Dharamshala: - To mark ‘World Day Against Cyber-Censorship', Reporters Without Borders is releasing an updated 2012 list of "Enemies of the Internet" and "countries under surveillance." Two countries, Bahrain and Belarus, have passed from the "countries under surveillance" to the "Enemies of the Internet" category. Venezuela and Libya have been dropped from the "under surveillance" category while India and Kazakhstan have been added to it.
"The changes in this list reflect recent developments in online freedom of information," states Reporters Without Borders. ‘Netizens' (i.e. people who are frequent or habitual users of the Internet), have been particularly prevalent concerning political changes in the Arab world in 2011. Like journalists, they have tried to resist censorship but in doing so have paid a high price.
"Last year will be remembered as one of unprecedented violence against netizens. Five were killed while engaged in reporting activity. There were nearly 200 arrests of bloggers and netizens reported in 2011 alone, a 30 % increase from 2010. In turn, more than 120 netizens are currently detained. These unprecedented figures risk being exceeded in 2012 as a result of the indiscriminate violence exerted by Syrian authorities in particular.
Reporters Without Borders latest report, released in March 2011, highlighted the fact that the Internet and online social networks had been conclusively established as tools for organizing protests and circulating information in the course of the Arab world's mass uprisings. In the months that followed, repressive regimes have responded with tougher measures to what they regard as unacceptable attempts to destabilize their authority.
At the same time, supposedly democratic countries continue to set a bad example by putting ‘security' above other concerns and by adopting disproportionate measures to protect copyright. Technical service providers are under increasing pressure to act as Internet cops, with companies specializing in online surveillance becoming the new mercenaries in an online arms race. More than ever before, online freedom of expression is now a major foreign and domestic policy issue.
The intention of ‘World Day Against Cyber-Censorship' is, according to Reporters Without Borders, to pay tribute to the ordinary citizens who often risk their lives and/or their freedom to keep the public informed about the brutal crackdowns that often occur without the outside world's awareness. Reporters Without Borders added: "As online censorship and content filtering continue to increase, solidarity among those who defend a free and openly accessible Internet becomes even more essential for the spread of information."
Two new Enemies of the Internet - Bahrain and Belarus
Bahrain and Belarus have joined Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam in the "Enemies of the Internet" category. These countries combine often drastic content filtering with access restrictions, tracking of cyber-dissidents and online propaganda.
Bahrain offers an example of an effective news blackout based upon a remarkable array of repressive measures: keeping the international media away, harassing human rights activists, arresting bloggers and netizens (one of whom died in detention), smearing and prosecuting free speech activists, and disrupting communications, especially during major demonstrations.
In addition, Belarus sinks further into political isolation and economic stagnation with President Lukashenko's regime lashing out at the Internet in response to an attempted "revolution via the social media." In Belarus, the Internet has been blocked during a series of "silent protests" and the list of inaccessible websites continues to grow. Internet users and bloggers have been arrested or invited to "preventive conversations" with the police in a bid to get them to stop demonstrating or covering demonstrations. Law No. 317-3, which took effect on 6 January 2012, has given the regime additional Internet surveillance and control powers.
India and Kazakhstan added to "under surveillance" list
Since the Mumbai bombings of 2008, the Indian authorities have stepped up Internet surveillance and pressure on technical service providers, while publicly rejecting accusations of censorship. It would appear that even the national security policy of the world's biggest democracy is undermining online freedom of expression and the protection of Internet users' personal data.
Kazakhstan, which likes to think of itself as a regional model after holding the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, appears too to be taking the road of cyber-censorship. This has been on the increase since an unprecedented oil workers strike which served to increase government tension in 2011. The authorities responded by blocking news websites, cutting communications around the city of Zhanaozen during the unrest and imposing new, repressive Internet regulations.
Venezuela and Libya dropped from "under surveillance" list
Before his removal and death, Col. Gaddafi had tried to impose a news blackout by cutting access to the Internet. Whilst many challenges remain in Libya, the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has thankfully ended an era of censorship.
In Venezuela, access to the Internet continues to be unrestricted. The level of self-censorship is hard to evaluate but the adoption in 2011 of a legislation that could potentially limit Internet freedom has yet to have any damaging effect in practice.
Thailand and Burma may be about to change places
If Thailand continues further down the slope of content filtering and jailing netizens on lèse-majesté charges, it could soon find itself transferred from the "under surveillance" category to the club of the world's most repressive countries as regards online freedom.
Burma, on the other hand, could potentially soon leave the "Enemies of the Internet" list. This is due to its recent reforms that have included freeing journalists and bloggers and restoring access to blocked websites. Time will tell it this will result in the abandoning of censorship altogether, however, and depends on the dismantling of the Internet surveillance apparatus and a repeal of the Electronics Act.
Other subjects of concern
There are many other countries, such as Azerbaijan, Morocco and Tajikistan that have jailed netizens or established a form of Internet censorship. Amongst them is also Pakistan, which recently invited bids for a national Internet filtering system that would create an Electronic ‘Great Wall.'