Journalists Battle Web Censorship With Internet ‘Enemies’ List

While developments such as the Arab Spring show the power of the Internet, there remain news blackouts, harassment of bloggers, and even attempts to shut down social media in several nations. This is one of the key findings of Reporters Without Borders, which released its annual “Enemies of the Internet” report on Monday, listing countries that curtail access to the Web and freedom of expression.

The updated list was released in conjunction with World Day Against Cyber-Censorship.

“The enemies list contains nations that fall into categories of combining drastic content filtering, track cyberdissidents, or those who present themselves on social media, blogs or Facebook,” Delphine Halgand, D.C. Director at Reporters Without Borders, told TechNewsWorld.

The category of “enemies” also considers those nations that “use the Internet as a tool of propaganda,” she added.

This year’s list saw the addition of Bahrain and Belarus for their restrictive control of the Web. They join Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. “Supervised” countries include Australia, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, France, Sri Lanka, Eritrea and South Korea.

Unacceptably Restrictive

Nations in the “supervised” or “under surveillance” category have been called out for less objectionable — but still restrictive — practices. Australia, for example, was included because of its content-filtering plans, and France made the list due to its antipiracy laws.

Other countries were names for more repressive measures — such as Russia, which has used cyberattacks to thwart political debate; Malaysia, known to harass bloggers; and Turkey, which blocks thousands of websites.

Thailand could join next year’s Enemies of the Internet list as it has sent bloggers to prison and has undertaken content-filtering efforts.

Bahrain found itself on the list for similar reasons.

“The nation was part of the Arab Spring uprising, and we’ve seen remarkable oppressive measures as a response,” noted Halgand. “They arrest activists, including bloggers and netizens. People have been known to flee the country after posting something on the Internet.”

Beyond Journalists

While the report is the work of Reporters Without Borders, the tight control and monitoring of Internet activity it cites is not limited to those in the fourth estate. In fact, RWB warns that those without press credentials need to consider what they type and text when visiting some of the Enemy nations.

“We have to be careful what we say on the Internet, in blogs, on Twitter and even Facebook when we visit these countries,” said Halgand. “Our report is also aimed at helping tourists know what are the risks of simply using the Internet.”

Sadly, this comes as many journalists do often find themselves in harm’s way.

“The [RWB] release of its annual list of ‘Enemies of the Internet’ — on a day following the killing of two journalists, one in Somalia and one in Honduras, and weeks of tragedies in Syria for professional and citizen journalists alike — is a plea to those of us who blithely live in broadband environments [to realize] that when states’ restrict or prohibit their citizens’ access to the Internet they infringe on humanity’s fundamental right to free expression,” Susan Moeller, Ph.D., director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, told TechNewsWorld.

“The Internet is often the international community’s only thread of information into societies closed by repression and brutality, and the willingness of ‘Western’ democracies to value [intelecutal property] and surveillance over free speech reminds the rest of us that the unfettered communication that many of us take for granted can be at risk.”

Hope for the Enemies

While the threat remains, some progress has been made in the past year. While nations such as Azerbaijan, Morocco and Tajikistan are on the group’s radar, and Pakistan could find itself on the Enemies list for its plans to implement Internet filtering, other nations are becoming less restrictive.

Venezuela was removed from the “under surveillance” category as its 2011 legislation to curb Internet freedom hasn’t been shown to be overly restrictive. Even more notable is the fact that Libya has been dropped from the category since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which “ended an era of censorship.”

Next year could also see Burma — officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar — removed from the Enemies of the Internet list.

“The news has thus been encouraging, but it can turn on a dime, and that is what we hope will not happen,” said Sheldon Himelfrab, director of the Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Center of Innovation at the United States Institute of Peace.

Talks with people who are close to the government has shown forward movement, he told TechNewsWorld. “Progress is opening with their media for sure.”

Provided the nation doesn’t go backward, Burma could show that once an enemy doesn’t mean always an enemy.

“They’ve restored access to the Internet of blocked websites and released bloggers and journalists who have been imprisoned,” Halgand pointed out. “I think we can say that Burma is a sign of hope that Internet censorship could be abandoned.”

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