Ever since the start of the pandemic, RSF has registered many cases of governments censoring websites on the pretext that they were spreading fake news. This censorship has obstructed access to news and deprived people of reliable, independently reported information about the virus, which is essential at such a time.
The eight websites in five countries that have been unblocked in the eighth round of Operation Collateral Freedom brings to 34 the total number of sites that RSF has unblocked by means of the technique known as “mirroring,” in which constantly updated “mirrors” or copies of the sites are placed on international servers beyond the reach of censors. All of these sites are blocked in their own countries by authoritarian or dictatorial regimes that increasingly resort to blocking access to independent news sites.
In Myanmar, the government began ordering the blocking of 221 websites at the end of March 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, for allegedly spreading fake news. Some are now accessible again but several dozens are still blocked. RSF has unblocked four of these: Narinjara News, a website created in 2001 by Burmese pro-democracy activists based in Bangladesh; the English and Burmese-language sites of the Development Media Group news agency, which covers western Rakhine state, including human rights violations by the army in its operations against the Arakan Army, a rebel group fighting for autonomy; and The Stateless website, whose founder Mohammed Rafique, documents serious human rights violations against thousands of members of the Rohingya community still in Myanmar.
In Cambodia, the authorities have used the Covid-19 crisis to impose more censorship. Access to the site of the independent Khmer-language online news magazine Monoroom.info has been blocked since 30 March because of its coverage of the public health situation. This is not the first time it has been targeted. Deemed overly critical, it was one of the victims of a major wave of closures of independent media outlets that the government orchestrated in 2017, forcing journalists to operate clandestinely.
Ever since the epidemic reached Azerbaijan, the authorities have been trying to control reporting on its impact and obstruct those journalists trying to cover it. RSF has unblocked the Turan news agency, the only independent media outlet still active in the country. In May, after it published articles about violations of the rights of opposition activists, Turan suffered the biggest cyber-attacks in three decades.
In Belarus, the public health crisis exacerbated the crackdown on journalists and the lack of transparency in state agencies, encouraging rumours. After suffering a series of blockings, the website of Charter97 – a media outlet created by the well-known journalist Oleg Bebenin that is one of the country’s leading independent voices – was blocked for good on the information ministry’s orders in January 2018. The authorities are now going after its mirror sites because of its coverage of the Covid-19 situation,
In Tajikistan, the authorities subject the Internet to extensive censorship and block the main news sites and social media almost all the time. The supreme court ordered the blocking of the independent media outlet Akhbor’s website on 19 March on a trumped-up charge of links with “terrorist and extremist organizations,” when in fact it has been providing the Tajik public with essential information about the coronavirus crisis that the authorities have been trying to cover up.