CPJ names the worst online oppressors. Booming online cultures in many Asian and Middle Eastern nations have led to aggressive government repression. Burma leads the dishonor roll.
New York, April 30, 2009—With a military government that severely restricts Internet access and imprisons people for years for posting critical material, Burma is the worst place in the world to be a blogger, the Committee to Protect Journalists says in a new report. CPJ’s “10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger” also identifies a number of countries in the Middle East and Asia where Internet penetration has blossomed and government repression has grown in response.
“Bloggers are at the vanguard of the information revolution and their numbers are expanding rapidly,” said CPJ Executive Director
Relying on a mix of detentions, regulations, and intimidation, authorities in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Egypt have emerged as the leading online oppressors in the Middle East and North Africa. China and Vietnam, where burgeoning blogging cultures have encountered extensive monitoring and restriction, are among Asia’s worst blogging nations. Cuba and Turkmenistan, nations where Internet access is heavily restricted, round out the dishonor roll.
“The governments on the list are trying to roll back the information revolution, and, for now, they are having success,” Simon added. “Freedom of expression groups, concerned governments, the online community, and technology companies need to come together to defend the rights of bloggers around the world.”
CPJ issued its report to mark World Press Freedom Day, May 3, and to call attention to online repression, a great emerging threat to press freedom worldwide. CPJ considers bloggers whose work is reportorial or fact-based commentary to be journalists. In 2008, CPJ found, bloggers and other online journalists were the single largest professional group in prison, overtaking print and broadcast journalists for the first time.
In compiling this list, CPJ studied conditions for bloggers in countries around the world. CPJ staff consulted with Internet experts to develop eight criteria that included governments’ use of filtering, monitoring, and regulation; authorities’ use of imprisonments and other forms of legal harassment to deter critical blogging; and the extent and openness of Internet access. For further explanation of CPJ’s methodology, click here.
WORST COUNTRIES TO BLOG
Burma, which heavily censors print and broadcast media, has also applied extensive restrictions on blogging and other Internet activity. Private Internet penetration is very small—only about 1 percent, according to the Internet research group OpenNet Initiative—so most citizens access the Internet in cybercafés. Authorities heavily regulate those cafés, requiring them, for example, to enforce censorship rules. The government, which shut down the Internet altogether during a popular uprising in 2007, has the capability to monitor e-mail and other communication methods and to block users from viewing Web sites of political opposition groups, according to OpenNet Initiative. At least two bloggers are now in prison.
Lowlight: Blogger Maung Thura, popularly known as Zarganar, is serving a 59-year prison term for disseminating video footage after Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Authorities regularly detain or harass bloggers who write critically about religious or political figures, the Islamic revolution, and its symbols. The government requires all bloggers to register their Web sites with the Ministry of Art and Culture. Government officials claim to have blocked millions of Web sites, according to news reports. A newly created special prosecutor’s office specializes in Internet issues and works directly with intelligence services. Pending legislation would make the creation of blogs promoting “corruption, prostitution, and apostasy” punishable by death.
Lowlight: Blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi, jailed for insulting the country’s religious leaders, died in Evin Prison in March under circumstances that have not been fully explained.
The government uses filtering methods to block politically sensitive sites. Authorities detain bloggers for posting content, even third-party material, deemed to be “false” or detrimental to “national unity.” Self-censorship is pervasive. In 2008, the Ministry of Communications ordered Internet café owners to get identification from all patrons, to record customer names and times of use, and to submit the documentation regularly to authorities. Human rights groups noted that authorities harass and detain bloggers perceived as antigovernment.
Lowlight: Waed al-Mhana, an advocate for endangered archaeological sites, is on trial for a posting that criticized the demolition of a market in Old Damascus.
Only government officials and people with links to the Communist Party have Web access. The general population goes online at hotels or government-controlled Internet cafés by means of expensive voucher cards. A small number of independent bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez detail everyday life and offer criticism of the regime. Their blogs are hosted outside the country and are largely blocked on the island. Two independent bloggers tell CPJ that they are harassed by authorities. Only pro-government bloggers can post their material on domestic sites that can be easily accessed.
