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Tue 16 Mar 2010 11:33 AM

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Saudi, Iran named 'enemies of the internet'

Bahrain and UAE run risk of being branded enemy in next media rights report.

Saudi, Iran named 'enemies of the internet'
NET FREEDOM: A string of Arab states have been named as worst violators of freedom of expression on the net, by the annual report. (Getty Images)

A string of Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran have been branded ‘enemies of the internet’, in an annual report from media rights agency Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The oil-rich Gulf state leads the blacklist, which identifies countries the Paris-based agency believes to be the “worst violators of freedom of expression on the net.”

Also named alongside Saudi Arabia and Egypt are China, Burma and North Korea, countries regularly singled out for criticism by human-rights groups.

More than 60 countries experienced a form of web censorship last year, the report noted; twice as many as in 2008.

Both Bahrain and the UAE are listed in RSF’s ‘under surveillance’ category, for tightening their web filters, and run the risk of being branded an internet enemy in the next annual report.

According to the paper Saudi Arabia is one of the “most repressive countries,” in relation to the web, with blocks on more than 400,000 websites.

Since April 2009, cyber cafes in the kingdom have been required to install hidden cameras, to supply a list of customers and the websites they have visited to the government, and to bar minors.

Under laws rolled out in June 2008, internet café owners face jail if their premises are used by customers to distribute information that breaches “kingdom values,” the agency noted.

Website owners face up to ten years in jail if their site offends the Gulf state’s religious and social values.

In 2008, for the first time, the Saudi government jailed a blogger, Fouad Al Farhan, for a post describing the “advantages and disadvantages” of being a Muslim, the RSF said.

According to Saudi’s telecoms watchdog TITA, however, the rules have strong support from the kingdom’s 7.7 million internet users. Figures quoted by RSF show the Saudi agency receives up to 1,000 blocking requests from online users each day, or an average of 300,000 requests per year. An estimated 93 percent of the filtered sites are pornographic, TITA said.

The telecoms agency admitted that a recent poll found 55 percent of online users are concerned the kingdom’s online filters may be excessive.

Egypt, which boasts one of the highest internet penetration rates in Africa, also appeared on the watchlist, accused of arresting more than 500 bloggers since 2008.

According to RSF, an average of one complaint a day is lodged against journalists or bloggers in Egypt.

Of the trio of Arab states, the strongest criticism was reserved for Iran, which RSF branded “one of cyber-censorship’s record-holding countries.”

In the wake of the disputed elections in June 2009, the government has accelerated its crackdown on social media and ramped up online surveillance, RSF said.

“Since June 12, censorship has reached unprecedented proportions,” the report noted. “The regime is demonizing the new media, which it is accusing of serving foreign interest.

“With some sixty journalists and bloggers behind bars and another fifty forced to seek asylum elsewhere, the Islamic Republic of Iran has become the largest prison in the Middle East – and one of the world’s largest prisons – for journalists and netizens.”

The report argued that countries that practice cyber-censorship should be barred entry into global forums, such as the World Trade Organisation, unless internet rules are relaxed.

“Economic interest [is] intertwined with the need to defend free circulation of information,” it said.

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Kaptain 10 years ago

Freedom of expression shouldn't be free and shouldn't be that free. Every culture has its domain and values to be protected. Banning porno isn't against freedom of expression, Porno itself is an insult, inhumane and unnatural phenomenon. Something useful and educational should be promoted and critical expression should be given liberty and not that creates savagery in society.

Yusuf 10 years ago

It seems that we are eager to satisfy the requirements of western societies, no matter how absence or inappropriate they are, only for the sake of being branded as "modern" or "liberal". The value system we have is precious, and banning internet filters in all forms and shapes will eventually dissolve these values.

john 10 years ago

The censorship in UAE isnt that bad, so skype doesnt work, use msn messenger! The only time i get blocked sites is when I access them from links in emails from europe, usually irrelevant comedy clips or photos. Ive rarely found a useful site blocked, except cooking something for valentines day once and trying to get a recipe! If I have found a site blocked that shouldnt be ive emailed in and once or twice it has been unblocked. If people really want to see a site theyll find a way round the proxies if they dont know already, so leave the censorship in place to at least help parents keep their kids protected from the worst stuff.

blair mackintosh 10 years ago

Whom cares what the ‘western’ countries think about the filtering of websites. It seems they want to push their own depraved actions onto the rest of the world and if the world does not accept then they cry foul. What is normally being banned is pornography (be it homesexual, transsexual, bisexual animalistsc, sodemy, domination etc the list is endless) Is this really what the world needs to be regarded as being free. Furthermore, other forms of restrictions that have been put in place are things like the disgraceful cartoons of the prophet of Islam. Do the Arabs and Muslims have to allow this to be regarded as being free. Yes its true that under restrictions some genuine debate can be stifled, but even in a free and democratic country like the UK the news is twisted and span to make one believe what is false to be true so there is not that much difference in having free debate if you are not in a controlling authority? In all honesty, I welcome the filtering of rubbish that adds no value to the fabric of society. I would hazard a guess that out of the 400,000 site 85% are probably pornographic anyway so well done and keep up the good work.

Fouad Al-Farhan 10 years ago

To the editor of ArabianBusiness: Your article says the Saudi authorities arrested me because I wrote a post on my blog describing “advantages and disadvantages” of being a Muslim! This is not true. I never wrote an a post on my blog with that title nor the content. The authorities arrested me because of my political posts which I published on my blog under my name. Non of my posts talked about a subject of "advantages and disadvantages" of being a Muslim. Please make sure to correct the above information about my case. Fouad Al-Farhan