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Information is power.
The statement is not just a cliché, but an ironclad axiom that has proven its worth in gold since the dawn of civilization. Unfortunately, the power that information wields has also unleashed the worst instincts of authoritarian governments threatened by its capabilities.
While both aren’t necessarily equivalent, the free flow of information and truth, however, often go hand in hand. Suppressing the former inevitably squashes the latter.
The unfettered flow of information is a threat to those who want to keep their citizens in the dark. This makes their subjugation easier and keeps the corrupt deeds of those in power hidden.
For most of these countries, an independent press is a mirage. Sadly, some of these offending countries are also signatories to accords that support the very liberties they are suffocating as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration asserts that everyone has a right to seek news and express his or her opinions.
It is a sad commentary on the pervasive censorship sweeping the globe that there is such a flagrant disregard for the principles espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
When the Internet was born, it held so much promise as a revolutionary medium for good.
It was supposed to usher in an age of unprecedented collaboration by bringing people together through unfettered communications; communications which was supposed to be uninhibited by the constraints of gatekeepers in either the media and government.
As the starry-eyed thinking went, online tools would not only unleash creativity, but expand the frontiers of freedom by making it easy to mobilize people in support of democratic institutions.
The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 seemed to validate this belief that citizens would be capable of using the power of the internet to emancipate themselves from the shackles of authoritarian governments.
But the flicker of hope has been quickly extinguished.
The chilling reality is for over two decades, governments around the globe have been busy using technical, legal, and extralegal strategies to regulate and stifle online content.
However, while “media censorship is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes,” the disturbing trend is that even constitutional democracies are not immune to the virus of internet censorship.
How We Gathered This Information
Over the last several years of both blogging online, running a small security consultancy in London and traveling to over 46 countries my understand and appreciation for true freedom has changed.
Technology and open access to information has allowed me to create a life for myself that I would never otherwise had access to.
In the words of Tim Berner's Lee,
The free and open web faces real challenges. Half the world’s population still can’t get online. For the other half, the web’s benefits come with too many risks: to our privacy, our democracy, our rights. We need to build a better web.
This resource is a work in progress. For a topic as important as global censorship there isn't that much data current online.
I gathered and fact checked all of the information on here from leading universities, governments, international think tanks and privacy advocacy groups around the world.
You jump to my resource section to see my sources.
Online Surveillance by Country
The below list is sorted into four distinct sections each pertaining to the level of censorship in each country.
This is an expanded list based off Wikipedia's work, found here. Please contact me for any corrections to this page.
Current Enemies of the Internet:
- 🇧🇭 Bahrain: 2012–present
- 🇧🇾 Belarus: 2006–2008, 2012–present
- 🇨🇳 China: 2008–present
- 🇨🇺 Cuba: 2006–present
- 🇪🇹 Ethiopia: 2014–present
- 🇮🇳 India: 2014–present
- 🇮🇷 Iran:2006–present
- 🇰🇵 North Korea: 2006–present
- 🇵🇰 Pakistan: 2014–present
- 🇷🇺 Russia: 2014–present
- 🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia: 2006–present
- 🇸🇩 Sudan: 2014–present
- 🇸🇾 Syria: 2006–present
- 🇹🇲 Turkmenistan: 2006–present
- 🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates: 2014–present
- 🇬🇧 United Kingdom: 2014–present
- 🇺🇸 United States: 2014–present
- 🇺🇿 Uzbekistan: 2006–present
- 🇻🇳 Vietnam: 2006–present
Past Enemies of the Internet:
- 🇪🇬 Egypt: 2006–2010 (currently Under Surveillance)
- 🇲🇲 Myanmar: 2006–2013
- 🇹🇳 Tunisia: 2006–2010 (currently Under Surveillance)
Current Countries Under Surveillance:
- 🇦🇺 Australia: 2009–present
- 🇪🇬 Egypt: 2011–present
- 🇪🇷 Eritrea: 2008–2009, 2011–present
- 🇫🇷 France: 2011–present
- 🇰🇿 Kazakhstan: 2008–present
- 🇲🇾 Malaysia: 2008–2009, 2011–present
- 🇰🇷 South Korea: 2009–present
- 🇱🇰 Sri Lanka: 2008–2009, 2011–present
- 🇹🇭 Thailand: 2008–present
- 🇹🇳 Tunisia: 2011–present
- 🇹🇷 Turkey: 2010–present
Past Countries Under Surveillance:
- 🇧🇭 Bahrain: 2008–2009 and 2011 (currently Enemy of the Internet)
- 🇧🇾 Belarus: 2009–2011 (currently Enemy of the Internet)
- 🇮🇳 India: 2008–13 (currently Enemy of the Internet)
- 🇯🇴 Jordan: 2008
- 🇱🇾 Libya: 2008 and 2011
- 🇷🇺 Russia: 2010–2013 (currently Enemy of the Internet)
- 🇹🇯 Tajikistan: 2008
- 🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates: 2008–2013 (currently Enemy of the Internet)
- 🇻🇪 Venezuela: 2011
- 🇾🇪 Yemen: 2008–2009
Countries Sorted By Online Freedom
The below list is an alphabetical breakdown of each country measured via 6 different measures.
