2009 was an unprecedented year for online repression.

For the first time since the Internet emerged as a tool for public use, there are currently 100 bloggers and cyber-dissidents imprisoned worldwide as a result of posting their opinions online in 2009, according to Reporters Without Borders. This figure is indicative of the severity of the crackdowns being carried out in roughly 10 countries around the world. (In one example, Burma handed out long prison sentences to online dissidents.)

The number of countries pursuing online censorship doubled in the past year — a disturbing trend that suggests governments seek to increase their control over new media. In total, 151 bloggers and cyber-dissidents were arrested in 2009, and 61 were physically assaulted.

The crackdown on bloggers and ordinary citizens who express themselves online comes at the same time that social networking and interactive websites have become extremely popular, not to mention powerful vehicles for free expression.

China Still Leads in Online Censorship

China was once again the leading Internet censor in 2009. Countries such as Iran, Tunisia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan also blocked websites and blogs, and engaged in surveillance of online expression. In Turkmenistan, for example, the Internet remains under total state control. Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer is still in jail, while the famous Burmese comedian Zarganar still has 34 years left on his prison sentence. These are but a few examples.

The list of approximately 120 victims of Internet censorship in 2009 also includes leading figures in the defense of online free speech, such as China’s Hu Jia and Liu Xiaobo, and Vietnam’s Nguyen Trung and Dieu Cay.

People are usually targeted because they speak out on political matters, but the global financial crisis is also on the list of subjects likely to provoke online censorship. In South Korea, a blogger was wrongfully detained for commenting on the country’s disastrous economic situation. Roughly six people in Thailand were arrested or harassed just for making a connection between the king’s health and a fall in the Bangkok stock exchange. Censorship was slapped on media in Dubai when it came time for them to report on the country’s debt repayment problems.

Overall, wars and elections constituted the chief threats to journalists and bloggers in 2009. It is becoming more risky to cover wars because journalists themselves are being targeted for murder and kidnappings. It’s also just as dangerous for reporters in some countries to do their job at election time. Journalists have ended up in prison or in a hospital thanks to their election reporting. Violence before and after elections was particularly prevalent in 2009 inside countries with poor democratic credentials.

Iran Election Crackdown

Iran saw the most violence, censorship and arrests due to an election. Its elections this past summer saw more than 100 arrests, and many prison sentences handed down. The country, which is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet,” has also deployed a sophisticated system of Internet filtering and monitoring, especially in recent months. The country’s main ISPs depend on the Telecommunication Company of Iran, which recently came under control of the Revolutionary Guard, and does not hesitate to flout international treaties or to restrict the free flow of information.

Within hours of the announcement of President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad’s election “victory,” journalists were being arrested by the intelligence ministry, Revolutionary Guard, and other security services. Most were taken to Tehran’s Evin prison. At least 100 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since June, and 27 are still being held. Today, Iran is one of the world’s five biggest imprisoners of journalists.

Since the election, national and international media in Iran have been subject to massive and systematic censorship that is without precedent. For the first time since the 1979 revolution, the security services are vetting the content of newspapers before they’re published.

The Iranian regime’s offensive against online free expression took a new direction in December after Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced he was going to prosecute two conservative websites for “insulting” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, several Internet service providers cut access to prevent political opponents from disseminating information during opposition demonstrations on December 27. After the demonstrations, the intelligence ministry and Revolutionary Guard began rounding up government opponents and journalists, arresting an estimated 20 people in the latest wave. Those targeted included a dozen or so journalists and cyber-dissidents. Alireza Behshtipour Shirazi, the editor of Kaleme.org (opposition leader Mirhossein Moussavi’s official website), was arrested at his Tehran home and taken to an unknown place of detention.

Trouble in Democratic Countries

Democratic countries have also enacted online censorship. Several European nations are working on new steps to control the Internet in what they say is a campaign against child porn and illegal downloads. Australia is also planning to set up a compulsory filtering system that poses a threat to freedom of expression.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy announced in December that, after a year of testing in partnership with Australian Internet service providers, the government will introduce legislation imposing mandatory filtering of websites with pornographic, pedophilic or particularly violent content.

Google Australia’s head of policy, Iarla Flynn, raised concerns, saying, “Moving to a mandatory ISP filtering regime with a scope that goes well beyond such material is heavy-handed and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.” In a Fairfax Media poll of 20,000 Australians, 96 percent strongly opposed a mandatory Internet filtering system.

Yet that proposal — as well as many others around the world — continues to move ahead. Hopefully, 2010 will be a better year for free speech online.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents,” published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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