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East: Analysis From Washington -- An Internet Enemies List

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 13 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An international journalism watchdog organization has identified 20 countries as enemies of the Internet because of their extraordinary efforts to block access to this new means of communication.

In a statement released this week, the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontiers said that these countries not only force subscribers to use a state-controlled Internet Service Provider, but actively work to limit access to this medium by censoring websites or taking actions against users.

Among the very worst, this group said, were the communist regimes in China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam, the post-Soviet states of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and the authoritarian regimes in Burma, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia.

China is typical of the approach of the four communist countries. Alarmed by the growth of Internet use, Beijing has stepped up its monitoring of all those with access. It has closed some 300 cybercafes in Shanghai alone and sent one computer user to jail for two years after he provided the e-mail addresses of 300,000 Chinese to a dissident website.

The post-Soviet states vary more widely, the French group said, but most of them seek to limit access either by maintaining tight control over providers, as in Belarus and Tajikistan, or ensuring that access is so expensive, as in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, that few people can take advantage of it.

The very worst of these seven countries, the report said, is Turkmenistan, which remains a virtual Internet "black hole."

And the other authoritarian countries diverge more widely still in their techniques, if not their commitment to keeping their populations from going on-line. Libya, for example, bans all access to the Internet. Syria prohibits individuals from using it. Burma requires, under penalty of imprisonment, that all computer owners register with the state.

Iran censors the Internet in the same way that it does other media. The authorities have installed filters blocking access to sites covering such topics as Israel, sexuality, or criticism of the Islamic republic. And Iraq denies the population it controls all access to the Internet. Baghdad officials are permitted to go on-line, but only via servers located in Jordan.

The efforts of all these states to control Internet access, the Reporters sans Frontiers report concludes, in fact highlights the growing importance of the Internet and the threat it poses to all governments who seek to deny their people access to information.

But this growth in the Internet, the report continues, should not lead to complacency on the part of those concerned about human freedom. That is because the Internet is now a "two-edged sword:" It provides people with more information, but it also gives governments yet another means of monitoring their citizens.

And because of that, Reporters sans Frontiers concludes its report with an appeal for the governments of these 20 countries to abolish state monopolies on Internet access, end registration requirements for computers, abolish censorship via the use of filters, protect the confidentiality of e-mail, and end the persecution of Internet users.

Moreover, it specially urges that Burma, China, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan ratify the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and that these and the other governments live up to its provisions.

The most significant of the covenant's provisions, the French group argues, is that "everyone shall have the right to receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers."

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