A global campaign against Internet censorship and the long-term imprisonment of cyber-dissidents in Asia


The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN is marking Human Rights Day on December 10, 2004 with a global campaign to release cyber-dissidents in three countries in Asia: the People's Republic of China, the Maldives, and Vietnam. It calls on the government of these countries to lift its restrictions on free access to the Internet and to release from prison all those it has jailed for expressing their views online. It is focusing its campaign on five cyber-dissidents, all of whom are currently imprisoned with long sentences and whose health and safety are a matter for grave concern. The Rise of the Internet The Internet has been a world phenomenon over the last decade, with online information transforming societies and their economies. Business, government, and organisations of every kind, as well as individuals in their home and workplace, traffic the worldwide web and use electronic mail daily. The United States, with an estimated 200 million Internet users, contains the largest number of users in any one country. However, China is fast catching up. It now has about 80 million users, a figure that has doubled in the last 18 months and which only seven years ago was only in the thousands. Experts predict the number of users in China will overtake the United States by 2008. The new communications technologies allow for swift access to complex information, instantaneous information-sharing across the world and links people across the globe in a low-cost manner. Governments in the West and elsewhere have facilitated the growth of the new industry as investment in the new technology is seen as a boost to local and international economies. The Internet enjoys huge popular support, with a growth in web sites, webzines and on-line chat-rooms in which individuals can swap information and ideas. In many countries around the world dissident communities have seized on the Internet with enthusiasm as a method of expressing their views about their governments and launching campaigns for political reform. Very often, traditional print-forms of communication, such as journals, have been banned. The Internet can then promise unfettered exchanges of opinions. 'Cyberdissent' has become the samizdat of the 21st century. Governments Clamp Down Governments both in the West and elsewhere are increasingly acting to control information exchange on the Internet. Concerns over children having access to online pornography, or on terrorists using the Internet to organise their attacks have given rise to action, often Western-led, to block 'harmful and illegal' content on the Internet. The Internet Content Rating Association was formed in 2000 to help standardise what constitutes such content, and new blocking systems were introduced to filter information. As the Human Rights Watch annual report of 2000 noted, 'regulators around the world were quick to refine online monitoring, screening and other controlling technologies.' It added that such 'wide-scale deployment of rating and blocking systems could be used by regulators to stifle expression and marginalize any Web sites that failed to adopt ratings.' This prediction has proved true. National governments today can ensure that all local Internet service providers (ISPs) conform to their policies regarding internet access or face closure. State-controlled or state-influenced ISPs block off ('fire-wall') unwanted sites from their users and governments also monitor what users are saying online. Individuals in many countries may then face prosecution, and sometimes prison, either for attempting to access a 'fire-walled' web site, or for expressing dissident views that have been intercepted by government agents. Mechanisms of Control Governments have many ways, both technological and other, to control access to the Internet among the population. These include special software packages designed to block access to certain web-sites. Often these are internationally respected web-sites with human rights information on the country in question, such as Amnesty International's, for example. In Syria, a web site containing information on the Kurdish diaspora that is based in Germany (amude.com) was cut off from Syrian-based surfers by the simple tactic of blocking access to the domain name. Governments also try to harness the activities of ISPs (1), by making them sign contracts when they apply for permission to operate, obliging them to ensure that the Internet is used only for certain purposes. Many ISPs are state-controlled, and linked into the state-run telecommunications industry, so that governments can easily patrol them and check on how they are being used. Nevertheless, as the number of ISPs mushroom, controlling every ISP becomes a vast undertaking. However, authorities in a given country can design the local internet flow so that all communications - emails or any downloaded file - pass through a handful of 'hubs', where tracking and monitoring of flow can take place. Efficient 'routers' can effectively then filter the systems. Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) notes in its June 2004 report on Internet censorship that Cisco Systems, for instance, sold China the technology and equipment necessary to set up a comprehensive surveillance system. It reports that the authorities can now:
'read data transmitted on the Internet and spot "subversive" key words. The police are able to identify who visits banned sites and who sends "dangerous" e-mail messages.'
Another method is to modify search engines, so that a user cannot search fully and freely. In at least one reported case, according to RSF, a western business, Yahoo!, has been complicit with a government in imposing such restrictions:

'To keep its foothold in this market, Yahoo! agreed to censor the Chinese version of its search engine and to control its discussion forums. So, if you enter 'Taiwan independence' into its search engine, you get no results. If you try to post a message on this subject in a discussion forum, it never appears online. The US giant is ready to do anything to conquer the Chinese Internet market.'

