Media Oppression Hits Cyberspace: New Regulations Mean Crackdowns on Online Journalism

Women in Action, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Media Oppression Hits Cyberspace: New Regulations Mean Crackdowns on Online Journalism


Not long ago, independent journalists and publishers in countries with repressive regimes headed for Cyberspace, where they hoped to publish free from the long tentacles and sharp eyes of their governments. The Internet held out hope for a respite from battling government censors and fighting for licenses that were often denied. This bloom of e-publications has not escaped the notice of the governments they were meant to circumvent, however, and now the governments are fighting back. Press freedom groups report new regulations aimed at curbing Internet publishing and increasing crackdowns on online journalism.

"The Internet is not an instant freedom machine like many used to think," says Andrew Stroehlein, a journalist who has written extensively on .... the topic for "Online Journalism Review," a publication of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication. "In most of the countries we are talking about, Internet access is minimal, either because of regime decree, or, more often, simply by economic exclusion."

Forty-five countries censor the World Wide Web, according to a 1999 report by Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres. "Twenty of these countries may be described as real enemies of this new means of communication," says the report. These include Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

For many governments, shutting down the Internet altogether is not an option. They Want to take full advantage of the Internet's connection to the global economy. Instead, they opt for control of Cyberspace, either by owning all the country's Internet service providers (ISPs)--the companies that provide Internet access and other related services such as website development and hosting--or by allowing ownership of ISPs to regime-friendly businesses only.

In addition, governments can control online access to information through "firewalls," filters that control information that goes back and forth on the Internet. They exert further control by using electronic surveillance and by requiring users to register with the government before they can go online. That way, governments can track who's online and what they've been talking about.

Restricted Access

In many of the countries now cracking down on journalists' use of Cyberspace, people can't afford computers, so they must rely on Internet cafes if they want to surf the Internet. Some governments routinely monitor Internet cafes to ensure Internet surfers aren't accessing illegal Websites. Other regimes have solved the problem of controlling access to the World Wide Web by owning and running the cafes themselves.

In June 2002, the Chinese government began a national campaign to monitor Internet cafes. Since then, authorities have permanently closed 3,000 Cybercafes and temporarily closed 12,000 others. The government has also banned the opening of any new Internet cafes.

In Tunisia, the government has closed several Internet cafes that accessed prohibited sites. It now plans to open its own Internet access centres--known as Publinets--to better control the flow of Web information. Some of the tightest controls on Internet usage are in North Korea, Burma and Iraq, where the exorbitant cost of computers automatically limits the number of Internet users. Only those that can afford computers and whom the government considers "trusted" enjoy Internet access.

"The Internet is the last refuge for people who have been denied access to print, radio and broadcast," says Karen Widess, who covers Central Asia as senior programme coordinator for the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy. In Kazakhstan, for example, the Internet was the only space left for independent publishing after the government issued increasingly tighter controls on publishing and broadcasting licenses. …

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Media Oppression Hits Cyberspace: New Regulations Mean Crackdowns on Online Journalism
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