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Net censorship, propaganda on the rise

Report says China worst of a dozen "Internet Enemies."

SAN FRANCISCO — The freedom represented by the Internet does not extend to all countries, says a new Reporters Without Borders report that faults a dozen nations for engaging in an “almost systematic repression of Internet users.”

The Paris-based international group counted four Asian countries among this dirty dozen: China, Vietnam, North Korea and Burma. Five Islamic nations shared the dubious distinction: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Tunisia. Rounding out the list were the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and Cuba, where Raul Castro only recently made it legal for his countrymen to buy mobile phones and computers, devices long proscribed by his brother, Fidel.

China dominates the “Internet Enemies” list by every measure. To begin with, its online community is huge, now estimated in excess of 300 million users. About 40,000 state and party officials monitor Internet activity. In 2008, the government made nearly 3,000 news Web sites inaccessible to Chinese users. The report says 49 cyber dissidents and bloggers have been locked up for exercising free speech.

Reporters Without Borders says China has made control a central aspect of its Internet system since 1987. Chinese censors filter Web traffic for thousands of politically sensitive words. Chinese activists try to evade surveillance by creating code words, which authorities eventually discover and add to their lists. “There are today around 400-500 banned key words relating the the events of 4 June 1989,” the report say, in reference to what Westerners know as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The report singled out Iran, with 23 million Internet users, as the most repressive of the Middle Eastern countries on the list. It says Iranian authorities blocked 5 million websites and imprisoned at least four blogggers in 2008. Not far behind is Egypt with 10 million Internet users. Authorities there currently have two online dissidents in jail in an effort to control protests that have arisen through blogs and social networking sites, like Facebook.

Cultural and religious issues were a tenet of Internet monitoring among the Islamic nations on the list. The report said Saudi Arabian women, denied participation in other aspects of society, have a large presence among the country's 6.2 million Internet users. “That is why sites dealing with the feminine condition are very widely filtered,” the report says.