Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reporters Without Borders

Reporters sans frontières (RSF), also known as Reporters Without Borders, is dedicated to supporting freedom of the press around the world. Because of the prevalence of online journalism and blogging nowadays, RSF's mission has extended to condemning Internet censorship. It is RSF's goal to both inform the public of the censorship and put a stop to it.

There is an alarming amount of Internet censorship around the world. According to RSF, there are at least 62 cyber-dissidents imprisoned worldwide. They are people who simply used the Internet to voice their opinions and offended some powerful organization, such as the government, by doing so. In 2007 alone, more than 2,600 websites, blogs, or discussion forums were forcibly closed or made inaccessible.

RSF has a list of 15 countries it considers to be "Enemies of the Internet." The list includes China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few. These are countries that have an aggressive stance on conducting Internet censorship. It also has a list of "Countries Under Watch," which include such countries as Libya, Sri Lanka and Thailand. These countries do not currently imprison bloggers or support extreme Internet censorship, but abuses are common and many have laws that could be used to support Internet censorship.

Last year, in 2008, RSF declared March 12 as Online Free Expression Day. RSF cleverly linked protest with the appeal of virtual worlds by creating a virtual environment on their website. It was composed of nine virtual versions of infamous places in the world, including Beijing's Tiananmen Square and Cuba's Revolution Square, locations where real protests are impossible and forcibly ended. During the first Online Free Expression Day on March 12, 2008, Internet users were invited to this virtual environment. They could create their own avatar, choose a slogan for their banner and then "march" in any one of the virtual protest areas, without fear of being beaten by police or arrested.

It is questionable how effective this virtual protest actually was, with regards to sending a message to the governments implementing Internet censorship. Thousands of protesters gathering in virtual worlds is not nearly as impressive or intimidating as thousands gathering in the real world. However, RSF did succeed in its goal of informing the public about the immense extent of Internet censorship present around the world. Also, it was a clever strategy for RSF to successfully use the Internet as a weapon against governments trying to control it.

There was a bit of controversy around the first Online Free Expression Day. On the day before, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) withdrew its support of Online Free Expression Day. The RSF press release accused UNESCO of behaving "with great cowardice." UNESCO stated it supported the principle, the freedom of expression on the Internet, but it withdrew its support because RSF published material damaging to a number of UNESCO's Member States.

This year's Online Free Expression Day had a slightly different goal. It was aimed at reprimanding Western companies that have helped governments identify cyber-dissidents. For instance, Yahoo! Inc. has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the imprisonment of a total of four Chinese cyber-dissidents.

Amnesty International showed its support of Online Free Expression Day in 2009 by launching its "Say No to Internet Censorship" campaign. It encouraged people to urge Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft to make March 12 a single day of absolutely no censorship everywhere around the world.

So, how significant of an impact does a mere day dedicated to free expression on the Internet have? Apparently it has gotten the Chinese government to notice. On the second anniversary of Online Free Expression Day, cyber-dissident Yang Zili was released from a Chinese prison, a symbolic move by the Chinese government.

We have been discussing the future of journalism recently in class. If governments learn to respect freedom of expression in online spheres, the Internet could become beneficial to journalism. RSF helps with the spread of information by providing a "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents," which provides practical advice and techniques on how to start up a blog anonymously to circumvent censorship.

A main section of the RSF website is dedicated to updates on Internet censorship news around the world. It also documents the extent of censorship, both online and on paper, in countries around the world. In general, RSF does a good job of keeping the public informed about Internet censorship as well as censorship in general.

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