Tag Archives: Reporters without Borders

When a Country Goes Dark

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Ministers’ homes at the new capital, Pyinmana

Burma has shown us that we’re not as clever, or free, as we thought we are.

It’s a sign of how the Burmese generals don’t really understand things that it took them so long to cut off the Internet:

Reporters without Borders and the Burma Media Association reported that the government cut off all Internet access in the country on Friday morning and they said that all Internet cafes in the country also have been closed. The Web site of the Myanmar Post & Telecommunications, the government-run telecommunications provider, appears to be down.

The Internet was something we didn’t have to help us back in 1988 in covering the uprising. Actually we didn’t have very much: a total of about eight international telephone lines into the country, the official radio which would broadcast once or twice a day, and which we’d monitor courtesy of a weird contraption in a special room that also spewed out garbled copies of the official news agency reports.

We’d spend most of the day in the Bangkok office trying to get a line in, cajoling and sweet-talking the female or male (we knew no shame) operators into trying again, and again, to get a line. When we got a connection we’d ask the person who picked up as many questions as we could, whether it was Aung San Suu Kyi or just some guy who happened to have a telephone. Once a day we’d pick up the monitoring by the U.S. embassy of other official radio broadcasts and pore over them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Occasionally we’d interview someone who managed to get out; my first ever wire service story was the Dutch ambassador going on the record at Don Muang airport about some of the horrors he’d seen. When we did get into Burma all we had in the office was an ancient telex machine.

Nowadays, 19 years on, there’s more technology out there than we could dream of back then. Not just the Internet: camera phones, mobile phones, satellites, GPS. But I’m also surprised at how little these really help. Burmese have bravely organized demonstrations via cellphone, and sent out information by Internet, but those channels are largely closed now, leaving us to join a Facebook group, wear red, or turn to satellite to try to glean information.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has analyzed satellite photos which it says “pinpoints evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma where eyewitnesses have reported human rights violations.” This is more about the continuing (and long-running) war against insurgents and populations in border areas caught up in those wars. But it’s instructive to see their before and after satellite photos, like these ones:

[PHOTOGRAPH]

Before-and-after satellite images show the site of an apparent military encampment in Burma on 11 November 2000, (top), and again on 13 December 2006 (bottom), when new bamboo fencing can be seen. The human rights group, Free Burma Rangers, reported a major expansion of this camp in 2006, corroborated by the AAAS analysis of images. (Lat: 18.42 N Long: 97.23 E.)

Credit: Top image: © GeoEye, Inc. Bottom image: © 2007 DigitalGlobe.

The AAAS has a Google Earth layer here to illustrate the before and after. The full report (PDF, big file) is here.

The AAAS is currently collecting satellite images of urban areas to see what it can glean; it reminds me of 1999 in East Timor when satellite imagery showed up some of the destruction cause by the retreating Indonesian army. But such images can do little more than illustrate something that has happened, and not bring to life the actual suffering and abuses on the ground.

Indeed, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that technology can do so little to pry open a country if its government decides to close it off. We talk about information wanting to be free, but we tend to forget how that information still requires power and a channel in order to escape. Shut off the power, shut off the channel and the information is as much a prisoner as the Burmese people presently are.

AAAS – AAAS News Release

Domain Names as a Tool for Political Control?

A case that addresses all sorts of issues, and, at the same time, none of them. Reuters.com reported a few days ago that

The authorities in Kazakhstan, angered by a British comedian’s satirical portrayal of a boorish, sexist and racist Kazakh television reporter (Borat Sagdiyev ), have pulled the plug on his alter ego’s Web site. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Borat in his “Da Ali G Show” and last month he used the character’s Web site www.borat.kz to respond sarcastically to legal threats from the Central Asian state’s Foreign Ministry.

A government-appointed organization regulating Web sites that end in the .kz domain name for Kazakhstan confirmed on Tuesday it had suspended Cohen’s site. “We’ve done this so he can’t badmouth Kazakhstan under the .kz domain name,” Nurlan Isin, President of the Association of Kazakh IT Companies, told Reuters. “He can go and do whatever he wants at other domains.” Isin said the borat.kz Web site had broken new rules on all .kz sites maintaining two computer servers in Kazakhstan and had registered false names for its administrators.

Actually Borat has been around for a while, saying these things, as have Kazakh officials been trying to put the record straight about their country, but it appears to be a U.S. series, a movie in the works and an appearance at the MTV Music Awards that has been the catalyst for the Kazakhs to take action:

Cohen, as Borat, hosted the MTV Europe Music Awards in Lisbon last month and described shooting dogs for fun and said his wife could not leave Kazakhstan as she was a woman. Afterwards, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said it could not rule out that he was under “political orders” to denigrate Kazakhstan’s name and threatened to sue him.

Kazakhstan has also hired two PR firms and, according to the London Times, earlier this month published a four-page ad in the New York Times. Cohen must be lapping up the free publicity.

Reporters without Borders are upset about this abuse of the country domain name , linking it to the alleged stage-managed closure of opposition Kazakh web site Navi.kz, calling it censorship and beyond the competence of bodies that manage domain names:

In this way, it infringes the principles set out by ICANN, which requires that the management of the ccTLDs should be fair and non discriminatory.

Oddly, a piece in today’s IHT (which also, intriguingly, carries a 4-page ad for Kazakhstan; the story originally appeared in Wednesday’s European edition) quotes the Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman, Yerzhan Ashikbayev, as denying it was the government that had blocked the site. Whoever made the decision, this isn’t exactly censorship. Borat just moves his website here, and loves the attention. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of examples of government crackdowns on press freedom, including using the the Kazakh network information centre (KazNIC) to harass the opposition website Navi into changing domain name — twice. It can now be found at Mizinov.net. If Borat’s case does nothing else, it might raise public concern about political manipulation of those last two letters after the dot.

News: Big Brother’s Net

 For those of you interested in how the Internet is not an unrestricted place for everyone, Reporters Sans Frontieres/Reporters Without Borders last month published their second annual report on censorship in cyberspace, “The Internet under Surveillance – Obstacles to the free flow of information online” which details “attitudes to the Internet by the powerful in 60 countries, between spring 2001 and spring 2003”.
 
 
The report looks at quite a few countries, although it leaves some obvious ones out: It looks at Australia, for example, but leaves out Indonesia and Brunei. Looking at China, for example: “Population : 1,284,972,000; Internet users : 59,100,000; Privately-owned ISPs : no; Internet Users and cyber-dissidents in prison : 42. The number of Internet users doubles nearly every six months and the number of websites every year. But this dizzying growth is matched by the authorities’ energetic attempts to monitor, censor and repress Internet activity, with tough laws, jailing cyber-dissidents, blocking access to websites, monitoring online forums and shutting down cybercafes.”
 
Download the full report as a PDF file here (2.5 MB).