Please find more inormation about each below:
Freedom of the Press is a yearly report by US-based non-governmental organization Freedom House which measures levels of global freedom given to press and journalists.
The Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries prepared by Reporters Without Borders based upon independent measurements and analysis of the level of press freedom. These metrics also include bloggers, netizens, regular contributors and the number of independent news organizations.
The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) was a global effort to monitor and understand global surveillance. While other initiatives monitor press ONI focuses on monitoring networks and data filtration to understand censorship from a technical perspective.
|Country||Region||FH Free press report||RWB Press freedom index||ONI political filtering||ONI social filtering||ONI security filtering||ONI tools filtering|
|🇦🇬 Antigua and Barbuda||NAmerica||38||-||-||-||-||-|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||Europe||48||26.86||-||-||-||-|
|🇨🇻 Cape Verde||Africa||27||14.33||-||-||-||-|
|🇨🇫 Central African Republic||Africa||62||26.61||-||-||-||-|
|🇨🇩 Congo, Democratic Republic of the||Africa||83||41.66||-||-||-||-|
|🇨🇬 Congo, Republic of the||Africa||55||28.2||-||-||-||-|
|🇨🇷 Costa Rica||NAmerica||19||12.08||-||-||-||-|
|🇨🇮 Côte d'Ivoire||Africa||70||29.77||-||-||-||-|
|🇨🇿 Czech Republic||Europe||19||10.17||-||-||-||-|
|🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||NAmerica||41||28.34||-||-||-||-|
|🇹🇱 East Timor||Asia||35||28.72||-||-||-||-|
|🇸🇻 El Salvador||NAmerica||40||22.86||-||-||-||-|
|🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea||Africa||91||67.2||-||-||-||-|
|🇭🇰 Hong Kong||Asia||33||26.16||-||-||-||-|
|🇲🇭 Marshall Islands||Oceania||17||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇳🇿 New Zealand||Oceania||17||8.38||-||-||-||-|
|🇰🇵 North Korea||Asia||97||83.9||nd||nd||nd||nd|
|🇨🇾 Northern Cyprus||Europe||-||29.34||-||-||-||-|
|Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States||NAmerica||-||19.72||-||-||-||-|
|🇵🇸 Palestinian territories||Asia||83||43.09||ne||sub||ne||ne|
|🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||Oceania||27||22.97||-||-||-||-|
|🇵🇷 Puerto Rico||NAmerica||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇰🇳 Saint Kitts and Nevis||NAmerica||20||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇱🇨 Saint Lucia||NAmerica||15||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇻🇨 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||NAmerica||17||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇸🇲 San Marino||Europe||17||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇸🇹 São Tomé and Príncipe||Africa||29||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||Asia||84||56.88||sub||per||sel||per|
|🇸🇱 Sierra Leone||Africa||49||26.35||-||-||-||-|
|🇸🇧 Solomon Islands||Oceania||28||-||-||-||-||-|
|🇿🇦 South Africa||Africa||34||24.56||-||-||-||-|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||Asia||32||24.48||ne||sel||per||ne|
|🇸🇸 South Sudan||Africa||59||36.2||-||-||-||-|
|🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||Asia||72||56.59||ne||ne||ne||ne|
|🇹🇹 Trinidad and Tobago||NAmerica||25||23.12||-||-||-||-|
|🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates||Asia||72||33.49||sub||per||sel||per|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||Europe||21||16.89||ne||ne||ne||ne|
|🇺🇸 United States||NAmerica||18||18.22||ne||ne||ne||ne|
|🇪🇭 Western Sahara||Africa||-||-||-||-||-||-|
1. Views and Attitudes Surrounding Censorship
It wasn’t supposed to happen in the world’s foremost democracy, where the principles of free speech and privacy are enshrined in the constitution.
But, after Edward Snowden’s state surveillance revelations rocked the world, Americans could never view their government the same way again.
However, despite the uproar that followed the revelation of mass data collection by the U.S National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013, surveillance has not abated, but has been on the rise globally.
1.1 Do You Know Whether Your Government Is Monitoring You on the Internet?
Information is power, and knowing the extent to which your civil liberties are potentially being infringed upon requires a populace to be vigilant in protecting their rights.
As a responsible citizen, you shouldn’t wait to be deprived of Internet access before defending it - that is why it is important to know whether and to the extent to which your government is monitoring you.
