"They!,who the hell are THEY!"

Matthew X profrv at nex.net.au
Thu Apr 29 17:30:46 PDT 1999

Censorship Wins Out
Many journalists and activists have brought their struggle for democracy to 
the Internet but plenty of nasty regimes have learned to control the Net 
for their purposes
Andrew Stroehlein
posted: 2002-04-16
Editor's note: Andrew Stroehlein is head of training at the Institute for 
War and Peace Reporting and founder of Central Europe Review. He writes 
regularly about Internet censorship in authoritarian regimes.
A decade or so ago, it was all clear: the Internet was believed to be such 
a revolutionary new medium, so inherently empowering and democratizing, 
that old authoritarian regimes would crumble before it. What we've learned 
in the intervening years is that the Internet does not inevitably lead to 
democracy any more than it inevitably leads to great wealth.
  "The Web really does scare these regimes," says Veronica Forwood of 
Reporters without Borders.
The idea that the Internet itself is a threat to authoritarian regimes was 
a bit of delusional post-Cold War optimism. It is true that many activists 
and journalists have brought their struggle for democracy, the rule of law 
and freedom of expression to the new medium, but they have not been blessed 
by inevitable victory, and plenty of nasty regimes have learned how to 
co-exist with the Internet in one way or another. In country after country, 
the same old struggle goes on: hard-line regimes and their opponents remain 
locked in battle, and the Internet has become simply one more forum for 
their fight.
Repressive regimes are paranoid by nature. Those in power see enemies 
everywhere and encourage mass paranoia, overemphasizing threats to national 
security in order to justify their draconian rule. When early Web-heads 
equated the Internet with inevitable democracy, paranoia-prone regimes were 
natural suckers for the idea.
"The Web really does scare these regimes," Veronica Forwood told me. 
Forwood is the UK Representative for Reporters without Borders, the 
publisher of the excellent "Enemies of the Internet" report, outlining the 
situation in many regimes around the world, "They want to control 
everything, and the Web seems so nebulous and unknowable to them, they are 
just frightened by it."
Indeed, many repressive states see the Internet as such a threat that they 
simply ban it altogether. The former regime in Taliban-controlled 
Afghanistan and North Korea are two cases of a complete ban, though it is 
known that a few very high-ranking ministers in each regime have had access 
to e-mail at least.
Another particularly harsh example is Burma. A. Lin Neumann, Asia 
Consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and author of an 
excellent recent report on press freedom in Burma, explained to me that the 
military junta in Rangoon effectively prevents public Internet access in 
the country. One needs a permit for a modem, and though a few people have 
them illegally, long-distance calls for foreign access are prohibitively 
expensive. The tiny number of government-approved e-mail accounts are all 
monitored by censors, and the high price of those accounts again keeps most 
ordinary citizens away in any case.
Relying on high access costs as a de facto censor is an easy trick for 
regimes, as they generally lord over desperately poor countries. As we 
previously discussed here in OJR, Uzbekistan is a perfect example. In true 
Soviet style, the authorities in Tashkent have set up the technical 
infrastructure so that they have the capability to monitor e-mails and Web 
browsing, but it seems they don't actually interfere that much just yet, 
because they know the price of access means that only a tiny fraction of 
the population are online, an insignificant fraction apparently in the 
authorities' view.
But an all-out ban and relying on high access costs are hardly the only 
methods of keeping control over online information. Despite the theory 
behind the Internet's built-in anti-censorship architecture, official 
control is actually very possible in practice, especially as the regimes 
run the telecommunications infrastructure when the country comes online.
In Iraq the regime is trying to use the Internet to its own advantage while 
cutting off access to the public. The Internet is accessible from some 
government ministries, but since, like Burma, one needs special permission 
to own a modem, home access is limited to the most trusted members of the 
ruling elite.
The situation in Cuba is little better. The government allows access at 
approved institutions, including trusted firms and universities. Private 
access at home is nearly non-existent, and the government is setting up a 
Cuba-only intranet for young people, to keep their activity corralled in an 
easily controlled space. The overall effect of these efforts, according to 
a detailed report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is 
that, "there is essentially no legal, commercially available public access 
to the Internet" in Cuba.
Some repressive regimes, however, realizing that the new technology can 
have some positive benefits for society at large, have developed a more 
sophisticated approach to the Internet, attempting to allow widespread 
access and yet maintain control over it. China has tens of millions of 
Internet users and has easily one of the fastest growing online populations 
in the world. Still, the authorities' control points are several. Chinese 
chatrooms, for example, are monitored and comments offensive to the regime 
are removed quickly by the moderators.
Much more importantly, though, is the Chinese government's ability to 
censor material coming in from outside China. All external information runs 
through government servers, so the authorities can and do block outside Web 
sites they deem potentially dangerous. A report by CPJ in January of last 
year notes that the main targets for blocking are Western news sites, 
Chinese dissident sites, Taiwanese media and sites of the banned religious 
group, Falun Gong. But the CPJ Report also observed how inconsistent the 
