Most censored nations each distort the Net in own way

By Danny O'Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator on May 2, 2012 4:00 PM ET

Iran has invested in technology with the explicit intent of restricting
Internet access. (Reuters/Caren Firouz)

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.

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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.


You really should do some homework on Eritrea before you write such inaccurate reports. First, there are NO internet restrictions in Eritrea, one can easily access any and all sites in the world. If you had bothered to ask any of the tens of thousands of Eritreans who visit home each year they will tell you that the internet cafes here in Eritrea are FULL of young people, especially after school hours.
It costs the equivalent of 25 cents an hour, 10 nakfa, to use the net here and the cafes are very popular, and there a lot of them.
Even in the UK the net is censored ie Pirate Bay? No such thing happens here in Eritrea.
Maybe your readers would be interested in how CPJ does such shoddy work with the following article from an independent journalist in Eritrea for over 5 years now.

Committee of Suspect Journalists; Press Watchdog Fails “Journalism for Beginners” in World Press Freedom Report

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently issued their annual report on the status of freedom of the press in the world in which the lead article charges, amongst other things, that there are no independent journalists allowed in the East African country of Eritrea. (

Unfortunately for CPJ their own web site carries an article which identifies the author as an “independent... journalist”, “reporting from Eritrea since 2006” and provides contact information to verify this claim.(Sep 19, 2011 ... Here you can read more about the leaked cable. Wikileaks Ethiopia Files: Ethiopia Bombs Itself, Blames Eritrea by Thomas C. Mountain

Talk about failing “Journalism for Beginners 100”, where you write a report and don't even check your own web site to see if if there might be anything that may raise doubts about your report?

CPJ’s problems with fact checking don't end here for their coverage of the controversy surrounding more than a dozen Eritrean journalists arrested over a decade ago appears to be based only on hear say evidence. They have so far failed to provide any of the original articles published in Eritrea they claim criticized the Eritrean government and are the real reason these journalists were arrested.

Apparently no one, including CPJ, has any of the original articles these journalists published. The only “evidence” provided to anyone to support their charges against the Eritrean government for violating press freedom is a translation of the articles. No one has provided even a photo copy of the original articles published in Eritrea in the Tigrinia language.

Again, talk about failing Journalism for Beginners, aren't journalists supposed to have at least a photo copy of the original source material as evidence, not someone else's “translations” before they make very serious charges against anyone?

The problem is that CPJ, by charging that there are NO independent journalists in Eritrea, commits a backhanded slander against any journalist in Eritrea claiming to be independent, and in this case, reporting for over 5 years from the country.

So what is it CPJ, is your web site wrong and there are no independent journalists in Eritrea? Or is your report wrong, that there is an independent journalist in the country and you simply failed Journalism for Beginners?

Committee to Protect Journalists or Committee of Suspect Journalists? You be the judge.

Thomas C. Mountain is the only independent western journalist in the Horn of Africa, living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006. He can be reached at thomascmountain at yahoo dot com .

thomas c mountain May 8, 2012 5:04:06 AM ET

There's no article on cpj that identifies you as an "independent journalist." There's only a comment posted by "tommy" that cites an anti-Ethiopia piece.

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