"They!,who the hell are THEY!"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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