The Pew Research on Internet and Technology, report on Americans’ Views on Government Surveillance Programs, is especially relevant in the era since Edward Snowden blew the lid off the government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications.
These are some of its findings:
- About 87% of the respondents in the survey who admitted to have who heard of the surveillance programs were subsequently posed questions regarding behavioral change after the fact.
- Currently, 31% of Americans are aware of government surveillance of citizens through the monitoring of emails, telephone calls, and other online communications, driven by efforts to monitor terrorist activity.
- On the other hand, 56% have heard about this government eavesdropping, by not so much.
- More men (37%) than women (26%) are much more likely to have heard quite a lot regarding the (Snowden’s) NSA revelations.
- Men were also more likely to be quite perturbed and “very concerned” (21%) than women (12%) in regards to the surveillance of their data and electronic communications by the government.
- However, 25% of those with a high school degree are less likely than individuals who graduated from college (40%) to have heard a great deal regarding government surveillance.
1.2 How Concerned Are People Regarding Online Privacy Intrusion and Surveillance
- With regard to government surveillance of electronic communication and data, 17% of Americans said they are “very concerned”;
- Those who are “somewhat concerned” amount to 35%;
- 33% are “not very concerned”;
- While 13% are “not at all” concerned about the surveillance.
Those who say they have heard a great deal regarding surveillance efforts are also more likely than others to say they are very concerned, as shown below:
- With strong concern expressed by 34% and
- 21% of men being very concerned.
When asked more specifically about their own concern communications and online activities, respondents expressed somewhat reduced levels of concern regarding electronic surveillance in various aspects of their digital lives.
1.3 Internet Privacy and Surveillance Views Since the Snowden Leaks
- Almost half of Americans agreed (49%) agreed the release of the classified information served the public interest,
- While 44% felt that it harmed public interest
- There was also a generational component to attitudes, with adults younger than 30 were more likely than older Americans to say the leaks served the public interest (60%),
- 54% of the public said the government should pursue a criminal case against the person responsible for the leaks
However, it isn’t only Americans who are becoming increasingly skeptical of government surveillance programs.
A study published in New Media and Society examined the perceptions and behavioral responses of multinational internet users' concerning online privacy.
The study surveyed a cross-section of people spanning 1261 internet users from five cities (Bangalore, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney and New York) by looking at individual and macro-level factors concerning online privacy.
It reported that there is a huge spike in the number of consumers (80%), who now claim to be concerned with privacy, compared to only about 30% in the 1970s.
2. Global Trends Regarding Internet Freedom
When you consider the world’s socioeconomic and cultural diversity, that fact that 57% of the global population has access to the internet, as of January 2019, is quite remarkable.
However, a recent study by Freedom on the Net, paints a more dismal picture: most of these of these internet users – 67 percent of them – reside in countries where any whiff of disapproval or criticism of the government, military, or ruling family is subject to censorship.
2.1 Downward global trajectory of Internet freedom
Freedom on the Net is a comprehensive study of Internet freedom done by Freedom House, which is a pro-democracy think tank.
The study spanned 65 countries around the globe, covering 88 percent of the world’s Internet users, and it discovered some of the following:
- Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.
- Two-thirds of all internet users are in countries were censorship is enforced for any kind of criticism of the government, or powerful institutions such as the military or the ruling family.
- Over the past year, there have been arrests and unparalleled penalties in 38 countries just based on users’ social media activity alone!
- More specifically, 27 percent of all internet users are at risk at being arrested just for posting, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook, because of where they live.
- Worse still, the condition is deteriorating as the number of countries where penalties and arrests happen have grown by over 50 percent since 2013.
3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The 2016 Freedom on the Net report from Freedom House has helped to shine a light on the various assaults on Internet freedom perpetuated by countries through government crackdowns, and censorship of social media messaging apps and services.
The title to this section indicates that it has been a mixed bag of results regarding the clash between forces on the opposing sides of internet freedom:
3.1 The Good
However, it hasn’t been all gloom and doom.
The Freedom House report highlights some concrete results that internet-based activism has led to, such as the “the defeat of a restrictive legislative proposal to the exposure of corruption through citizen journalism.”
For instance, the report mentions how internet freedom activists in Nigeria galvanized themselves and thwarted a bill that would have constrained social media activity in that country.
Also, in what reflects the high hopes and ideals initially harbored regarding social media apps, a group on the WhatsApp chat service was utilized as a warning beacon in Syria to alert civilians of impending air raids, subsequently helping to save countless innocent lives.
Activists, advocacy groups, and journalists deserve a lot of kudos because they have been unrelenting in pushing back against deteriorating conditions for global internet freedom.
Moreover, three countries, namely, Libya, Nepal, and the Maldives were removed from the annual list of Internet enemies, published by Reporters Without Borders.
