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International blogging conference puts Internet press freedom on the agenda

At the Re:publica digital media conference in Berlin, online activists from around the world met to discuss challenges to freedom of expression, policies of giants and how to cope with firewalls.

People looking at computer screens in Chinese internet cafe

Critical bloggers in China face state censorship

According to the rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), present at the Re:publica digital media conference in Berlin, about 120 bloggers and online reporters are currently in jail because of their work.

More than half of them are imprisoned in China, one of the countries most criticized for its rigid online censorship. Last month, RSF welcomed Google's decision to stop censoring its Chinese language search engine and to move its operations to Hong Kong.

"Companies who obey the demands of oppressive regimes are accomplices to censorship," said Lucie Morillon, the head of Reporters Without Borders' new media desk. "They are helping to silence basically those people who want to express dissident views. They are helping regimes to stay in place."

Lucie Morillon, head of the New Media desk at Reporters Without Borders talks about internet censorship at Re:publica conference

Reporters Without Borders' Lucie Morillon, says many companies help state censors

Morillon hopes that other major international players follow Google's lead, especially Yahoo, which has a history of collaborating with the Chinese authorities. In 2005 it handed over information that resulted in the imprisonment of a Chinese activist for 10 years.

In recent weeks more allegations against Yahoo have surfaced. Morillon said the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China reported "13 cases of foreign reporters whose accounts have been hacked."

Twitter and the Great Firewall

Blogger and columnist Michael Anti (Zhao Jing) used to work both for Chinese and American media. His blog was deleted by Microsoft in 2005 to comply with Chinese censors. Anti said Google has given Chinese people a taste of freedom of information, and believes their decision to withdraw from mainland China sends a strong message to both the government and the people.

While many Web sites like YouTube remain completely blocked, Twitter is huge in China. Last year the government shut it down, but the more than 80,000 Twitter users have found their way around the block. Anti, who has over 20,000 followers, said "Twitter is the first public platform where Chinese people can really have freedom of speech and can really freely talk about almost everything."

More than 380 million people are using the Web in China, many of them adept at jumping over the "Great Firewall." Anti said that Chinese Twitter users are exchanging information about other regimes and supporting activists in countries like Iran.

'Enemies of the Internet'

Blogger and columnist, Michael Anti (Zhao Jing).

Michael Anti's blog was deleted because of its critical content

In 2009, more than 60 countries experienced some form of internet censorship, according to Reporters without Borders. In March, RSF published a list of 12 so-called "enemies of the Internet," which are countries that seriously violate their citizens' free speech online.

Apart from China and Iran, the list also includes Saudi Arabia, Burma, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Cuba and Egypt, who use a range of measures from Internet filtering and blocking Web sites, to imprisoning bloggers and journalists.

With 70 million people writing over 700,000 blogs, Iran has a strong Internet presence. Twenty-seven-year-old Farnaz Seifi, was one of the first Iranian women to start her own blog seven years ago. She worked for many years as a women's rights activist and journalist in reformist newspapers, which were shut down. Seifi now lives in the Netherlands.

Seifi has noticed the Iranian government's increasingly sophisticated range of strategies to suppress freedom of speech, including using blogs.

"Three years ago suddenly we had this huge wave of Muslim bloggers, very religious ones, very loyal to the Islamic Republic. And they are working for spreading the propaganda of the Islamic Republic regime," she said. "So it shows that the government of Iran thought, 'If we want to control them, we need to be active in what we are doing as well and spreading our own propaganda'."

Sceenshot of Iranian Twitter site after the Iranian Cyber Army hacked it.

Iranian censors hacked the Twitter site

A cyber war

However, it's not just about propaganda in the blogosphere. Seifi said the Iranian Revolutionary Guard now has a Cyber Army, which it uses to hack into Web sites opposed to the current regime. Recent attacks include the Amsterdam-based Iranian radio station, Radio Zamaneh, and the Jaras Green Movement Web site.

While Iranian bloggers do fear retribution from their government, at the same time, Seifi said the thirst for free information makes the activists very creative. "It is a cyber-war, sometimes the government wins, sometimes it's us."

While there's a lot of talk about bloggers and activists rallying to support each other, regimes may also share tactics. Seifi believes that the Chinese government is assisting the Iranian government with software and hardware.

Journalist Farnaz Seifi, who was one of the first female bloggers in Iran.

Farnaz Seifi was one of the first female bloggers in Iran

"Iran also got lots of its equipment and the technology from China. They send people for special training in China to [learn] to put much more effective censorship to the Internet and Internet media."

"Through business the technology of censorship will be sold to other countries, so to help Chinese people to fight against censorship is not only a China thing, it is also a universal question," said Chinese blogger Michael Anti.

Seifi also pointed out that censorship doesn't always come from the oppressing regime. In Iran, for instance, most Google products, like Google Maps, are banned under US sanctions. This doesn't hurt those in power but affects ordinary people, she said. "If you want to help us in getting democracy, the main way is to give us access to the information."

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Anke Rasper

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