In Most Censored Countries, Internet Is Hamstrung or Withheld

The Ten Most Censored Countries In The World
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By Danny O'Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator

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 constructednot to live up to that ideal, but to fit the limitations of press freedom ineach country. The Internet and mobile phones may be transforming how the newsis covered, but CPJ's list shows the extent to which controls on news-gatherersdistort and hamper the growth of the Internet and cellphone use.

The pattern is different in each country, reflecting localpriorities in silencing the independent press. In Belarus and Syria, the Net ishome to unlawful but state-sanctioned hacking and surveillance. In Saudi Arabia, Internet users aresubject to the same harsh controls that are applied totraditional news media. In Uzbekistan, Internet access is growing, butcensorship is still draconian. In Equatorial Guinea, Internetand mobile censorship is minimal, but so is the infrastructure.

In fact, the simplest solution many of these countries havefound -- including North Korea, Burma, Cuba, and Eritrea -- is to simply denytheir people access to any modern communications infrastructure at all. TheInternet in these nations is nonexistent, or profoundly limited: in some casesbecause of these countries' struggle with poverty, but also because thesegovernments are suspicious of the dangers of a free and open Net.

What Internet infrastructure does exist often mirrorspolitical realities on the ground. In Burma, the countries' Internet is effectively divided into three, self-containedsystems: one for the people, one for the government, and one for the military. NorthKorea's citizens (unlike the ruling elite) have as much access to the WorldWide Web as they have to any independent media -- which is to say none. Andwhile Cuba has seen some improvement in availability andaffordability of mobile telephones, the country is still struggling to catch upafter a history of banning private cellphone and computer ownership.

Eritrea stands as a stark example of how a government's uncompromisingapproach to media has obstructed the spread of modern communications. In acontinent where mobile telephony has transformed local reporting and economies,the regime has been slow to allow mobile phones -- (permission was granted only in2004). The Internet was made available in Eritrea in 2000; the Net on mobilesis still largely unavailable. All mobile communications pass through EriTel,the state provider, and the government requires all ISPs to use thegovernment-controlled Internet gateway.

When a country with advanced systems clamps down on pressfreedom, that too affects the state of its communication networks. In the sixyears since CPJ last published a list of most censored countries, Iran's media,and foreign correspondents based there, have suffered increasing setbacks ashardliners tried to choke off local reporting. At the same time, Iran has beeninvesting in technology and personnel with the explicit intent of restrictingInternet access. Officials have repeatedly discussed plans to create a national, or "pure," IranianInternet, and Iranians face frequentslowdowns in Internet access. A member of the Iranian parliament'sNet filtering committee described the Internet as "an uninvited guest" in thecountry, saying that "because of its numerous problems, severe supervision isrequired."

The working Internet is alike, the world over. Everycensored, silenced, and filtered national network is broken in its own way. Eachcountry on our list has found a unique way to hamper the spread of journalismonline: the end result has been to punish its own citizens with online isolationand silence.

San Francisco-based CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O'Brien has worked globally as a journalist and activist covering technology and digital rights.

Follow CPJ on Twitter: @pressfreedom

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