By Modou S. Joof
Three of the government bodies designated as “Enemies of the Internet” are located in democracies that have traditionally claimed to respect fundamental freedoms, the international press freedom agency, Reporters Without Borders, RSF, has said.
RSF said identifying government units or agencies rather than entire governments as Enemies of the Internet “allows us to draw attention to the schizophrenic attitude towards online freedoms” that prevails in some countries.
The 2014 Enemies of the Internet report published on “World day against Cyber censorship” on March 12, stated that the NSA and GCHQ have spied on the communications of millions of citizens including many journalists.
“They have knowingly introduced security flaws into devices and software used to transmit requests on the Internet. And they have hacked into the very heart of the Internet using programmes such as the NSA’s Quantam Insert and GCHQ’s Tempora,” the report stated.
Turned into weapon
It indicated that the internet was a collective resource that the NSA and GCHQ turned into a “weapon” in the service of special interests, in the process flouting freedom of information, freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
“The mass surveillance methods employed in these three countries, many of them exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, are all the more intolerable because they will be used and indeed are already being used by authoritarian countries such as Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to justify their own violations of freedom of information,” says Lucie Morillon, Head o Research Department.
“How will so-called democratic countries will able to press for the protection of journalists if they adopt the very practices they are criticizing authoritarian regimes for?”
Alongside the NSA and GCHQ, the following are listed as using “national security as pretext”: Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency, Saudi Arabia’s Internet Services Unit, Belarus’ Operations and Analysis Centre, Russia’s FSB and Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service.
These are security agencies that have gone far beyond their core duties by censoring or spying on journalists and other information providers, Morillon added.
In countries such as Turkmenistan, Syria, Vietnam and Bahrain the government ensures a “dangerous monopoly of infrastructure”, the report stated. “The government’s control of Internet infrastructure facilitates control of online information.”
While in Syria and Iran, it stated that internet speed is often reduced drastically during demonstrations to prevent the circulation of images of the protests.
Internet Service Providers, website hosting companies and other technical intermediaries find themselves being asked with increasing frequency to act as Internet cops, the report indicated. Some cases border on the ridiculous. In Somalia, for example, the Islamist militia Al-Shabaab banned using the Internet in January 2014.
The right to privacy is enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 12), the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 17), the European Convention on Human Rights (article 8) and the American Convention on Human Rights (article 11).
Countries like Vietnam, The Gambia, Bangladesh and Grenada are listed in the Enemies of the Internet Report for legislating laws that are considered “draconian”. “Legislation is often the main tool for gagging online information,” says RSF Head of Africa Desk, Cléa Kahn-Sriber.
“In Gambia, the government gave itself a new ‘legislative weapon’ in July 2013 by getting the national assembly to pass amendments to the Information and Communications Act – the main law limiting freedom of information,” Kahn-Sriber said.
“The amendments make the ‘spreading of false news against the government or public officials’ punishable by up to 15 years in prison or a fine of 3 million Dalasi (64,000 Euros).”
The report also indicated that in countries like Singapore, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia – online news media are required to seek “permission to publish” based on licencing or registration regulations.
RSF’s Head of Asia Desk, Benjamin Ismaïl, has said: “The creation of a licencing system for news websites serves as an administrative and sometimes economic barrier and is a widely-used method for controlling online information.”
“In Singapore, under a measure that took effect in June 2013, news websites that post more than one article a week about Singapore and have more than 50,000 Singaporean visitors a month need a licence that requires depositing ‘a performance bond’ of 50,000 Singaporean dollars (39,500 US dollars). The licence has to be renewed every one year,” Mr Ismaïl explains.
Now, RSF is considering what forms of response are possible in order to preserve online freedom of information.
“We think it is essential to: Press international bodies to reinforce the legislative framework regulating Internet surveillance, data protection and the export of surveillance devices and software.
“Train journalists, bloggers and other information providers in how to protect their data and communications. RSF has been doing this in the field for several years. It has organized workshops in many countries including France, Switzerland, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
“Continue to provide information about surveillance and censorship practices. That is the purpose of this report.”
You can access RSF’s full report and recommendations HERE.