Hopes that access to the internet in unfree countries would pull down barriers to the free flow of information have been dashed by both direct and indirect methods of censorship by governments determined to control what their citizens read and hear, a press freedoms watchdog group said in a report released on Tuesday.
“The internet was supposed to make censorship obsolete, but that hasn’t happened,” New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Executive Director Joel Simon said at the release of CPJ’s report, 10 Most Censored Countries.
“Censorship is alive and well,” Simon said, pointing to China and Vietnam as examples of countries that have active online communities, but whose governments use “new technology, often purchased from Western companies, to stifle dissent and control the media."
In China, websites and social media accounts are subject to strict digital monitoring, with internet users blocked from foreign news sites and search engines, CPJ said in its report.
“Authorities monitor domestic social media networks, using surveillance programs and trained censor professionals,” CPJ said, adding that foreign social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked.
China now has “the world’s most extensive and sophisticated censorship apparatus,” with at least 47 journalists held in the country’s prisons as of Dec. 1, 2018, CPJ said, adding that both state-owned and privately owned news outlets operate under government supervision.
Especially in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region, where up to three million Muslims from the Uyghur and other ethnic communities have been held in political reeducation camps, “surveillance and censorship are widespread,” CPJ said.
Journalists working in China for foreign news organizations also “face digital and human surveillance, with visas delayed or denied,” CPJ said.
Meanwhile, a new cybersecurity law in Vietnam grants authorities “sweeping powers to censor online content,” with technology companies required to identify users and remove politically sensitive postings, CPJ said, citing reports by the Reuters news agency.
“The Communist Party-led government owns and controls all print and broadcast media in Vietnam,” with laws and decrees in place forbidding criticism of the country’s government or its policies, the report said.
Vietnam’s 2016 Press Law says that “the press must serve as the voice of the party, party organizations, and state agencies,” and government directives sent to newspaper, radio, and TV editors highlight the news the state wants covered and list topics banned for discussion.
Meanwhile, a 10,000-strong censorship department called Force 47 run by the country’s military scans media content for “wrong views,” CPJ said, citing a report by the Financial Times.
At least 11 citizen journalists and bloggers reporting on politically sensitive issues were in jail as of Dec. 1, 2018 – among them Radio Free Asia blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who was abducted in Thailand and forced back to Vietnam at the beginning of the year, CPJ said.
Reporters for foreign news bureaus are closely watched, with journalists entering the country on media visas followed at all times by a government minder, CPJ said.
Restricted to the elite
North Korea, also listed in CPJ’s report, meanwhile continues to be “one of the most repressive countries in the world for journalists,” the press freedoms watchdog group said, quoting Reuters.
Though the country’s constitution calls for freedom of the press, news content for North Korea’s print media and broadcasters is managed and provided by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Access to the internet is restricted to the North Korea’s political elite, “But some schools and state institutions have access to a tightly controlled intranet called Kwangmyong,” CPJ said.
Radio detection equipment and signal blockers prevent North Korean citizens from accessing and sharing information obtained from foreign broadcasts, and though at least four million North Koreans had subscribed as of March 2019 to the country’s Koryolink mobile network, “subscribers are not able to access content outside North Korea.”
Other examples of state interference by media-censoring governments include the abuse of criminal defamation laws and hacking campaigns targeting online content, CPJ said in its report, which also lists Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Belarus, and Cuba as among the world’s most censored countries.