Lowlight: The government now jails 21 writers who were on the leading edge of online journalism in the early part of the decade. These writers, all but one of whom was jailed in 2003, phoned or faxed their material to overseas Web sites for posting.
5. SAUDI ARABIA
An estimated 400,000 sites are blocked inside the kingdom, including those that tackle political, social, or religious issues. Self-censorship is widespread. Aside from “indecent” material, Saudi Arabia blocks “anything contrary to the state or its system,” a standard that has been interpreted liberally. In 2008, influential clerics called for harsh punishment, including flogging and death, for online writers guilty of posting material deemed heretical.
Lowlight: Blogger Fouad Ahmed al-Farhan was jailed without charge for several months in 2007 and 2008 for promoting reform and the release of political prisoners.
Bloggers have daringly tried to fill the gap in independent news that is left by the traditional state-controlled media. The government has responded with more regulation. Authorities have called on international technology companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft to provide information about bloggers who use their platforms. Last September, prominent blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, was sentenced to 30 months in prison on tax evasion charges. CPJ research shows the charges were in reprisal for his blogging.
Lowlight: In October 2008, the Ministry of Information and Communication created a new agency tasked with monitoring the Internet.
Internet service providers are required to submit IP addresses and other identifying information to the government on a regular basis. All Internet traffic flows through a central network, allowing the government to filter content and monitor e-mails. The government employs an array of techniques to harass bloggers: conducting surveillance, restricting bloggers’ movements, and undertaking electronic sabotage. Online writers Slim Boukhdhir and Mohamed Abbou have served jail time for their work.
Lowlight: In a March address, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali warned writers against examining government “mistakes and violations,” saying it was “an activity that is unbecoming of our society and is not an expression of freedom or democracy.”
With nearly 300 million people online—more than any other country in the world—China has a vibrant digital culture. But Chinese authorities also maintain the world’s most comprehensive online censorship program, one emulated by many other countries. The government relies on service providers to filter searches, block critical Web sites, delete objectionable content, and monitor e-mail traffic. Because China’s traditional press is tightly controlled, bloggers often break news and provide provocative commentary. Blogs, for example, played prominent roles in spreading news and information about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. But bloggers who go too far in promoting unpopular views or reporting sensitive information can find themselves in jail. At least 24 online writers are now in prison, CPJ research shows.
Lowlight: In 2008, the National Office for Cleaning Up Pornography and Fighting Illegal Publications announced that it had removed more than 200 million “harmful” online items during the prior year.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov promised to open his isolated country to the world by providing public Internet access. But when the country’s first Internet café opened in 2007, it was guarded by soldiers, connections were uneven, the hourly fee was prohibitively high, and authorities monitored or blocked access to certain sites. The Russian telecommunications company MTS, which entered the Turkmen market in 2005, started offering Web access from mobile phones in June 2008, but service agreements require customers to avoid Web sites critical of the Turkmen government.
Lowlight: Turkmentelecom, the state Internet service provider, routinely blocks access to dissident and opposition sites, while it monitors e-mail accounts registered with Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail.
Authorities block only a small number of Web sites, but they monitor Internet activity on a regular basis. Traffic from all Internet service providers passes through the state-run Egypt Telecom. Authorities regularly detain critical bloggers for open-ended periods. Local press freedom groups documented the detention of more than 100 bloggers in 2008 alone. Although most bloggers were released after short periods, some were held for months and many were kept without judicial order. Most detained bloggers report mistreatment, and a number have been tortured.
Lowlight: Blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman, known online as Karim Amer, is serving a four-year prison term on charges of insulting Islam and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In consultation with Internet experts, CPJ developed eight questions to assess blogging conditions worldwide. The questions:
- Does a country jail bloggers?
- Do bloggers face harassment, cyber-attacks, threats, assaults, or other reprisals?
- Do bloggers self-censor to protect themselves?
- Does the government limit connectivity or restrict access to the Internet?
- Are bloggers required to register with the government or an ISP and give a verifiable name and address before blogging?
- Does a country have regulations or laws that can be used to censor bloggers?
- Does the government monitor citizens who use the Internet?
- Does the government use filtering technology to block or censor the Internet?
Based on these criteria, CPJ regional experts nominated countries for this list. The final ranking was determined by a poll of CPJ staff and outside experts.