This Is Not A Club We Want To Join


Omidreza Mirsayafi started a blog in Iran to write about traditional Persian music and culture. He was arrested, and died last week in a Tehran prison.

"I am a cultural and not a political blogger," Mirsayafi had said in November following his trial under laws which prohibit insulting the Supreme Guide Khomeini, and making propaganda against the state. "Of all the articles I have posted online, only two or three were satirical. I did not mean to insult anyone."

Sentenced to two years prison, Mirsayafi emailed Reporters Without Borders (RSF),  the Paris-based organisation in support of press freedom. "I am worried. The problem is not my sentence of two years in prison. But I am a sensitive person. I will not have the energy to live in prison. I want everything to be like it was before. I want to resume my normal life and continue my studies." Mirsayafi’s name is still listed on the RSF’s website among 69 cyber-dissidents in prison, including another three in Iran.

The timing of Mirsayafi’s death was a sad full stop to a week that had started with Online Free Expression Day on March 12, and had also seen the RSF release its 2009 Internet Enemies report. While it might shock few that Iran again featured in this annual summary of regimes with a repressive hold on their country’s cursors, it was a surprise to see Australia on that list also.

Twelve countries were identified as internet enemies: Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Each has "transformed the network into an intranet", and are marked "not just for their capacity to censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of internet users."

The report also listed 11 countries the RSF has placed "under surveillance" for adopting or considering measures that could open the way to online abuses of information. They include Belarus, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, Malaysia, Thailand, Yemen and Zimbabwe. More disturbingly, perhaps, was the fact that for the first time, two countries with a high level of democratic freedom — Australia and South Korea — were included in this category.

The principle reason for Australia’s inclusion was for its proposed "clean feed" filter for censoring internet content. The report raised alarm at the lack of transparency in the system: "The law does not say who would decide that websites were ‘inappropriate’. It will not be users who will draw attention to content to be banned." In addition, the report referred to Australia’s anti-terror legislation enacted in the wake of September 11. "The law has allowed the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to carry out independent investigations, including in the absence of judicial authorisation."

While many Western democracies have filters of some sort in place, the Australian version differs by being a mandatory model. Vincent Brossel, head of the RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk said that by naming Australia the organisation wanted to open a debate. "Australia and many other countries are facing these issues. But the intention is wrong, and the way Australia is doing it, especially through obliging all ISPs to block access, is exactly the same as methods implemented by authoritarian regimes."

Countries such as China and Cuba are known for their efforts to repress information. Brossel says Australia’s current path is a dangerous one for a recognised democracy to tread. "We need to be careful what is going on in the democratic world. The fact an established democracy like Australia can imagine that internet control and surveillance is a solution is nonsensical. Freedom of expression on the internet is very crucial. It would be a paradox for Australia to promote democracy in Asia, if they cannot even manage their own internet," he said.

Australia’s proposed censorship measures could be the start of a slippery slope. Brossel acknowledges that efforts against paedophilia, pornography and terrorism are important, but points to examples where the censorship measures against these issues has gone too far. "In some Muslim countries you are fighting against pornography, and at the end you block all websites associated with sex. And sex is an important topic — people need access to information about it."

One of the greatest concerns the RSF has about Australia’s proposed new laws is that it creates a legal framework that could be abused by future governments. Brossel says that in the hands of a more authoritarian government the proposed laws would be very dangerous. "You can have a law, but it really depends on how you use it because you don’t know the limits of government. Who will be in power in Australia in 20 years? Why create such a framework?"

By placing Australia as "under surveillance", the organisation has effectively put us on par with Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The comparison is a grim one. In Sri Lanka Government forces have recently inflicted heavy defeats upon the Tamil Tigers. In 2007, the BBC reported that several Tamil websites, such as TamilNet, had been blocked. The Government denied any knowledge. In any case, pro-Tamil websites are playing an increasingly important part in the conflict. On 9 March, the BBC reported that 180 Tigers had been killed. With journalists barred from certain regions, the news organisation relies on such websites to gain an opposing line — in this case, that hundreds of Government soldiers were also alleged to have died in the fight.

"The Tigers are part of the country," said Brossel. "You should be able to read what they have to say. It’s the same for illegal content. That’s why we decided to put Australia on this watch list."

In Thailand, also on the "under surveillance" list, RSF says that local efforts to censor the internet only exacerbated the problem from the authorities’ point of view. Thailand is renowned for its eagerness to enforce royal reverence — just ask Australian writer Harry Nicolaides, imprisoned under the harsh lese majeste laws. Concerned about a handful of sites criticising the King, the Government blocked access to them. Brossel said the measure backfired, encouraging thousands of similar websites to flourish, which the Government now must also control. "When you ban something it becomes more exciting, more interesting to do it," says Brossel, "and it creates frustration for the people who want to express their views. Ninety-nine per cent of the Thai people love the King. Why should they be afraid of the expression of the other 1 per cent?"

While governments are free to ignore the RSF completely, in the past the organisation has successfully lobbied on behalf of journalists and bloggers, including a Tunisian lawyer and blogger released just in time for a visit by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. More importantly, they raise awareness of issues which governments or the United Nations can then act on. Through publishing the Internet Enemies report, the RSF hopes to send a message to governments that there are no exceptions when it comes to free speech.

On the eve of the report’s release, members of the RSF visited the Paris embassies of the 22 countries implicated to offer them an advance copy. Only the Tunisian and Burmese embassies refused to receive it — which means our copy should have reached Canberra by now.

If you’re in Brisbane, join us tomorrow night at Queensland University of Technology for A Tangled Web: Beyond an Internet Filter.

Similar forums will be held in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide over the coming weeks. For those who can’t attend, the conversation will continue online at our blog, Polliegraph, which has been redesigned especially for the series. Check it out and contribute to the debate here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.