Obstacles to the free flow of information online

A call for vigilance

The Internet has a bad reputation. With authoritarian regimes, that’s no surprise. It’s to be expected the enduring dictatorship in Beijing (and we must call it that, whatever the fans of the Chinese "economic miracle" think) has set up a big Internet police force. Dozens of Internet users languish in Chinese prisons for imaginary crimes - for looking at banned websites or, even "worse," daring to post news online about forbidden topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and repression in Tibet.

China is unfortunately not the only country where dissident Internet messages are tracked down. In Vietnam and Tunisia, big shots (official or otherwise) are distinctly unenthusiastic about this vast discussion forum and information exchange they have so much trouble controlling.

In this very long list of regimes opposed to freedom, we find habitual human rights violators such as Burma, Ukraine and Belarus but also countries that are places people dream about - tropical holiday destinations beloved of Western tourists. The Maldives, for example, where the other side of the picture postcard is shabby and two Internet users have been sentenced to life imprisonment for criticising a dictatorship in paradise that has been in power for the past 40 years.

This is all very logical. No surprise that Fidel Castro gives orders about the Internet as he does about everything else in Cuba, except of course for those "useful idiots" (as Lenin used to say) - the package tourists with cigars and obliging local girls thrown in.

What’s more worrying, at first sight anyway, is the distrust of the Internet among the supposedly solid democracies of Europe and North America. Why the United States, France and the United Kingdom take their place in this report alongside the thugs that are quick to lock up the merest opponent calls for an explanation.

First there are the universally-condemned child-porn, xenophobic and racist websites found everywhere. Even though a very tiny part of the Internet - less than 3 per cent of online activity according to experts - they are rightly disturbing. The authorities cannot and should not ignore them, even if that offends the purists who advocate an Internet free of all monitoring and interference. Calls for violence and appeals to hatred must be fought. But by respecting civil liberties and avoiding abuses. These pages highlight those who have failed to do that.

But this isn’t the most commonly-cited reason for Internet surveillance in traditionally democratic countries. It’s the fight against terrorism that governments say justifies repressive controls and laws. With some reason, too, in view of the e-mails exchanged by the authors of the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. It’s understandable that the price of our safety is some encroachment on our freedom. But only as long as parliaments approve all such measures, which doesn’t always happen, and police always act only at the request of judges, which sometimes isn’t done.

This report describes a wide range of circumstances, none of them comparable. Routinely authoritarian regimes and those that may make mistakes (which can be corrected) cannot be lumped together. The report should not be seen as a kind of ranking of regimes by their repression of the Internet, but more as an appeal for vigilance in countries where, as in democracies, it’s still possible to exposes abuses and flaws. And also an appeal for solidarity with those who are flagrantly deprived of freedom, such as the 70 or so cyber-dissidents currently in prison around the world.

Robert Ménard
Secretary-General, Reporters Without Borders


Analyses :
Let’s not forget 10 September 2001
On a Filtered Internet, Things Are Not As They Seem
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