During the past few years, governments all over the world have come to realize how substantial the Internet can be for gathering and distributing information, for exchanging ideas, as well as organizing and mobilizing social groups.
About time, wasn’t it?
But the anti-censorship watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), have drawn up their annual “Enemies of the Internet” list.
Here it is; 2010’s worst violators of the freedom of expression via the Internet: Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Egypt.
Yes, you read that right. Egypt. Who would have thought that with over 16 million Egyptians currently using the internet, there would be a problem?
Well, come to think of it, it all makes sense now. With recent crackdowns on freedom of expression online with jailed bloggers and website/social networking monitoring system, the RWB report was right; Egypt, and rest of these nations, feel threatened by the rise of new technologies, and even more with the emergence of a new medium for public debate.
It may not surprised many people that five out of the “dirty dozen” are located in the Middle East, but the report stated, “More and more states are enacting or considering repressive laws pertaining to the Web, or are applying those that already exist.”
Michael Slackman published an article about blogging in Egypt in The New York Times last year. He wrote of how critics of the government are relatively free to complain as much as they want, but taking any steps towards real world protests will quickly get people into hot water.
Slackman continued on to say that bloggers appeared to have the shorter end of the rope, being more harshly punished for their writing compared to newspaper reporters.
“For some reason, as yet unexplained, blogging seems to cross the line from speaking to acting”, says Slackman, while citing self-censorship at newspapers to be the differentiation. A prime example would be Wael Abbas, an Egyptian journalist, human rights activist and one of Egypt’s high profiled bloggers. Abbas was arrested in 2007 and 2010 after posting videos on YouTube of police brutality and mob harassment of women in Egypt. He was put on trial for “damaging internet cables,” but the charges and cases were eventually dropped.
Since newspapers are generally government-owned, they treat the subject of governmental issues sensitively, while bloggers who wish to voice their distaste for anything can do so without any limitations… or so they thought.
More recently, Ahmed Abdel Fattah Mustafa was charged in early March, 2010, for posting comments on his blog claiming nepotism in an Egyptian military school. The sudden charges of “publishing false news about the army” and “attempting to undermine people’s confidence in the armed forces” led to a court-martial and finally his release on March 7. However, there are currently 2 bloggers who are still imprisoned in Egypt.
Surprisingly, the RWB’s report sub-category of “countries under surveillance” includes democratic countries such as Australia and South Korea. Said countries are under surveillance for adopting worrying measures that could open the way for abuse of power and control of information. In a weird way, it’s kind of comforting to know that censorship isn’t just for dictators anymore!
Although website blocking is currently limited in Egypt, the question on many peoples’ minds is: how much longer until the government decides to take it a step further, like its’ fellow Enemies?
There are plenty of people monitoring blogs almost anywhere, but many places no longer have the illusion that they can be controlled anymore and it is simply is impossible to put the genie back into the bottle.