3.2 The Bad
- Compared to only 15 the previous year, 24 governments prevented access to social media sites and communication services by either restricting or blocked them outright in 2016.
- Of the 65 countries included in the report, Internet freedom declined in 34 of these.
- The most significant drop were in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Uganda, Ecuador, and Libya.
- After their high-profile internet crackdowns, Turkey and Brazil were subsequently downgraded to "not free," and "partly free" respectively.
- The rise of secure messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram didn’t go unnoticed by government censors. WhatsApp was a familiar target over the course of 2015, as the messaging app got either restricted or outrightly blocked in 12 countries.
- Culprits include in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Bahrain, where authorities in those countries usually targeted it in response to civilian protests.
3.3 The Ugly
3.3.1 Democracies turning to the dark side
Unfortunately, even democratic nations that purport to uphold the tenets of human rights haven’t been exempt from denying their citizens basic Internet freedoms.
The most egregious of these is India, the world’s largest democracy. It has earned itself the dishonorable distinction of being the “internet shutdown capital” of the world, according to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC).
The SFLC tracks internet shutdowns across the world, and in 2019, the Indian government adopted what is increasingly becoming the tactic of authoritarian regimes by shutting down the Internet access of the entire Kashmir region.
Entering 2020, India's internet shutdown in Kashmir was over 145-days long, becoming the longest ever imposed by a democratic state.
This was ostensibly done for the benefit of “peace and prosperity,” but the real reason was to stifle dissent resulting from its policies.
In doing so, it denied 60 million of its citizens - roughly the size of France, the ability to
The SFLC, which has been keeping score on these internet shutdowns, provides the following statistics:
- Three shutdowns in 2012,
- Five in 2013,
- Six in 2014,
- 14 in 2015,
- 31 in 2016,
- 79 in 2017,
- 134 in 2018,
- As at the time of their last report, 93 had been calculated for 2019.
To a lesser degree, though no less troubling, are countries like Australia and France that passed measures authorizing sweeping surveillance of their populace.
Security and public safety concerns were used to justify these policies, which were prompted in part by domestic terrorism along with the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
Based on its rankings, Freedom House considers China as the worst abuser of internet freedom, and it has gained this dubious distinction for the second year in a row.
Following on China heels are Syria and Iran (North Korean isn’t included in the report, perhaps due to the opacity associated with information regarding the nation).
According to The Impact of Media Censorship: 1984 or Brave New World? Countries such as China deploy a huge amount of resources to block foreign websites. The goal is to ensure that uncensored information that may threaten the regime is placed out of citizens’ reach.
The Chinese government throws many obstacles and frictions in the path of its internet users, for instance, by deliberately making connections slow, in order to restrict the flow of sensitive information on the Internet.
This is also a sign that the countries censorship apparatus capitalizes on citizens’ low demand for information to achieve their objective of information control.
3.3.3 Exporting Digital Authoritarianism
It was bad enough that many governments have been putting up defensive firewalls to curtail information from reaching their people. Now they are going on a full-fledged offensive against freedom of expression.
Digital authoritarianism is now being supercharged and even exported by countries like China. China is now “mentoring” other repressive governments around the world on its model of comprehensive censorship and surveillance.
It is now offers assistance to other nation-states in the form of seminars, trainings, and study trips; all in a quest to enable them better hone their surveillance and censorship skills.
China also showcases its advanced technological expertise in artificial intelligence and facial recognition systems - helping other countries realize the extent of possibilities and abuse that these cutting-edge and emerging technology can be used for nefarious ends.
China’s surveillance net already extends far beyond the confines of the Internet, blanketing virtually all of its cities, thereby giving its police vast powers to monitor its citizens.
This transference of this know-how to other nations should be a development that should scare everyone interested in a censor-less and free Internet.
The Ten Most Censored Countries
The Committee to Protect Journalists originally assembled this list. The countries that have the dubious distinction of making this list span at least four continents. Among other things, they share the common denominator of intimidating journalists into silence with threats, physical coercion, imprisonment, and all manner of surveillance.
For the countries in the top three of our list, the media is merely cosmetic or window dressing as far as it relates to disseminating “information.” In Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan, the media exists only to serve as a mouthpiece of government authorities, and any iota of dissent no matter how trivial by a journalist is met with brutal repression.
Their litany of troubling misdeeds they have perpetuated range from the bad to atrocious, and are frankly too numerous to list. Therefore, we have condensed and summarized our findings to save you considerable reading time.
Here they are:
Topping the list of infamy is the small African country of Eritrea. But don’t let its relatively small size fool you, because judging from its ability to top the list, to say it punches above its weight in infamy would be an understatement.
Although it only has a middling population of 4.475 million, it is already the worst jailer of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its brutal repression of journalists and suppression of press freedom with blunt tactics.
