Tuesday 16 April 2002

Censorship Wins Out

This is a piece I wrote for Online Journalism Review, which ran it on 16 April 2002. It's been republished in quite a number of places since, including a McGraw-Hill reader called 75 Arguments.


Many journalists and activists have brought their struggle for democracy to the Internet but plenty of nasty regimes have learned to control the Net for their purposes...

A decade or so ago, it was all clear: the Internet was believed to be such a revolutionary new medium, so inherently empowering and democratizing, that old authoritarian regimes would crumble before it. What we've learned in the intervening years is that the Internet does not inevitably lead to democracy any more than it inevitably leads to great wealth.

The idea that the Internet itself is a threat to authoritarian regimes was a bit of delusional post-Cold War optimism. It is true that many activists and journalists have brought their struggle for democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression to the new medium, but they have not been blessed by inevitable victory, and plenty of nasty regimes have learned how to co-exist with the Internet in one way or another. In country after country, the same old struggle goes on: hard-line regimes and their opponents remain locked in battle, and the Internet has become simply one more forum for their fight.

Repressive regimes are paranoid by nature. Those in power see enemies everywhere and encourage mass paranoia, overemphasizing threats to national security in order to justify their draconian rule. When early Web-heads equated the Internet with inevitable democracy, paranoia-prone regimes were natural suckers for the idea.

"The Web really does scare these regimes," Veronica Forwood told me. Forwood is the UK Representative for Reporters without Borders, the publisher of the excellent "Enemies of the Internet" report, outlining the situation in many regimes around the world, "They want to control everything, and the Web seems so nebulous and unknowable to them, they are just frightened by it."

Indeed, many repressive states see the Internet as such a threat that they simply ban it altogether. The former regime in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and North Korea are two cases of a complete ban, though it is known that a few very high-ranking ministers in each regime have had access to e-mail at least.

Another particularly harsh example is Burma. A. Lin Neumann, Asia Consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and author of an excellent recent report on press freedom in Burma, explained to me that the military junta in Rangoon effectively prevents public Internet access in the country. One needs a permit for a modem, and though a few people have them illegally, long-distance calls for foreign access are prohibitively expensive. The tiny number of government-approved e-mail accounts are all monitored by censors, and the high price of those accounts again keeps most ordinary citizens away in any case.

Relying on high access costs as a de facto censor is an easy trick for regimes, as they generally lord over desperately poor countries. As we previously discussed here in OJR, Uzbekistan is a perfect example. In true Soviet style, the authorities in Tashkent have set up the technical infrastructure so that they have the capability to monitor e-mails and Web browsing, but it seems they don't actually interfere that much just yet, because they know the price of access means that only a tiny fraction of the population are online, an insignificant fraction apparently in the authorities' view.

But an all-out ban and relying on high access costs are hardly the only methods of keeping control over online information. Despite the theory behind the Internet's built-in anti-censorship architecture, official control is actually very possible in practice, especially as the regimes run the telecommunications infrastructure when the country comes online.

In Iraq the regime is trying to use the Internet to its own advantage while cutting off access to the public. The Internet is accessible from some government ministries, but since, like Burma, one needs special permission to own a modem, home access is limited to the most trusted members of the ruling elite.

The situation in Cuba is little better. The government allows access at approved institutions, including trusted firms and universities. Private access at home is nearly non-existent, and the government is setting up a Cuba-only intranet for young people, to keep their activity corralled in an easily controlled space. The overall effect of these efforts, according to a detailed report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is that, "there is essentially no legal, commercially available public access to the Internet" in Cuba.

Some repressive regimes, however, realizing that the new technology can have some positive benefits for society at large, have developed a more sophisticated approach to the Internet, attempting to allow widespread access and yet maintain control over it. China has tens of millions of Internet users and has easily one of the fastest growing online populations in the world. Still, the authorities' control points are several. Chinese chatrooms, for example, are monitored and comments offensive to the regime are removed quickly by the moderators.

