Intrepid media meet their match: the online oppressors
By JT Nguyen May 3, 2011, 9:17 GMT
New York - The internet and its social networks have become not only a forum for the world's free press and newly emerging democracy movements but also a battleground for repressive governments fighting against them, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report released Monday.
From bloggers who whipped up popular unrest with text messages against dictatorial governments in Tunisia and Egypt to the tamer human rights dissidents in China, the internet has served them well.
But repressive governments have learned to use the same tactics to block, disable or destroy the oppressed people's political and social messages.
'Many of the oppressors' tactics show an increasing sophistication, from the state-supported email in China designed to take over journalists' personal computers, to the carefully timed cyber-attacks on news websites in Belarus,' CPJ said in a study of the tools used by 'Online Oppressors.'
The study was released on the eve of the UN's World Press Freedom Day, which will be observed Tuesday.
Imprisonment of journalists, writers and human rights advocates is an effective tactic to suppress freedom of the press. Online oppression has become an equally crippling weapon, as governments with long records of human rights violations now use the tools available on the internet, CPJ said.
As they scrambled to stay in power, the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia tried internet censorship. President Hosny Mubarak of Egypt shut down the internet in January at the first signs of popular unrest in Cairo, but reopened it a week later under international pressure.
Libya and Bahrain also tried to disrupt internet traffic in reaction to popular demands for freedoms.
The military junta in Myanmar shut down the internet during the 2007 revolt, as did China in 2010 to try to clamp down ethnic unrest in the western province of Xinjiang, CPJ noted.
Iran and China - which topped the CPJ list for each detaining the most journalists, 34, in 2010 - in particular have effectively blocked access to Web portals and prevented citizens from using certain keywords in search engines to follow world news, CPJ said.
China for example removed the phrase Jasmine Revolution, a reference to the revolution in Tunisia that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and its engineers install malware and spyware using legitimate emails.
'Journalists reporting in and about China have been victims of these attacks, known as 'spear-phishing,' in a pattern that strongly indicates the targets were chosen for their work,' CPJ said.
Tehran makes sophisticated use of domestic internet service providers and international internet gateways to blacklist websites since protests against the 2009 presidential elections.
The military junta in Myanmar, formerly Burma, censored and obstructed websites run by Burmese exiles, including the Normay-based Democratic Voice of Burma, which was repeatedly cyber-attacked by Yangon. The Thailand-based news outlet Irrawaddy, the India-based Mizzima news agency and the Democratic Voice of Burma all had experienced cyber attacks that disabled or slowed their websites.
Tunisia's use of state cyber crime went a step further last year when the country's internet agency redirected internet users to 'fake, government-created log-in pages' for major providers or social networks like Google, Yahoo and Facebook. Authorities then could steal usernames and passwords.
'While cybercrime tactics appear to have been abandoned with the collapse of Ben Ali's government in January, the new government has not relinquished control of the internet entirely,' CPJ said.
Syria, which is deploying military forces against protesters, remains the world's most 'dangerous places' for bloggers, CPJ said.
A Syrian court in February sentenced blogger Tal al-Mallohi to five years in prison. She was arrested in 2009 at age 19, when she had a blog about Palestinian rights. CPJ said online journalist Khaled Elekhetyar was detained in March for a week, and veteran blogger Ahmad Abu al-Khair was detained for the second time in two months.
Online journalists met similar fates in Russia, with some of the worst violence unleashed by the Kremlin, CPJ said. Last year, prominent business reporter and blogger Oleg Kashin was badly beaten after his arrest and placed in an induced coma for a time. Attacks on web journalists included the 2008 murder of website publisher Magomed Yevloyev in Ingushetia.
Elsewhere, Belarus conducts precision censorship, Ethiopia controls the internet infrastructure and Cuba denies internet access, CPJ said. In Cuba, only a handful of people are allowed to use the internet at home while the rest of the population must use state- controlled access points.