Internet Censorship Newest Threat to Press Freedom | Freedom House

Internet Censorship Newest Threat to Press Freedom

New York

In a new report, Freedom House warns of increased efforts by many governments to restrict Internet access on the pretext of protecting the public from pornography, subversive material, or violations of national security. The study, which assesses freedom of the press in 186 countries, calls freedom of Internet access "the newest test of a government's will to encourage and sustain press freedom," and warns that restrictions on access threaten further controls over traditional news media.

In order to restrict Internet access, governments may require special licensing and regulation of Internet use, limit Internet traffic to filtered government servers, remove controversial pages from websites, and even apply existing press laws to Internet content. The comprehensive survey of print and electronic news media reports that nearly two-thirds of countries, accounting for 80 percent of the world's population, restrict press freedom. This is a slight improvement over 1998, but reflects less press freedom globally than was recorded in the mid-1990s.

  • Last year in Russia, the successor to the KGB began forcing Internet service providers (ISPs) to install surveillance equipment.
  • Burma's "cyberspace warfare center" hacks into computers that receive or send forbidden messages.
  • Chinese "cyber-dissidents" have been imprisoned.
  • In many Middle Eastern countries, where official censorship of traditional media still largely applies, access to the web is restricted to government servers, and thus subject to surveillance.

The Internet is "the most formidable challenge to the censor," according to Leonard R. Sussman, coordinator of the 22nd annual press freedom survey. "But many governments fear that granting individuals free access to information diminishes state control and justifies central regulation."

Mr. Sussman acknowledges that "even democratic governments do not have the option of ignoring the Internet." Some regulation or systemization will be necessary, he concludes, if only to keep the competitive forces flowing and the economy developing. "The electronic infrastructure should be monitored to prevent monopolization of the keys to accessing information and to insure maximum volume and diversity of content. But government must keep its hands off Internet content," says Mr. Sussman.

The Findings

The study asserts that legal restrictions on the press are encouraged by international covenants in Europe and Latin America, and by those who wish to protect a society's cultural or religious values from "corruptive" influences. Such laws empower officials to restrict journalists for alleged national security, morality, or public health violations--which, Mr. Sussman attests, are "often code names for opposition to the political or religious establishment."

The 2000 press freedom survey lists 69 countries (37 percent), representing all continents, as having a free press. Partly free news media are found in 51 countries (27 percent). In another 66 countries (36 percent), print and broadcast systems are considered not free.

Three countries improved substantially from 1998 to 1999. Bulgaria moved from partly free to free, while Jordan and Turkey moved from not free to partly free. Pakistan and Sri Lanka, on the other hand, registered major declines in press freedom. Both moved from partly free to not free. Some 48 countries improved slightly within their categories, while another 36 slightly declined. Of the 186 countries examined, 97 remained unchanged.

The Freedom House survey is the only global assessment of press freedom, comparing all countries using standardized, universal criteria. In each country, the study examines the legal and administrative procedures affecting news media, the degree of political and economic influence on media content, and actual cases of press freedom violations. Measuring print and broadcast media separately, the survey places each country in one of the three categories: free, partly free, and not free.

Regional assessments show free news media in 6 of 53 countries in Africa, 6 of 24 in Asia, 20 of 21 in Western Europe, 9 of 27 in Eastern Europe/NIS, 17 of 33 in Latin America, 1 of 14 in the Middle East, 2 of 2 in North America, and 8 of 12 in the Pacific. Of the world's population, 1.253 million people (21 percent) enjoy access to a free press. Some 2.357 million (39 percent) reside in countries with partly free media, and 2.364 million (40 percent) live where the press is not free.

New Concerns for Freedom of the Press

As the survey went to press, four countries--Peru, Russia, South Africa, and Yugoslavia--evoke new concerns, according to Freedom House. The Fujimori regime in Peru has sharply increased assaults on independent newspapers and broadcasters prior to the presidential election in April 2000. The Russian press is restricted by wartime censorship, monitoring of the Internet by security forces, and the creation of a press ministry answerable to President Vladimir Putin. In South Africa, a human rights commission has subpoenaed editors and journalists to discuss alleged racism in reporting. The structure of the hearings and the inflammatory commission papers suggest some future government enforcement of "training and re-education" of journalists. In Yugoslavia, authorities have stepped up their use of a 1998 press law to repress independent journalists.

Freedom House released the 36-page text of its latest study, entitled Censor Dot Gov: The Internet and Press Freedom 2000, along with an essay by Mr. Sussman, the organization's senior scholar in international communication. Also released was the poster-sized color Map of Press Freedom 2000. The survey and map may be obtained from the Freedom House offices in New York or Washington, D.C., or on the Internet at www.freedomhouse.org.

Freedom House supports the development of democracy and civil society. The organization, in its 59th year, also produces Freedom In The World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, which reports on 190 countries, and Nations in Transit, a comprehensive study of civil society, rule of law, and economic liberalization in 27 former Soviet-bloc countries. Freedom House operates a Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. and conducts training and exchange programs in democracy building from offices in Budapest, Bucharest, Kiev, Riga, and Sarajevo.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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