As always, censorship is almost inseparable from leadership. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, has held power since 1993. To consolidate power for so long, he has systematically crushed any opposition, with the state maintaining a legal monopoly on broadcast media.
Internet penetration is at an anemic 1% of the population, reports the U.N. International Telecommunication Union.
Based on a report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, Eritrea’s authoritarianism is so brutal and pervasive as to “render ordering overt internet disruptions unnecessary.”
1.1 Low points of censorship
Some journalists have been imprisoned since a 2001 (!) crackdown on obviously trumped-up charges and without trial, with at least 16 being held as of December 1, 2018.
It is speculated that as many as seven journalists may have died in custody. Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain the precise number of casualties given the tight state control of credible information and the climate of fear fostered by the regime.
2. North Korea
North Korea is one of the most secretive nations on the globe and part of the success of this opaqueness is due to its ability to block, suppress, and ban any news that isn’t state-sanctioned adulation of Kim Jong Un, who took over power in 2011 after his father, Kim Jong Il, died.
Comically, Article 67 of North Korean’s constitution calls for freedom of the press, but the words are not worth the paper they are written on. The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) is virtually responsible for all news that emanates from the country, the agency supplying state propaganda to North Korea's newspapers, periodicals, and broadcasters.
International correspondents are denied access and entry, with some even detained and expelled, although Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press have small bureaus in the country.
Internet access is restricted to the elite and politically connected, although a stripped-down, tightly controlled version of the Internet called Kwangmyong is available to some schools and state institutions.
According to a report by InterMedia, the only independent sources of information available to North Korean’s are from smuggled, bootlegged foreign DVDs, TV, and radio signals.
Not surprisingly, the North Korean authorities have stepped up the crackdown on these illegal information avenues. According to The Diplomat, the government has ramped up the use of radio signal blockers and advanced radio detection equipment to prevent people from sharing such information.
Even subscribers to the officially sanctioned Koryolink (totaling about four million, according to the South Korean daily, The Hankyoreh), which is North Korea's main mobile network are not able to access content outside North Korea.
2.1 Low points of censorship
A North Korean court in September 2017 sentenced two South Korean journalists to death in absentia along with their publisher due to what they deem as “insulting the dignity of the country.”
These journalists had the audacity to interview the authors of the book, “North Korea Confidential” which exposed life in North Korea, and subsequently reviewed the book for their newspaper publication.
Many people might not have heard of Turkmenistan, so it may have flown under the radar of public consciousness with regard to its censorship pedigree.
This is a sovereign country in Central Asia is ruled by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who came to power in 2006. A dictator who enjoys absolute control over all spheres of life in Turkmenistan, Berdymukhamedov deftly bends the media to his whims, using it to promote his cult of personality.
Berdymukhamedov’s regime suppressed the media and independent journalists, jailing and detaining them with alacrity, and forcing the fortunate few who escaped his grasp to flee the country. Correspondents who work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in the country have been forced to work under pseudonyms because they have suffered persecution such as imprisonment, are routinely attacked, and have been banned from traveling.
It is no surprise therefore that all media and information outlets are either outrightly owned or otherwise tightly controlled by the government.
A handful of independent media voices operate outside the country such as Chronicles of Turkmenistan, aka Khronika Turkmenistana. While it is good to have these outsides, independent voices, however, this is tempered by the fact that not only do they operate in exile but anyone who is caught attempting to access these websites will get an unsavory visit from the authorities.
The U.N. International Telecommunication Union reports that only about 21% of Turkmenistan’s population has access to the Internet. However, the government strictly curtails this access by banning the use of even quality VPNs and other anonymizing tools, in addition to blocking independent publications.
3.1 Low points of censorship
A 69-year-old freelance journalist named Soltan Achilova, was prevented from boarding an international flight because of their previous contributions to RFE/RL's Turkmen service.
4. Saudi Arabia
4.1 Low points of censorship
Unless you’re uninformed or living under a rock, chances are that you have likely heard about the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist and Saudi government critic Jamal Khashoggi by agents linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Khashoggi was lured there to obtain paperwork, but his murder was just the apex point in an already deteriorating environment not only for press freedoms, but for civil liberties in general.
Prior to the incident, bin Salman had already ordered a crackdown that put journalists’ freedom in jeopardy. As of December 1st, 2018, 16 journalists have been put behind bars.
The regime really got on a roll by the first half of 2019, detaining at least nine additional journalists. Of those detained, at least four were subjected to abuse and torture in Saudi prisons, according to medical assessments prepared for bin Salman, but leaked to the Guardian Newspaper.
Therefore, while Khashoggi’s death is an extreme example, it is nonetheless representative of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on an independent press in the Islamic country. Under Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, the country has experienced a rapid deterioration of press freedoms.
