a documentary during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, received active support from TPI from the time of their arrest in 2008 until Wangchen’s release in 2014.
Mingjing News is an independent and participative news website covering Chinese politics, business, social issues and history. It often has information that the Chinese government does not want disclosed and it allows its readers to post a great deal of content, including text reports, photos and video. Its revelations about the government’s secret investigation into politburo standing committee member Zhou Yongkang in 2014 were an example of it frequent sensitive reporting that triggers cyber-attacks on the site or other enhanced censorship measures.
The site is owned by Mirror Media, a Chinese media group that was launched in Canada in the 1990s and now has bureaux in the United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ho Pin, the group’s founder and the site’s editor, has had a long career with Chinese media and is a well-known expert on politics in China. His books about Chinese politics, in which he criticizes political censorship, are banned in China. He publicly condemned journalist Gao Yu’s arrest when it was revealed in May 2014.
In Vietnam, the press is subjected to a system of prior censorship supervised by the propaganda department, while the authorities hound independent bloggers and citizen-journalists, often sentencing them to long jail terms and subjecting them to terrible violence. Despite this persecution, several sites such as Dan Lam Bao continue to defend the public’s right to information.
Launched in July 2009 and blocked by the Vietnamese authorities ever since, Dan Lam Bao allows Internet users to share their views freely and offers content of a diverse nature provided by people from all social classes. Its contributors include independent bloggers, traditional media journalists and whistleblowers inside the government.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued an order in September 2012 accusing Dan Lam Bao of “publishing false, fabricated and mendacious information with the aim of defaming the nation’s leaders, stirring up the population against the party and state, provoking doubts and creating bad publicity, thereby undermining the people’s trust in the state.” The order asked the public security ministry to investigate and punish anyone affiliated to Dan Lam Bao.
As a result, many contributors post under pseudonyms to avoid arrest or retaliatory harassment of their families.
An independent online news agency, Fergananews.com is Central Asia’s leading Russian-language news website. The speed of its news coverage, the quality of its analyses and its network of correspondents have made it essential reading. They have also turned it into a prime target for the region’s authoritarian governments, especially as it takes a close interest in their many systematic human rights violations.
Also known just as “Ferghana,” it does investigative reporting on such sensitive regional issues as the use of forced labour in cotton production, water resource management and the fate of Central Asian immigrants in Russia. In a region where national, ethnic and religious identity is often exploited to fuel conflicts, it covers these issues in an impartial and responsible manner, actively promoting dialogue and tolerance.
It recently started a blog platform that is used by independent journalists and much of its content is translated into English. Its correspondents in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan take considerable risks because they have to operate clandestinely. The site has long been blocked in these two countries and has been blocked in Kazakhstan as well since 2014. It has also been filtered out from time to time in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
Launched in 2000, the Grani.ru news website has carved itself out a unique place in the Russian media landscape, serving as an outlet for talented freelance reporters and commentators and providing a forum for the many civil society groups, human rights defenders and opposition figures who are never seen on the main TV channels.
Grani.ru has also established itself as major source of information on such subjects as free speech violations, the fate of political prisoners and street protests. Its coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has been the polar opposite of the government’s propaganda and has not gone unnoticed. It was no surprise when, in March 2014, it became the first media outlet to be blocked under the three-month-old “Lugovoi law,” which allows blocking without reference to a judge if websites are deemed to be “extremist” or “call for participation in unauthorized demonstrations.”
While doing its best to have the blocking recognized as arbitrary, Grani.ru has also made every effort to make its readers aware of the censorship circumvention tools available to them.