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Seven countries where Internet freedom is under threat.

This week, Freedom House released its Freedom on the Net 2012 report, examining Internet and digital media freedom in 47 countries across the globe.

At a time when nearly one third of the world’s population has accessed the Internet, governments have in recent years devised various methods to obstruct the openness of online communications. The report’s findings indicate that such restrictions on Internet freedom in many countries have continued to grow since January 2011. Even more problematic, governments’ methods of control are evolving — becoming more sophisticated and less visible. As part of the assessment, Freedom House identified seven countries to watch because they are at particular risk of Internet freedom setbacks in the coming year.

Unlike countries such as China and Iran, where the government is likely to add new layers to an already robust control apparatus, in these seven, the Internet still remains a relatively unconstrained space for free expression. Nevertheless, these countries have all recently considered or introduced legislation that would negatively affect net freedom, placing them at risk of further decline.



Partly Free: 43/100 (0 best, 100 worst)

Although the Malaysian government places significant restrictions on traditional media, it has actively encouraged Internet and mobile phone access, resulting in an Internet penetration rate of over 60 percent and a vibrant blogosphere. Currently, no politically sensitive websites are blocked, and a notorious sedition law that was used to crack down on political speech for decades was repealed in early 2012, but other infringements on Internet freedom have emerged in the last year.

Prominent online news outlets and opposition-related websites have suffered cyberattacks at politically critical moments. Bloggers have faced arrest or disproportionate defamation suits for criticizing government officials or members of the royal family. And legal amendments rendering intermediaries liable for seditious comments were passed in April 2012, as were changes to the penal code that criminalized “any activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

In the watershed general elections of March 2008, Malaysia’s ruling coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1969, and the use of the Internet for political mobilization was widely perceived as contributing to the opposition’s electoral gains. As Malaysia prepares for another set of highly contentious elections scheduled to occur by April 2013, the government and ruling party may step up their efforts to increase their influence over the Internet.

JIMIN LAI/AFP/Getty Images


Partly Free: 52/100

After the elimination of independent television channels and the tightening of press restrictions since 2000, the Internet remains the last relatively uncensored platform for public debate and the expression of political opinions in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. However, even as more citizens have online access, Internet freedom has eroded. Since January 2011, the obstacles to freedom of expression online have evolved, with massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against government opponents, online smear campaigns to discredit activists, and extralegal intimidation of average users intensifying. Nevertheless, online tools — such as social-media networks and video-sharing platforms — played a critical role in galvanizing massive public protests that began in December 2011.

Putin’s government subsequently signaled its intention to tighten control over Internet communications. Since May 2012, the parliament has passed legislation that recriminalized defamation and expanded the blacklisting of websites, while prominent bloggers — including corruption whistleblower and opposition leader Alexey Navalny — have been arrested and face harsh jail terms on questionable charges. As the Kremlin’s contentious relationship with civil society and Internet activists worsens and the country prepares for regional elections in October, such controls appear likely to increase.


Sri Lanka

Partly Free: 55/100

Although Internet penetration remains at only around 15 percent of the population, since 2007 there has been an incremental growth in the influence and use of online news sites and social-media tools for civic and political mobilization despite a very dangerous environment for traditional media journalists. The government has responded with arbitrary blocks on news websites and occasional attacks against their staff, a dynamic that has intensified since January 2011. In November, the government suddenly announced a policy requiring websites that carry “any content related to Sri Lanka” to register with the authorities. The prominent online journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been “disappeared” since January 2010, apparently in police custody.

The country’s judicial system has proven a poor safeguard against these infringements, with the Supreme Court recently refusing to even open proceedings on a petition that challenged the arbitrary blocking of five prominent websites focused on human rights and governance. In June 2012, police raided two news websites’ offices, and in July the government announced new registration fees for such sites, illustrating the potential for further assaults on Internet freedom in the coming year.



Partly Free: 43/100

The political unrest and armed conflict that led to a dramatic regime change in Libya in 2011 was also reflected in the country’s Internet freedom landscape. The online environment was notably more open after the rebel victory in October 2011 than it was under Muammar al-Qaddafi or during the period of civil conflict, when the Internet was shut off in large areas of the country. A frenzy of self-expression has since erupted online, as Libyans seek to make up for lost time. Nevertheless, periodic electricity outages, residual self-censorship, and weak legal protections pose ongoing challenges to Internet freedom.

