Technology

Nations that Censor the Net


Reporters Without Borders calls out China, Myanmar, Belarus, and 10 other countries for quashing online political and religious expression

As effective as the Internet may be in spreading dissent, the methods used to suppress opposition on the Web are no less pervasive. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris group that does advocacy work for press freedom, has compiled a list of the countries that it says go the furthest to censor the Internet.

"We wanted to raise awareness of the history of censorship in these countries among democratic nations, who tend to take advantage of Internet freedoms," says Reporters Without Borders spokeswoman Lucie Morillon. "But we also wanted to provide a means for people in repressed countries to show solidarity."

The group recently staged a 24-hour protest in public spaces of New York and Paris, condemning China and 12 other countries for their steps toward repressive censorship of Internet journalists. The group cited the wrongful jailing of at least 61 "cyber-dissident" reporters, 52 of whom currently remain in Chinese prisons.

Myanmar Leads the List

Some 17,000 attendees of the protest voted for the nation they believed is most in need of greater Internet freedom, and China came in second, with 4,100 votes. Myanmar, under the militaristic regime of the Junta party, was believed by 4,500 participants to present its citizens with the greatest threat to freedom of press on the Internet. The remaining nations, in descending order of votes received, were Belarus, Iran, Tunisia, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, North Korea, Syria, and Uzbekistan.

The Burmese government has begun to monitor its growing population of Internet users by recording screenshots for every five minutes a computer is used in an Internet café—the most readily available outlet for Web access to most people. The Junta also uses California-based Fortinet's software to block access to opposition Web sites.

This tactic is not uncommon in other parts of the world. The Belarus government, under President Alexander Lukashenko, has been criticized for monopolizing communication systems to block Web sites that even hint at political opposition, particularly during election season. Last year, Pavel Morozov, a former student of the European Humanitarian University and member of the Third Way opposition group, was jailed by the KGB at age 26 when he posted homemade animations critical of the President on the Internet.

China's Heavy Ammo

China is described by Reporters Without Borders as a pioneer of Internet censorship, dedicating more resources than any other country to restrict online freedoms. Several of the country's neighbors pursue a similar strategy with what meager resources they have for the matter. In North Korea, for example, Dictator Kim Jong-Il has absolute control of North Korea's media, and grants only a few thousand citizens access to the Internet. When these privileged Net surfers log on, however, they find only around 30 Web sites, which are filled with photos of the leader and praise for the government. The Vietnamese government threatens penalties of as long as three years in jail for voicing democratic sentiments online.

In several Middle East countries, censorship often focuses on religious dissent. Earlier this month, the Egyptian government arrested a 22-year-old blogger named Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman for posting comments critical of "the rise of religion in daily life" in his country. The young man was expelled from Al-Azhar University, the institution considered to be the highest seat of Sunni Islamic education in the country. The Iranian government routinely blocks hundreds of thousands of independent media Web sites. In 2004 and 2005, several Iranians were imprisoned for blogging, including 23-year-old Mojtaba Saminejad, who was given a two-year sentence for reportedly "opposing the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

Reporters Without Borders, a 21-year-old organization, calls the protest a success and may consider a similar event in the future. Its long-term goal is to encourage all 13 nations to change their policies toward censorship to the point where they can be removed from the list.

MacMillan is a reporter at BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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