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Freedom House: Governments Suppressing Speech Online


FILE - Vietnamese activist Anh Chi searches the internet at Tu Do (Freedom) cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam August 25, 2017. (REUTERS/Kham)


Around the world, freedom on the internet appears to be breaking down.

Some governments have suspended their mobile internet service or added restrictions on live video streaming. And governments are paying writers to put pro-government stories on the World Wide Web.

These are some of the findings in a new report by Freedom House, a non-profit group that measures democracy and freedom around the world.

Freedom House examined internet freedom in 65 countries over a 12-month period, starting in June of 2016 and continuing through last May. Those nations are responsible for about 87 percent of all the people online. Those users are connected to the internet, a computer, or a computer network.

The report noted internet freedom decreasing in nearly half of the 65 countries. Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey had the greatest one-year losses of freedom.

Freedom on the Internet 2017
Freedom on the Internet 2017

China remains the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia, the report said.

Sanja Kelly directs the Freedom on the Net project at Freedom House. She said the decline of internet freedoms happened as more people go online and use the internet to support democracy and human rights.

Kelly said “One of the reasons why we are seeing greater restriction is precisely because some of the leaders … have discovered the power of the internet.” They are trying to come up with new methods to suppress that, she said.

“Suddenly the governments start taking note and we start seeing propaganda actions,” she said.

Governments in Zambia and Gambia have suspended mobile service connections to the internet, mainly around elections.

“Shutting down the internet is such a blunt message,” she said, adding that “It really signals the government is willing to take it to the next level.”

Some other findings of the report:

-Online efforts to manipulate voting affected elections in 18 countries.

-Governments in 30 countries supported misleading online information, using tools such as false news websites and paid commentators. Last year, it was 23 countries.

-Half of internet shutdowns involved mobile phone service. Most happened in areas with ethnic or religious minorities. In October 2016, the Ethiopian government suspended mobile networks for nearly two months as part of a state of emergency during anti-government protests. Belarus stopped mobile service to prevent live streaming images from reaching large numbers of people. Bahrain has a law that bars news websites from using live video.

-In 30 countries, there have been physical reprisals taken against people for their online statements. That number is up from 20 countries a year earlier.

Country Score Comparison (Courtesy - Freedom House)
Country Score Comparison (Courtesy - Freedom House)

Until recently, China and Russia were the main users of some of these online suppression methods. Now other governments are starting to act the same way, Sanja Kelly explained.

Kelly added that she believes China and Russia are showing non-democratic governments ways to control the internet.

I’m Susan Shand.

Michelle Quinn reported this story for VOANews.com. Susan Shand adapted her report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

decline - v. to become lower in amount or less in number

blunt - adj. saying or expressing something in a very direct way that may upset some people

manipulate - v. to deal with or control (someone or something), usually in an unfair or selfish way

mobileadj. with an ability to be moved; changeable in appearance or purpose

streaming – n. playing continuously as audio or video material is sent to a computer or electronic device over the Internet

reprisaln. punishment; something done to hurt or punish someone else

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