The fatal attack on Khashoggi encapsulates the repressive environment for the journalist, where the government has free rein to imprison journalists and bloggers who stray from the regurgitating pro-government narrative.
Hmm, where do we start with China?
It censorship is such a hydra-headed monster using its tentacles and the aid of technology to hold a firm grip on all facets of society.
China has channeled its considerable expertise in building spying networks and facial recognition to create vast surveillance powers that enables it to censor an unprecedented 1.4 billion people.
5.1 Low points of censorship
It already has already built one of the most sophisticated surveillance networks known to man that blankets entire cities. In its restive region of Xinjiang, China has successfully forced the internment of over a million ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities extrajudicially.
For over two decades, China has consistently emerged as the globe’s top jailer of journalists, with at least 47 held as of December 1, 2018.
Without permission granted by the state-sanctioned, Cyberspace Administration of China's permission, no website or social media account is allowed to provide any form of news. The Internet users in China get a different diet of news compared to everyone else.
This is courtesy of China’s Great Firewall preventing access to almost everything foreign: news, search engines, social media platforms, and websites.
The media must follow China’s Communist Party directives, or else they risk punishment, suspension or worse. The Party instructs journalists to follow “Marxist news values.” Even entertainment isn’t devoid of censorship. China’s national Film Bureau has demanded that movies “must have a clear ideological bottom line and cannot challenge the political system.”
Chinese authorities have the leeway to track your face using facial recognition software, scan your phone, and generally track your movement.
While most rankings have China in fifth place, we find it even more egregious that they are trying to make their censorship practices a norm around the globe.
Perhaps the only thing scarier than an emerging superpower using its vast powers and technology to foster the widest dragnet of censorship and surveillance is to export that same expertise to other authoritarian governments.
China has been willing to both export and mentor other nations on the blueprint for becoming a digital totalitarian state.
5.2 Coronavirus censorship
The Coronavirus (Novel Coronavirus 2019-nCov or Covid-19) pandemic has exposed the weak underbelly of China’s one-party authoritarian rule.
In the process, it has dealt a blow to the conceit of censorship and the political system that justifies it.
China’s censorship has up till now provided the state-apparatus with the means to “sanitize” information so that only those which conform to the dictates of the Communist Party are given free rein.
However, their censorship has come back to haunt them with the outbreak of the Coronavirus.
With the state-of-emergency like panic created by this respiratory disease, the suppression of any opinion that doesn’t tow the Communist Party line proved to be quite insidious, hampering the free flow of information that could have controlled the disease in its early stages, even possibly nipping it in the bud.
But worse, the knee-jerk reaction of the censors was to punish those trying to shed light on the truth concerning the spread of the disease.
While the Coronavirus pathogen is a humanitarian and healthcare crisis, it has, unfortunately, provided a case study on the limitations and dangers of censorship. This is what this section is going to explore.
Dr. Li Wenliang: Bearing the Consequences for Sounding the Alarm
What worse way to highlight the insidiousness of censorship when the doctors and medical professionals who are tasked with ensuring public health and reported the reality of the Coronavirus outbreak were instead arrested for “spreading rumors.”
The most infamous case of China’s censorship during the outbreak involves Dr. Li Wenliang.
The doctor initially recognized the troubling pattern that was emerging from a cluster of viral infections as a virus. He then tried to sound the alarm on social media and save as many lives as possible.
Dr. Li Wenliang was summarily summoned by both police and medical authorities after he issued his warning about a strange virus to his colleagues in a chat room.
Instead of being praised for his efforts to do good, Chinese authorities arrested him instead.
Li eventually contacted the disease himself and eventually succumbed to it. But even in death, Li has become a potent, rallying symbol for those outraged that the virus had been allowed to spiral out of hand and metastasize unchecked.
One of the few bright spots in this unfortunate saga is that at least the Chinese authorities acknowledged, albeit belatedly, that Li was right; and that he and seven others should never have been censored.
A Window of Speech Liberty Opened, Then Quickly Shut Back Again
Apart from testing the limits of China’s top-down, rigid and opaque system, the other thing being pushed to the limits by the Coronavirus debacle (if that were any more possible in a country already beset with heavy censorship) is the concept of free speech.
However, for a brief moment, if you squinted your eyes hard enough you could have perhaps caught what appeared to be a rare glimpse of speech liberalization in the initial aftermath of the Coronavirus.
According to Reuters, during the early advent of the current crisis, a very uncharacteristic loosening of speech occurred, albeit during a brief window of time between January 19th to Feb 1st. This charitable lapse in censorship was probably because of the impending celebration of the Lunar New Year holiday, so the Communist Party was feeling a bit charitable.
But perhaps some things are too good last.