Meanwhile, the passage in mid-2012 of restrictive legislation criminalizing anti-government “propaganda” or speech glorifying the Qaddafi regime, highlighted the ongoing threats to online expression as different actors seek to assert their authority. (The law was subsequently overturned.) These political developments, alongside factional fighting and the recent violence in Benghazi in response to an American-made anti-Islamic YouTube video, illustrate the potential pitfalls for Internet freedom in Libya as the country embarks on a transition to democracy.



Partly Free: 50/100

May’s Eurovision Song Contest isn’t the only major global media event in Azerbaijan this year. In November, the country will play host to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an international gathering of online stakeholders including government representatives, private companies, and NGOs. The Azerbaijani government has been eager to promote itself as a leader of IT innovation in its region. Indeed, though a few opposition websites are sporadically blocked, Azerbaijan’s Internet remains much less restricted than print and broadcast media, the main sources of information for most citizens. Internet usage has increased dramatically over the past two years: online tools have begun to be used for political mobilization, including a series of Arab Spring-inspired pro-democracy protests in early 2011. The authorities have responded with increased efforts to clamp down on Internet activities and stifle opposition viewpoints.

Rather than censoring online content, the government has mainly employed tactics such as raiding cybercafes to gather information on user identities, arresting politically active netizens on trumped-up charges, and harassing activists and their family members. In a worrisome development, the authorities ramped up their surveillance capabilities in early 2012, installing “black boxes” on a mobile phone network that reportedly enable security agencies to monitor all communications in real time.

While international attention on Azerbaijan’s human rights record around the time of the Eurovision contest and ahead of the IGF led to some positive developments, including the recent release of imprisoned bloggers and website editors, there is concern that after the spotlight fades, a crackdown will ensue. Furthermore, with a presidential election expected in 2013 — and online tools potentially serving as an avenue for exposing electoral fraud — the risk of additional restrictions being imposed on Internet freedom in Azerbaijan over the coming year remain high.



Not Free: 63/100

Mobile phones and other communication technologies have proliferated in Pakistan in recent years, spurring dynamic growth in citizen journalism and activism. The government, and particularly the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), has responded with increasingly aggressive efforts to control the new systems, resulting in an alarming deterioration in Internet freedom. These disconcerting developments included a ban on encryption and virtual private networks (VPNs) — which allow users to access blocked websites and one-day blocks on all mobile phone networks in Balochistan Province in March and August ostensibly due to security concerns. Pakistan has also seen Twitter briefly blocked over blasphemous posts, and a new government directive to block 15 websites featuring unflattering content about “influential persons.”

Several other initiatives to increase censorship — including a plan to extensively filter text messages by keyword and a proposal to develop a nationwide Internet firewall — were shelved after facing resistance from civil society advocacy campaigns. But taken together, these developments signal the government’s continued commitment to controlling the Internet and new media. As access expands and general elections approach in April 2013, such efforts are likely to increase.



Partly Free: 51/100

The government of Rwanda under President Paul Kagame has been applauded for its commitment to economic development since the country’s devastating genocide in 1994, including investment in communications technologies that have dramatically expanded Internet and mobile phone usage. Nevertheless, Internet penetration remains low at only 7 percent, and widespread poverty continues to impede access to the web. Although this is true of many developing countries, the increasingly authoritarian Rwandan government has also begun exerting greater control over digital media.

In the lead-up to the presidential election in 2010, authorities blocked the website of an independent newspaper for six months. Other online outlets have reported government requests to delete content related to political affairs or ethnic relations. Furthermore, violence against online journalists, though sporadic, appears to be on the rise, and one editor living in exile was sentenced in absentia to two and a half years in prison in June 2011 for the crime of insulting the president in an online newspaper.

These worrying incidents have fueled concerns that the government’s firm restrictions on print and broadcast media — particularly regarding content on the ruling party or any deviation from the official line on the 1994 genocide — are crossing over into the Internet sphere. In one ominous sign, in August 2012 the government approved legislation that, if passed by the Senate, would enable security and intelligence services to conduct widespread surveillance of e-mail and telephone communications.


Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.

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