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In Most Censored Countries, Internet Is Hamstrung or Withheld

Posted: 05/ 1/2012 9:10 pm

By Danny O'Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator

One big reason for the Internet's success is its role as a universal standard, interoperable across the world. The data packets that leave your computer in Botswana are the same as those which arrive in Barbados. The same is increasingly true of modern mobile networks. Standards are converging: You can use your phone, access an app, or send a text, wherever you are.

But in CPJ's new report, The 10 Most Censored Nations, communications networks are constructed not to live up to that ideal, but to fit the limitations of press freedom in each country. The Internet and mobile phones may be transforming how the news is covered, but CPJ's list shows the extent to which controls on news-gatherers distort and hamper the growth of the Internet and cellphone use.

The pattern is different in each country, reflecting local priorities in silencing the independent press. In Belarus and Syria, the Net is home to unlawful but state-sanctioned hacking and surveillance. In Saudi Arabia, Internet users are subject to the same harsh controls that are applied to traditional news media. In Uzbekistan, Internet access is growing, but censorship is still draconian. In Equatorial Guinea, Internet and mobile censorship is minimal, but so is the infrastructure.

In fact, the simplest solution many of these countries have found -- including North Korea, Burma, Cuba, and Eritrea -- is to simply deny their people access to any modern communications infrastructure at all. The Internet in these nations is nonexistent, or profoundly limited: in some cases because of these countries' struggle with poverty, but also because these governments are suspicious of the dangers of a free and open Net.

What Internet infrastructure does exist often mirrors political realities on the ground. In Burma, the countries' Internet is effectively divided into three, self-contained systems: one for the people, one for the government, and one for the military. North Korea's citizens (unlike the ruling elite) have as much access to the World Wide Web as they have to any independent media -- which is to say none. And while Cuba has seen some improvement in availability and affordability of mobile telephones, the country is still struggling to catch up after a history of banning private cellphone and computer ownership.

Eritrea stands as a stark example of how a government's uncompromising approach to media has obstructed the spread of modern communications. In a continent where mobile telephony has transformed local reporting and economies, the regime has been slow to allow mobile phones -- (permission was granted only in 2004). The Internet was made available in Eritrea in 2000; the Net on mobiles is still largely unavailable. All mobile communications pass through EriTel, the state provider, and the government requires all ISPs to use the government-controlled Internet gateway.

When a country with advanced systems clamps down on press freedom, that too affects the state of its communication networks. In the six years since CPJ last published a list of most censored countries, Iran's media, and foreign correspondents based there, have suffered increasing setbacks as hardliners tried to choke off local reporting. At the same time, Iran has been investing in technology and personnel with the explicit intent of restricting Internet access. Officials have repeatedly discussed plans to create a national, or "pure," Iranian Internet, and Iranians face frequent slowdowns in Internet access. A member of the Iranian parliament's Net filtering committee described the Internet as "an uninvited guest" in the country, saying that "because of its numerous problems, severe supervision is required."

The working Internet is alike, the world over. Every censored, silenced, and filtered national network is broken in its own way. Each country on our list has found a unique way to hamper the spread of journalism online: the end result has been to punish its own citizens with online isolation and silence.

San Francisco-based CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O'Brien has worked globally as a journalist and activist covering technology and digital rights.

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