Meanwhile, users in countries such as Tunisia have often tried to access email services such as Hotmail, which allow one to have an anonymous email address - a very useful attribute in a country where so much online activity is proscribed. However, the authorities in Tunisia quickly made Hotmail, and other similar email services, inaccessible to Tunisians. Users were then forced to sign up to accounts that the government can more easily monitor.

Another method of controlling Internet use is physical, rather than virtual. Some governments, such as that in Vietnam, post security agents or police within Internet cafés, in an attempt to dissuade users with dissident views from trying to circumvent the government's stranglehold on online communications. Many state-owned cyber cafés have notices prominently displayed warning users not to visit banned sites. Managers of such cafés are often required to ensure that users do not use the Internet for 'illicit' purposes. Crackdown on cyber-dissent: a global overview In the past five years, the Writers in Prison Committee and other human rights groups have monitored severe infringements of the free expression rights of on-line users in many countries. Bahrain, Belarus, China, Iran, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Ukraine, The United Arab Emirates and Vietnam are among those countries where cyber-dissidents have actually been arrested, charged, and/or imprisoned. Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), in its 2004 report Internet Under Surveillance, estimates that around 70 cyber-dissidents and rising are currently jailed around the world. Of this number, the vast majority of cases of long-term detention are in Asia, especially the People's Republic of China.

The Crackdown in Asia

In Asia, the situation is fast deteriorating into a worrying crackdown of alarming proportions. Specifically, the authorities in three countries - China, the Maldives and Vietnam - have been so far unwilling to take on board human rights concerns about their treatment of cyber-dissidents. As more and more individuals embrace the new media as an exciting opportunity to exercise their right to freedom of expression, more and more are finding themselves behind bars. If ways to influence the governments are not found, the numbers, the Writers in Prison Committee fears, will continue to spiral. It has therefore decided to use Human Rights Day 2004 as an opportunity to galvanise international action on those detained in these three countries.

To illustrate it's concerns, PEN is focusing on the following three cases of detained cyber-dissidents in China, the Maldives and Vietnam (click on the country names below for more information):

  • The People's Republic of China: The Case of Huang Jinqiu describes an epidemic of arrests of cyber-dissidents. Huang Jinqiu's recent sentencing to 12 years in prison is described in detail as a worrying example of the Chinese authorities' determination to stifle all attempts to use the Internet as a rallying point for opposition activity.

  • The Maldives: The Case of the Sandhaanu Four describes the seizing of four individuals involved in producing Sandhaanu, an online magazine. Three of them, two men and a woman, remain detained and there are grave concerns for their health and safety.

  • Vietnam: The Case of Pham Hong Son describes the long sentences being imposed on cyber-dissidents in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It focuses in particular on the five-year prison term handed down in 2003 to the writer and doctor Pham Hong Son for his online writing and publishing activities. Recent poor reports of his health have given rise to particularly urgent concern on his behalf.

How You Can Help Read more about the situations in China, The Maldives, and Vietnam by clicking on the country names. Then, send a protest letter to the governments of each of the countries under focus (sample letters are posted on the country background pages). In addition, you may wish to write to the Chief Executive Officers of Internet Service providers to alert them to the extent of internet repression world wide. CLICK HERE for a sample letter and addresses. _____________________________________________________________
(1) Internet Service Provider (ISP): A company which provides other companies or individuals with access to, or presence on, the Internet. Most ISPs are also Internet Access Providers; extra services include help with design, creation and administration of World-Wide Web sites, training, and administration of intranets.