The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders says 72 people are in prison around the world for expressing their views on the Internet. The statistic is part of the group's third report on freedom of expression on the Internet.
Authoritarian governments like China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia rank high on the group's list of 50 countries that censor websites and routinely arrest what are now called "cyber dissidents." But the report also criticizes democracies like the United States and France for passing laws that curtail freedom of expression on the Internet in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
The report's author, Julien Pain, said it is important to draw attention to such issues because as important as the Internet has become in world communications, its problems do not get the attention they deserve.
"We want to attract people's attention [to] the importance of this media, of the Internet, and the importance of fighting for its freedom. This is not the case at the moment because everybody will fight for press freedom, but nobody really cares about Internet freedom," he said.
The report details the situation of 50 countries around the world and gives examples of censorship. In Cuba, for example, the report says last year at least five journalists were convicted of writing what the government calls counter-revolutionary articles for a U.S.-based website. The report says they were sentenced to prison terms of up to 27 years.
The report also cites the cases of Iranian journalists repeatedly arrested because of their online articles, of seven Vietnamese cyber dissidents currently in prison and of 14 people arrested last November in Zimbabwe for sending out an e-mail criticizing President Robert Mugabe.
"In dictatorships we all know that the dictators have the right to curtail the freedom of expression, so of course it started with the press, the regular media. But now they are trying to control the Internet very tightly," said Mr. Pain. "That's why we have noticed in the past four years this control on the Internet has been more efficient because dictators put more and more money on the table and invest more in equipment to spy and to track down cyber dissidents."
But Mr. Pain's report also criticizes democracies. "In democracies the problem is that since September 11, democracies have had to fight against terrorism, which is a goal we perfectly understand. [But] we think that it should be restricted by judges because only judges can say what can be censored, what can't be censored, what can be spied [on], [and] what person can be spied [on] and what person can't be spied [on]," he said.
The report is particularly critical of the United States, saying it has unclear procedures for determining when the government can eavesdrop on Internet use, and that this sets a bad example to the rest of the world.
Launching its report this week, Reporters Without Borders also awarded its second Internet Freedom Prize to Chinese dissident Huang Qi, who has been in jail for four years for criticizing the Chinese government and writing about the Tiananmen Square massacre on his website.
Report author Julien Pain said the organization hopes the prize will help Huang Qi gain his freedom. "Last year the Tunisian who was awarded was released five months after he was awarded. This prize I think is efficient because it attracts people's attention and then the governments, they feel like they have to do something about this person," he said.
But Mr. Pain also said Reporters Without Borders does not limit its attention to the plight of imprisoned Internet journalists. He says because the Internet allows everybody with online access to express themselves in public, a cyber dissident could be anybody who decides to share his or her views, and attracts the wrath of their government in the process.