With the cascade of bad news and criticism, however, the regime of President Xi Jinping is getting especially antsy, and more sensitive about how it is being portrayed in handling this most recent outbreak — the emphasis being on most recent — since this more heightened censorship is a regression from its stance during the 2003 SARS epidemic.
Even official calls for openness were countenanced after Beijing’s initial cover-up of the SARS epidemic drew widespread suspicion. But the status quo has returned in full vengeance, with Chinese authorities reverting to type, scrubbing social media posts and shutting down WeChat groups.
Criminal Charges for Telling the Truth
During the early heydays of the virus’ spread, the other thing moving in lockstep with the disease was the equally fast-spreading fear and panic left in the wake of its death and destruction.
Understandably this panicked state of mind led people to rightfully criticizing the Chinese authorities’ poor response in tackling the disease.
What has been the Chinese government’s response to all of this?
Instead of transparency, the Chinese government did the opposite by ramping up efforts to punish local citizens already beleaguered by the disease for what it calls “spreading rumors.”
As reported by outlets like the South China Morning Post, China clamped down on those it deems to be criticizing the government about the virus in social media and messaging platforms such as WeChat, which is the most popular social media app in the country. Authorities in China’s law enforcement and judicial agencies have provided a set of 10 new charges for those caught contravening the official edit.
But this heavy-handed censorship is likely to cause the distrust of those to swell with the very people that the government pledged to keep safe.
Even bereaved people like Wu Chen — whose name is a pseudonym because she didn’t want to incur the wrath of authorities and spend time in jail as a dissident — are afraid to mourn openly. Wu said that her mother died of the disease but didn’t even have a testing kit to prove it.
As Times eloquently put it, “what to make of a government that cannot abide the grief of a daughter who took her ailing mother home rather than see her die on a hospital floor.”
Censorship - or Controlling the Spread of Misinformation?
If there is anything important to the efficacy of public health measures, it is transparency. But in a climate steeped in censorship, especially where it is the default behavior of the state, then something has to give.
The broader implications of the Coronavirus outbreak is that it forces governments to confront the issue of control that is central to censorship; specifically, issues revolving around the control of not only the disease, but of information surrounding it, and the limits of state power.
The outbreak of the Coronavirus disease precipitated frantic searches across multiple social media platforms. Unfortunately, this quickly descended into the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and outright lies.
However, it is even more disheartening when this propaganda comes from the government. According to Maria Repnikova, a professor of global communications at Georgia State University, China’s quarantine of the virus was also accompanied by something else: “We are also seeing these restrictions being accompanied by intensified propaganda.”
Without a doubt, each nation has a legitimate responsibility and goal to ensure that the spread of an epidemic is contained and immediately eradicated.
While the tools at each country’s disposal and those it chooses to use are varied, are there any legitimate reasons to stem the flow of any information that is perceived not to be in the public interest?
Against this backdrop, we ask whether it is ever justified, under any condition to pursue or allow censorship, even if it is to ostensibly save lives?
The Vietnamese Communist Party-led government has a vice grip on all sources of information, maintaining control of all the print and broadcast media in the country. There are repressive laws galore that make it a crime to criticize the policies and performance of the one-party government.
The government doesn’t want there to be any daylight between the media and the government, passing 2016 Press Law that states that the press must essentially serve as the voice of the party, including party organizations and agencies.
On January 1, 2019, a new cybersecurity law came into effect that gives authorities sweeping powers that allow them to censor online content. This includes provisions that mandate technology companies to not only take down content considered objectionable by authorities, but also to disclose and report their users’ data.
Aside from the Catholic church-run Redemptorist News and foreign news bureaus, no independent and non-state news outlets exist in Vietnam. As their reporters’ movements are highly restricted and tightly monitored.
6.1 Low points of censorship
Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger critical of Thailand’s Communist Party went missing but it was eventually discovered that he had been abducted and held without charge in Hanoi's T-16 prison.
The prevailing climate of fear has been created in Iran by authorities routine jailing journalists, harassment and surveillance of their families, and blocking websites. Journalists often face harsh and punishment imposed on them, such as severe prison sentences merely for covering topics deemed by the authorities to be sensitive, even local corruption and protests.
The domestic and local media must closely follow tight government controls, with all journalists requiring full government accreditation before they are allowed to carry out their duties.
While foreign bureaus are grudgingly permitted in the country, they are compelled to work under intense pressure, with international outlets often having their permission to work routinely suspended for periods of time, and in some instances, permanently.
In order to suppress its citizenry, the Center for Human Rights in Iran and U.S. Congress-funded Radio Farda report that Iran is often up to no good. It relies not only on spying but on blocking key social media platforms, including millions of websites but also jams satellite television broadcasts.
7.1 Low points of censorship
Yashar Soltani was sentenced to five years in prison on anti-state charges just for publishing articles detailing corruption in Tehran.
