The Guardian: @DW Global Media Forum: Net censors are ‘on the wrong side of history’, say bloggers

@DW Global Media Forum: Net censors are ‘on the wrong side of history’, say bloggers | Media | “@DW Global Media Forum: Net censors are ‘on the wrong side of history’, say bloggers

Bloggers discuss internet censorship in their countries – Turkey, Egypt and China – and discuss what needs to be done to keep the internet open.


International bloggers at Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2009
From left to right: Lisa Horner, Yang Hengjun, Noah Atef and Yaman Akdeniz

For the first time this year, out of 125 journalists jailed, more than half were web-based, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. As blogging has become an important mode of expression, governments around the world have moved quickly to control the internet and to harass and detain bloggers.

The Committee to Protect Journalists was launched in 1981, and Frank Smyth, its journalist security co-ordinator, admits the group was ‘slow to recognise the importance of the internet in terms of press freedom’. But he said that was the past, and they have recognised that the countries that jail the most journalists – such as China, Cuba, Burma and Uzbekistan – are also some of the most repressive in terms of freedom of expression for bloggers. The panel looked at censorship on the internet around the world.


• Noah Atef, journalist and blogger
• Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties (UK)
• Yang Hengjun, Chinese blog-writer
• Lisa Horner, research and policy, Global Partners and Associates

Initially Turkey had a very hands-off approach to the internet, according to Akdeniz. But between 2001 and 2007, home internet access exploded in Turkey.

The Turkish government then started to consider regulating the internet. The drive was cast as mostly an effort to stop pornography, piracy and defamation. Some of the legislation was defended as an effort to protect children.

In 2007, the Turkish parliament fast-tracked legislation. The bill was passed in just 59 minutes. In under two years, the number of sites being blocked in Turkey went from zero to 2600.

It has led to Blogger, owned by Google, being blocked temporarily because a blog was being used to distribute pirated video of football matches. Richard Dawkins’s site was blocked over complaints by Turkish creationists. Turkey is one of a handful of countries that completely blocks YouTube, mostly due to videos that are seen as defamatory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. YouTube offered to block access only inside Turkey to the videos, but the Turkish government asked the videos to be removed from the global site. Google itself was almost blocked because it allowed people to search for sites that were deemed defamatory of Atatürk.

As with many of these efforts by governments, they are ineffectual. Everyone in Turkey knows how to bypass the restrictions, and no one is afraid of doing so, Akdeniz said. While authorities know how to block YouTube on the internet, they have been unable to block it on the iPhone.

Currently, an administrative agency reviews sites submitted for blocking, but there is no transparency in the process. He believes that the website review process needs to be more open people know why sites have been blocked.

A licence to imprison

Egyptian blogger and journalist Noah Atef spoke about censorship not only in her country but across the Middle East and North Africa. In 2005, a number of Arab countries launched reforms. They wanted to appear democratic, Atef said. Bloggers commented on these efforts. The governments didn’t know who the bloggers were.

But countries across the Middle East have used various methods to control blogging. In the United Arab Emirates, the government passed a law in 2006 ‘combatting information crimes’. It criminalises ‘those who are feeding the web with content that harms the public order or the moral values’. The maximum punishment is five years in prison. Atef said:

It is a licence to put somone in prison.

Different countries in the Middle East have adopted different ways of combating blogs. In Tunisia, government censors actually edit posts and delete pictures. Egypt has attacked the credibility of bloggers. In 2008, more than 100 bloggers were arrested in Egypt. They have also been seized from the streets of Cairo and detained in a van. The van might drive around for up to 24 hours before releasing the blogger, Atef said.

Other countries simply make it expensive and slow for bloggers so it is technically difficult to blog. She pointed to Lebanon, where costs are high and speeds are slow.

Chinese bloggers and ’35 May’

Internet censorship is well known in China, but blogger Yang Hengjun said the cyber police are only one way that the government controls expression on the internet.

The government also uses technological filters, often with the help of western companies. He said to these companies:

Foreign companies, you have a right to make money in China, but I don’t think you have the right to suppress people. You are on the wrong side of history.

But the most insidious form of control is fear. Police might come to knock on a blogger’s door at midnight.

Most of the censorship isn’t done by the government, but by people themselves.

He even admitted to self-censorship himself:

They are more free on the internet than I am, but because they are more free, they are less free in the real world.

Yesterday was a very special day for Chinese bloggers, the 20th anniversary of the protests at Tiananmen Square. Bloggers are not able to talk about 4 June so they talk about 35 May. The Tiananmen Square protest was to ask for government reform, and they continue to demonstrate on the internet. ‘We turned every blog into Tiananmen Square,’ he said.

The Chinese government has adapted to challenges to its authority.

They opened up borders, but one thing they keep tight control on: The control of people’s mind.

They build a wall, an invisible wall on the internet. That makes the Chinese internet different from the rest of world. That is why we go online to pull down that invisible wall.

Lisa Horner, of research and policy at Global Partners & Associates, talked about ways to challenge this censorship from regulation to protecting the openness of the network and the applications themselves. She said that international human rights system lacked the teeth to fight censorship.

One response has been to create the Global Network Initiative,which was established after internet giants Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google were accused of complicity with the Chinese government. The initiative is not without its critics who say it’s a front for profit-motivated companies, that self-regulation doesn’t work, that it is too western-oriented and that the principles and guidelines do not go far enough, she said.

However, fighting censorship online is not just about governments and authorities, she said, adding that users can do a lot to defeat censorship.

One member of the audience asked whether by discussing tools and methods to circumvent censorship that it will just allow governments to defeat those tools.

Akdeniz said that it was always a game of cat and mouse between governments and authorities and those trying to maintain the freedom of expression on the internet. He added:

It’s a continuing technological battle. It’s only half of the solution. Tools are important, but it’s the governments that need to change.