Much more importantly, though, is the Chinese government's ability to censor material coming in from outside China. All external information runs through government servers, so the authorities can and do block outside Web sites they deem potentially dangerous. A report by CPJ in January of last year notes that the main targets for blocking are Western news sites, Chinese dissident sites, Taiwanese media and sites of the banned religious group, Falun Gong. But the CPJ Report also observed how inconsistent the blocking can be, and this point is backed up by this writer's experience. On a recent trip to China, I did a little test of my own in an Internet cafe: US sites cnn.com and time.com were blocked, but UK sites for The Guardian and The Independent newspapers, both with plenty of articles critical of Beijing, were easily accessible.

It is, however, probably not as random as it appears, and the Chinese authorities have blocked a huge number of sites, most likely paying more attention to those sites they feel are better known to Chinese users. Certainly, the authorities' overall control can be in no doubt, exemplified by the fact that their blocking can be turned on and off at will: during last October's APEC meeting in Shanghai, the Chinese authorities temporarily lifted their blocks of some American Web sites as a sop to foreign delegates.

As CPJ's A. Lin Neumann told me: "Chinese blocking is reasonably effective on their part. It takes some determination to get around it, and I doubt that many people want to really play the game. Most of the students I talked with, quite frankly, were more interested in sex, computer games and English proficiency (in that order) than they were in politics on the Internet."

While it's true some editors try to stay one step ahead of the blockers by constantly setting up new proxy sites, that kind of cat-and-mouse routine, forcing the reader to waste time keeping up with frequent address changes, only benefits the censors.

While access to the outside world is significantly limited in China through extensive and complex blocking, the authorities have a much easier time controlling what is published within China. As in many heavy-handed regimes, self-censorship is the key factor in China: editors of Web sites inside China know well the limits of what is acceptable and what is not, and it only takes a few tough arrests and harsh crackdowns to send a clear signal to Web journalists and activists everywhere. The infamous persecution of online publisher Huang Qi is probably enough to keep most Chinese Web editors in line.

This "let that be a lesson to you all" tactic is as old as man, but even with the newest technology it still works -- and is a typical ploy even in regimes that are generally considered less repressive than China. Umit Ozturk, vice-chair of Amnesty International's Journalists' Network, explained to me how this works in Turkey. In Turkey, if a Web site publishes something the military-dominated state finds unacceptable, the ISPs will receive a quick visit or a phone call from someone "suggesting" the immediate removal of that site. Failure to do so would be very detrimental to one's health, so the ISPs naturally comply.

When the optimists spoke of inevitable freedom through the Internet a few years back, they forgot about such crude and effective methods of information control.

Virtually in exile

With such personal threats at home, it's not difficult to see why some online journalists and activists chose to work in exile. There are problems with this approach, obviously -- their online information might be blocked at home, many potential readers will not be able to afford access to their site and their critics will always accuse them of being stooges of foreign governments - but for some the benefit of being able to tell the truth outweighs these concerns.

The main problem of running a Web site in exile is maintaining local relevance and authenticity when writing from abroad; specifically, the site needs regular, up-to-date information from within the country. The only way to do this is to develop a network of reliable correspondents on the ground and to develop efficient channels for getting their information out of the country.

In the worst cases this means either heavily working the phones to your contacts on the ground, or, where phone-tapping is a concern, the smuggling of documentation out of the country. On the face of it, that would seem to be little advancement on the tedious and dangerous methods of the Communist-era dissidents. Still, when it works, it can bring the only non-regime-sponsored information to the outside world and offers a unique eye on closed societies. The work of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was certainly one of the best examples of such activity the Internet has ever seen.

In less restrictive situations, the Internet itself is the networking tool, and e-mail allows émigré publishing to be current from the ground in a way that Iron Curtain dissidents never could be. Even then, however, expanding a network of correspondents on the ground is not always straightforward, and the specifics of the local culture and local regime need to be considered.

My own Institute for War and Peace Reporting is familiar with this problem. The editors of our online publications covering post-Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Balkans are all émigré journalists in London who develop their networks on the ground according to the possibilities in individual countries. In Uzbekistan, for example, the situation is relaxed enough for us to have a physical office in Tashkent and a rather normal network of correspondents radiating out from it. In Turkmenistan, however, the situation is significantly more complicated for us. Forget a physical office: all our reporters on the ground communicate directly via e-mail with our central office in London. Trying to build a normal network there would only attract informants who would turn in all our associates, so we keep our correspondents on the ground isolated from one another. They wouldn't recognize each other if they sat next to one another on a bus in downtown Ashghabat.

