Internet freedom has taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, with authorities in several countries seeking to censor or limit access to information.
But a rights group is helping news websites find ways to circumvent those blocks to get back online.
As part of #Collateral Freedom — a project to restore access to news websites — the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has helped at least eight websites in five countries to get back online after they were blocked due to their pandemic coverage.
“The objective of Collateral Freedom is to restore access to independent news sites in countries where the press is completely muzzled, to help inform citizens,” Iris de Villars, head of the tech desk at RSF, told VOA.
The project helped restore access to websites that were “censored in their own country for publishing information about the pandemic that did not toe the government line,” de Villars said.
Governments in at least 28 countries censored websites or social media posts related to the pandemic, and internet shutdowns hit 13 countries, according to “Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow,” a report released last month by the U.S.- based rights group Freedom House.
Authorities have defended the restrictions and measures, saying they are needed to maintain peace and protect public safety or to prevent the spread of false information.
Freedom House said officials are using the pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on criticism of their handling of the virus.
A matter of life or death
Kian Vesteinsson, a research analyst for Freedom House, said access to information during a pandemic can be a matter of life or death.
“It can be a matter of figuring out how to keep yourself safe. How to connect with families. What parts of a country or region are not safe to travel in. This really becomes a matter of just basic, basic safety,” Vesteinsson said.
With greater reliance on digital technology during the pandemic, officials and others are “exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to shape online narratives and censor critical speech,” Vesteinsson said.
Freedom House has seen governments censor websites and social media posts “to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and criticism of the government,” Vesteinsson said. “It has often included censoring critical journalism or journalists reporting data about COVID-19 that didn't align with the narrative that the government was distribut[ing].”
RSF is finding ways to help news websites circumvent such blocks through “mirroring.” The technique creates copies of a censored website that are then hosted on servers of some of the largest internet companies. Often, the website will use a redirect that takes visitors to a domain that is not blocked.
“States wanting to block access to these copies could not do it without a collateral impact on their own access to these internet giants,” de Villars said.
To block a mirror site, a country would also have to block access to all of the sites on that server, which could impact its economy, according to RSF.
The technique is based on methods developed by GreatFire, an organization in China that works to circumvent Beijing’s censorship. RSF worked with volunteer developers in France to develop its own technology to improve the process.
“This technology allows the content of a censored site to be simultaneously reposted on an uncensored server,” said de Villars.
The mirrors can be knocked down after a period of time, but RSF monitors them.
“If one mirror is down or unavailable in a given country, we can create a new one on a different URL in order to circumvent censorship once again,” de Villars said.
So far, the media watchdog has helped unblock sites in Myanmar, Cambodia, Belarus, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan.
One of those is the independent Khmer-language site Monoroom, which RSF said was blocked in Cambodia due to its pandemic coverage in March.
A message on the website described the move to block it as cowardly but said it has not stopped reporters from working.
“The readers’ rights to access to information must not become the hostage of any ‘totalitarian’ regime,” the message read.
Law passed in Cambodia
As part of its pandemic measures, Cambodia in April passed a state of emergency law that bans the “distribution of information that could scare the public, (cause) unrest or that can negatively impact national security or that can cause confusion.”
Nop Vy, director of the Cambodia Journalist Alliance, told VOA that blocking websites has affected access to news and information in the country.
“The blocking of websites that give information to people violates journalists’ freedom to distribute news,” he said.
The Cambodian government often uses accusations of false news as an excuse to block sites, but that “is not a good option,” Nop Vy said. “The good option is to educate and explain to people whether it is true and untrue news.”
Blanket internet shutdowns “restrict the ability of the international community from understanding what’s happening,” Vesteinsson of Freedom House said, adding that he thinks governments shut down the internet to “prevent accountability from the international community and also from civil society within those countries.”
The key to circumventing censorship, Vesteinsson said, is to continue to cover these shutdowns and how people experience life under them.
Narin Sun contributed to this report.