8. Equatorial Guinea
The government of African’s longest-ruling head of state, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979, maintains tight control over what and how journalists report in the country.
For dictators, the benefits of being entrenched in power for so long is that they usually find a way to consolidate our government levers of power under their control. In that guise, Equatorial Guinea is no different with all the broadcast media being wholly owned by the government, except RTV-Asonga.
But this is scant consolation since RTV-Asonga is owned by the president’s son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, who also conveniently doubles as the countries vice president. The government has succeeded in outrightly banning topics considered inimical to the government’s interest, or the image of the president or those close to him.
Even though they allow privately owned newspapers to exist, the journalists and people that work are often self-censoring themselves because they are constantly under the threat of prosecution for any coverage that is deemed critical of the president, his family, or the government in general.
According to an October 2018 civil society information that was submitted to the U.N. Universal Periodic Review, the websites of foreign outlets and those of the political opposition are routinely blocked.
Equatorial Guinea enacted a law in 1997 called the Press, Printing and Audiovisual Law, which restricts journalists’ activity under a rash of penal code punishment. These include criminalizing libel and defamation, in addition to allowing for official pre-publication censorship.
Like Equatorial Guinea, Belarus shares something in common with its African counterpart in terms of the longevity of its ruler: in power since in 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko is Europe's longest-ruling head of state.
Exerting almost absolute control over the media, Belarus has very fee independent journalists, with bloggers being subjected to constant harassment. The intimidation is often very public and open, with the state trying to make examples and public deterrents of influential journalists and media outlets.
9.1 Low points of censorship
The editor-in-chief of the independent Tut.by Maryna Zolatava was found guilty in March of 2019 of using someone else's login information to access a state-run news site. Fortunately, she was fined 7,650 Belarusian rubles ($3,600), but wasn’t jailed.
While Cuba has taken some tentative steps in recent years to open itself to the outside world, for example with the Wi-Fi access and the expansion of mobile access. Although these developments are commendable, especially by Cuban standards, the country still boasts the most restrictive climate for the press in the Americas.
The one-party communist state wholly controls all the print and broadcast media. The press isn’t allowed to deviate from the party orthodoxy, as they are mandated by law to “in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.”
As earlier stated, although a ray of hope has emerged, with the introduction of the internet opening up space for critical reporting, a lot still leaves much to be desired. ETECSA, which is the state-run, has the authority to block content it considers objectionable.
The Open Observatory of Network Interference reports that ETECSA also restricts access to news platforms and critical blogs. Journalists that are critical of the government are often targeted through harassment, which often delves into physical and online surveillance. Other more draconian measures include arrests, home raids, and short-term detentions.
List of Countries that Prohibit Facebook and YouTube
In 2016, Freedom House published an alarming report stating that internet freedom had declined, at that time, for the sixth consecutive year. Unfortunately, things have improved since then.
Here is the list of countries that have banned social media sites such as Facebook, and YouTube:
- North Korea
Bemoaning how social media has descended so quickly from its earlier promise, Freedom House admonishes that “what was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation.”
- Americans’ Views on Government Surveillance Programs, March 15, 2016, The Pew Research Center.
- Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps Under Pressure,
- Freedom on the net 2016, Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps Under Pressure
- The list of 13 Internet enemies, November 7, 2006 - Updated on January 25, 2016, Reporters Without Borders
- 93 disruptions in 2019: Are Internet shutdowns becoming the new normal in India? December 17, 2019, The News Minute
- The Impact of Media Censorship: 1984 or Brave New World?, American Economic Review 2019, 109(6): 2294–2332
- Democracy in Retreat, Freedom in the World 2019, Freedom House
- 2019 World Press Freedom Rankings - A detailed interactable chart describing the state of press & media freedom for each country in the world.
- OpenNet Initiative - ONI aims to analyze and expose internet filtering and surveillance wherever it can be found.
- Electronic Privacy Information Center - Since 1994, EPIC has aimed to shed light on emerging privacy issues.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation - A non-profit organization protecting online liberty since 1990.
- Privacy Coalition - Consists of numerous organizations all of which have vowed to protect online privacy and rights by taking the Privacy Pledge.
- Privacy International - PI is a charity organization that looks into entities that try to gain private information about individuals and groups without their consent.
- Open Rights Group - ORG is dedicated to protecting free speech online, as well as monitoring technological advancements that could prove to be fatal for digital privacy.
- European Digital Rights - EDRi fights for maintaining the privacy rights and freedom of speech for European citizens that are mainly endangered by information technology.
- Digital Privacy Alliance - A non-profit organization focusing on consumer rights online.
- Demand Progress - More than 2 million members are fighting together to make governments accountable for online privacy and reduce the rising online power of corporations.
- Freedom of the Press Foundation - FPF defends public-interest journalism both online and offline.