blocking can be, and this point is backed up by this writer's experience. 
On a recent trip to China, I did a little test of my own in an Internet 
cafe: US sites cnn.com and time.com were blocked, but UK sites for The 
Guardian and The Independent newspapers, both with plenty of articles 
critical of Beijing, were easily accessible.
It is, however, probably not as random as it appears, and the Chinese 
authorities have blocked a huge number of sites, most likely paying more 
attention to those sites they feel are better known to Chinese users. 
Certainly, the authorities' overall control can be in no doubt, exemplified 
by the fact that their blocking can be turned on and off at will: during 
last October's APEC meeting in Shanghai, the Chinese authorities 
temporarily lifted their blocks of some American Web sites as a sop to 
foreign delegates.
As CPJ's A. Lin Neumann told me: "Chinese blocking is reasonably effective 
on their part. It takes some determination to get around it, and I doubt 
that many people want to really play the game. Most of the students I 
talked with, quite frankly, were more interested in sex, computer games and 
English proficiency (in that order) than they were in politics on the 
While it's true some editors try to stay one step ahead of the blockers by 
constantly setting up new proxy sites, that kind of cat-and-mouse routine, 
forcing the reader to waste time keeping up with frequent address changes, 
only benefits the censors.
While access to the outside world is significantly limited in China through 
extensive and complex blocking, the authorities have a much easier time 
controlling what is published within China. As in many heavy-handed 
regimes, self-censorship is the key factor in China: editors of Web sites 
inside China know well the limits of what is acceptable and what is not, 
and it only takes a few tough arrests and harsh crackdowns to send a clear 
signal to Web journalists and activists everywhere. The infamous 
persecution of online publisher Huang Qi is probably enough to keep most 
Chinese Web editors in line.
This "let that be a lesson to you all" tactic is as old as man, but even 
with the newest technology it still works -- and is a typical ploy even in 
regimes that are generally considered less repressive than China. Umit 
Ozturk, vice-chair of Amnesty International's Journalists' Network, 
explained to me how this works in Turkey. In Turkey, if a Web site 
publishes something the military-dominated state finds unacceptable, the 
ISP's will receive a quick visit or a phone call from someone "suggesting" 
the immediate removal of that site. Failure to do so would be very 
detrimental to one's health, so the ISPs naturally comply.
When the optimists spoke of inevitable freedom through the Internet a few 
years back, they forgot about such crude and effective methods of 
information control.
Virtually in exile
With such personal threats at home, it's not difficult to see why some 
online journalists and activists chose to work in exile. There are problems 
with this approach, obviously -- their online information might be blocked 
at home, many potential readers will not be able to afford access to their 
site and their critics will always accuse them of being stooges of foreign 
governments - but for some the benefit of being able to tell the truth 
outweighs these concerns.
The main problem of running a Web site in exile is maintaining local 
relevance and authenticity when writing from abroad; specifically, the site 
needs regular, up-to-date information from within the country. The only way 
to do this is to develop a network of reliable correspondents on the ground 
and to develop efficient channels for getting their information out of the 
The main problem of running a Web site in exile is maintaining local 
relevance and authenticity when writing from abroad.
In the worst cases this means either heavily working the phones to your 
contacts on the ground, or, where phone-tapping is a concern, the smuggling 
of documentation out of the country. On the face of it, that would seem to 
be little advancement on the tedious and dangerous methods of the 
Communist-era dissidents. Still, when it works, it can bring the only 
non-regime-sponsored information to the outside world and offers a unique 
eye on closed societies. The work of the Revolutionary Association of the 
Women of Afghanistan in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was certainly one of 
the best examples of such activity the Internet has ever seen.
In less restrictive situations, the Internet itself is the networking tool, 
and e-mail allows émigré publishing to be current from the ground in a way 
that Iron Curtain dissidents never could be. Even then, however, expanding 
a network of correspondents on the ground is not always straightforward, 
and the specifics of the local culture and local regime need to be considered.
My own Institute for War and Peace Reporting is familiar with this problem. 
The editors of our online publications covering post-Soviet Central Asia, 
Afghanistan and the Balkans are all émigré journalists in London who 
develop their networks on the ground according to the possibilities in 
individual countries. In Uzbekistan, for example, the situation is relaxed 
enough for us to have a physical office in Tashkent and a rather normal 
network of correspondents radiating out from it. In Turkmenistan, however, 
the situation is significantly more complicated for us. Forget a physical 
office: all our reporters on the ground communicate directly via e-mail 
with our central office in London. Trying to build a normal network there 
would only attract informants who would turn in all our associates, so we 
keep our correspondents on the ground isolated from one another. They 
wouldn't recognize each other if they sat next to one another on a bus in 
downtown Ashghabat.
But even if you have a developed network of correspondents on the ground, 
that doesn't mean that people will feel comfortable talking to them. When 
fear so thoroughly permeates society, mouths stay closed.MORE...

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