SOUTH AFRICA HAS problems. Democracy is not as stable – or secure – as it should be. Corruption and patronage is rife. The government condones authoritarian regimes uncomfortably close to home (think Zimbabwe).
Yet, at least we have freedom of speech.
Fiery letters are published daily in our newspapers. The Mail
& Guardian has opened the lid on Oilgate, Chancellor House and other shocking examples of corruption and abuse of power.
Magazine editorials – such as the Financial Mail’s – are courageous and critical. Mnet’s Carte Blanche rocks the boat with their investigative exposés. etv is cheekily unafraid to provide a more independent slant on nightly news in sharp contrast to the propaganda broadcast from Auckland Park.
And then there are blogs. Hundreds of them. In this country anybody can say pretty much what they want.
In many countries people don’t have the same freedom we have in SA’s blogosphere. Internet censorship has got so bad that Amnesty International deems the internet to be, “a new frontier in the struggle for human rights.”
So what happens? Authoritarian regimes like China and Vietnam keep a beady eye on chat rooms. Critical blogs and websites disappear or are blocked. Internet users have been thrown into jail for merely putting information on the web.
One such example is a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, who is currently serving a ten-year jail sentence for emailing an American pro-democracy site about government warning news agencies in Beijing over coverage of the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre anniversary.
What’s rather scary, too, is that huge IT multinationals are complicit in the regulation and suppression of information on the web. Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, says: “account-holder information provided by Yahoo’s Chinese partner company was used as evidence to convict [Tao].” Tao had sent the email from his Yahoo email address – something users across the world do every day.
Amnesty reveals that, “Microsoft and Google have both complied with government demands to actively censor Chinese users of their services.”
Monitoring and web-filtering technologies used by China and the like are also developed in the US – by corporations as large as Sun Microsystems and Cisco.
It’s a disgrace that companies such as these forget about their principles (those that have them) in pursuit of profit and the – let’s face it – enormously lucrative Chinese market.
But China isn’t the only regime able to monitor and suppress Internet use. Iran recently gave a “cyber-dissident” 30 lashes and kept him in prison for four months. Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar) and Uzbekistan are also on the list while Thailand recently blocked YouTube because it featured a video clip deemed offensive to the Thai king.
What can you do?
Amnesty International started the Irrepressible.info campaign in May 2006 to defend freedom of speech on the web. You can sign a pledge and also undermine censorship by allowing fragments of censored material to be featured on your website. Visit http://irrepressible.info/addcontent to do this.
With thanks to Amnesty International.
Futher reading and source list
OpenNet Initiative Map
Today, our chance to fight a new hi-tech tyranny