In a three-part series, APN looks at Internet censorship in the Gulf countries, the tools used by the authorities and which areas of the Web they target. The third part looks at the heavy Internet censorship reportedly taking place in Bahrain and Yemen.
by Alexandra Sandels
Big blocking in Bahrain
The island state Bahrain is known to be an avid practitioner of Internet censorship. The Bahraini authorities allegedly blocked access to Google Earth in the midst of a heated land dispute among Bahrain's villagers in 2006 and the Internet phone service Skype has been temporarily blocked due to 'security concerns'. The authorities have reportedly also shut down political websites prior to parliamentary election campaigns.
Nabeel Rajab, Vice-President of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights (BCHR), said in an interview with APN that I-censorship in Bahrain is 'far worse than in the UAE' and that online filtering has increased significantly in his country over the past two years. Rajab attributes a large part of the heightened filtering to mass media censorship and subsequent rise in online political and social activism.
"We have a low level of free speech in the media in Bahrain, which has resulted in an increase in politically active bloggers. People tend to read and trust what's on the blogs these days instead of the media. And the authorities want to put an end to that," said Rajab.
Rajab maintains that approximately 535 websites are currently blocked in Bahrain by the country's government-run ISP provider; many of them government-critical blogs, sites criticizing or mocking the royal family or politicians, and various religious sites.
Also human rights organizations, particularly those who have issued reports critical of the national authorities, have been subject to restrictions, continues Rajab, adding that the BCHR website is inaccessible to Internet users within Bahrain.
Moreover, online discussion forums on sensitive or offensive topics also run a high risk of being discontinued as in the UAE. Over 100 Bahraini public discussion forums are currently blocked from access, according to Rajab.
BCHR reports stress that the sites have been blocked under the controversial press law 47/2002, which prohibits insulting the king and reports that "threaten national unity'. Human Rights Watch has referred to the legislation as a law intended to 'ban coverage of controversial matters'.
Websites 'disappear' in Yemen
While less than one percent of Yemen's population supposedly uses the Internet, press freedom activists maintain that the country's state-run ISP Ynet is an active filterer and censor. Yemeni authorities have recently shut down political websites ahead of parliamentary elections and blocked websites containing culturally inappropriate materials. Researchers with the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a group dedicated to researching Internet censorship and filtering around the world, claim that the use of the word 'sex' on Internet search engines is blocked in Yemen to prevent users from accessing websites with adult content.
Most recently, Washington-based press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claimed that the country's government-affiliated ISP has discontinued numerous Yemeni news and opinion websites. Among the sites currently inaccessible to Yemeni Internet users are the country's first and only news search engine, Yemenportal.net, and the news sites YemenHurr, and Hour's News.
Walid al-Saqaf, founder and moderator of Yemenportal.net told APN that his site became inaccessible from within Yemen on January 19. Although the ISP company, run by the Ministry of Telecommunications, and the Ministry both deny discontinuing Yemenportal.net, al-Saqaf believes that the national authorities are deliberately blocking the site in a 'smart manner'.
"If there is no message saying 'this site has been blocked' on the webpage, they can argue that it is a server problem', which is the case of Yemenportal.net," said al-Saqaf.
Although a very small part of the Yemeni population has Internet access, al-Saqaf maintains that the Web still 'plays a very important role in Yemeni society'.
"In a country like Yemen, culture plays a crucial role in disseminating information. If one person reads an article on the Internet, for example, he will spread this message to literally hundreds of people. Word of mouth is extremely powerful in our society," al-Saqaf continued.
Though popular video and photo sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr remain open in the country, average Yemenis may not take as much use of the sites as their Egyptian or Jordanian counterparts. Instead, mobile phones appear to have become crucial tools among Yemenis to spread multimedia messages.
"Short clips of demonstrations or motivational clips supporting insurgency are spreading like fire through mobile multimedia messages. If one person downloads it from, let's say YouTube, you will able to find that clip in hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Yemeni cell phones," argued al-Saqaf. It was just such a clip al-Saqaf had uploaded on Yemenportal.net shortly before the site mysteriously went out of service.
According to CPJ's research, at least five other Yemeni web pages have 'disappeared' over the past few months, including the online sites of Hdramut, Al-Teef, and AdenPress.