But even if you have a developed network of correspondents on the ground, that doesn't mean that people will feel comfortable talking to them. When fear so thoroughly permeates society, mouths stay closed.

In some cases, however, the subject matter is so potentially damaging to people's lives that they are able to overcome their fear of the authorities. The work of the Three Gorges Probe, a Web-site in Canada dedicated to discussing the controversial Three Gorges dam project in China, provides an interesting example of this. Publisher Patricia Adams was reluctant to discuss the details of her network on the ground, but she told me that ordinary people in the region are very eager to talk to TGP correspondents about the dam, as they genuinely hope their concerns will be addressed. Their willingness to talk is understandable; after all, many of them are the ones being resettled by the dam project.

The Three Gorges Probe Web site highlights another particular problem of this genre: oftentimes, the line between journalism and activism becomes fuzzy -- to the detriment of the reader seeking objective information. Adams insists Three Gorges Probe is pure journalism, but it is pretty clear that the site offers a mostly critical view of the project. While that may be a justifiable editorial policy intended to counter all the official information on the dam project, many émigré sites have very serious problems with balance.

Amnesty International's Umit Ozturk sees this as unfortunate in the Turkish case but admits, "It couldn't be any other way." Most Turkish and Kurdish émigré sites are run by "activist reporters," people who care so passionately about their cause that objectivity takes a back seat in their online efforts.

Veronica Forwood of Reporters without Borders, however, says it depends on the background of the editors. Those who come from a strong journalism background usually try to maintain a sense of balance and concentrate on on-the-ground reporting rather than commentary.

Interestingly, there is now serious talk in UK NGO circles of creating a non-profit project specifically designed to help émigré journalists establish Web sites with local correspondent networks for the people in their repressive regimes back home. The idea is to provide start-up funds as well as the technical expertise and journalism training needed to run an émigré Web site with real impact on the ground.

Real change is not virtual

That impact is the heart of the problem for all Web sites working within and around repressive regimes. For all the excited talk about the Internet bringing freedom, actual examples of online publishing bringing about change in these countries are few.

In many ways, the Internet seems to fulfill the same role as samizdat did in Communist Czechoslovakia. Like that old dissident literature, the Internet in authoritarian regimes offers the only place for critical voices, but, sadly, it has little effect on the ground. Remember, despite the international fame of writers like Vaclav Havel, outside of a small circle of intellectuals in Prague, hardly anyone ever read samizdat within Communist Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Revolution emerged from direct action within a changed geo-political atmosphere; decades of dissident carping had nothing to do with real change when the regime finally fell.

As it was with samizdat, most people in authoritarian regimes never get a chance to see Internet publications, and the whole enterprise, both the publishing of banned information and official attempts to stop it, is more a game for elites: elite dissident intellectuals criticize elite rulers, and they argue back and forth in a virtual space. The opponents can score a few victories in that virtual space, but meanwhile, back in reality, little changes for the people on the ground.

Some may find such a conclusion a bit pessimistic, especially coming from someone who works in the field of online journalism in these countries. But it is important to keep one's feet on the ground and neither underestimate the scope of the problem nor overestimate the ability of the medium.

And there is some reason for cautious optimism. CPJ's A. Lin Neumann, for example, reminded me that, "elites, generally, tend to lead the movement toward change so the fact that the Internet is somewhat confined to elite communication in some places does not disqualify it as a change agent." Neumann points to China, saying that the Internet has had an effect on the ground there, leading, for instance, to greater impact of stories on corruption.

Neumann also told me that the nature of the Internet means, "It is simply harder, even for the Burmese bad guys, to keep secrets from the world, because once information gets out it circulates widely."

"Twenty years ago," he noted, "that information -- such as a secret arrest that is revealed through an underground contact -- would have to circulate by newsletters sent in the post; now it is on the desks of journalists and others within minutes."

Andrew Stroehlein is head of training at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and founder of Central Europe Review. He writes regularly about Internet censorship in authoritarian regimes.

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