To mark World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, celebrated on 12 March, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announces that it is now providing alternative online access to a total of 22 media outlets that are blocked in their own country, in an operation launched in 2015 that has enabled millions of people to access freely reported news and information.
In what is the fifth year of “Operation Collateral Freedom,” RSF is adding three more media outlets to the list of 19 it was already unblocking by means of a technique known as website mirroring. Since the operation began four years ago, a total of 142 million visits have been registered to the RSF-created “mirrors” of news sites censored in their own countries.
The 22 news sites now being unblocked by #CollateralFreedom cover a total of 12 countries – including China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Vietnam – where the media are completely gagged by the authorities. This operation helps to inform citizens whose governments allow no press freedom.
Reporting human rights violations in Saudi Arabia
One of the three websites to have been added to the #CollateralFreedom list is ALQST (Advocating for Human Rights), which monitors human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and issues news updates and reports about them for both Saudis and the international community.
“We are facing immense difficulties,” said ALQST editor Yahya Assiri, a Saudi journalist who lives in self-imposed exile in London. “The attempts by the Saudi authorities to silence us are systematic. And their techniques included the blocking of our site.” Like other Saudi dissident , he has also been the target of attempts to hack into his phone in order to spy on him.
Assiri added: “We try to circumvent the censorship by getting our information on to other online platforms, but the ideal solution, in order to keep people informed about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, is this mirror site system, which allows us to increase our readership more easily.”
“Inform Pakistanis who thirst for the truth”
#CollateralFreedom’s three new beneficiaries also include Safenewsrooms.org, a website founded by Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani journalist living in self-imposed exile in Paris who received the Albert Londres journalism prize in 2014.
His website documents media censorship in Asia, in particular, Pakistan, which sees several deadly attacks against journalists every year and which is ranked 139th in the World Press Freedom Index. Safenewsrooms.org was blocked in Pakistan just a few weeks after its launch in May 2018.
“Our site allows Internet users to access honest and independent information that the authorities don’t want them to read,” Siddiqui said. “It was blocked for no reason. But thanks to this operation, we will again be able to inform Pakistanis who thirst for the truth. And we can see that there are many of them. The number of people visiting the site before it was blocked attest to this.”
The third website to be added to the #CollateralFreedom list is China Digital Times, an English and Chinese-language site that provides uncensored news and information about China. Its supporters include the Counter-Power Lab at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Collateral Freedom is carried out thanks in large part to a community of developers who are committed to press freedom,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology bureau. “This chain of solidarity between ethical hackers and human rights defenders allows RSF to restore online access to independent media in countries that are news and information black holes. It proves that solidarity is the best response to online censorship.”
The “mirrors” created in this operation are duplicate sites that are constantly synchronized in real time with the originals and are hosted by leading Internet companies such as Fastly, Amazon or OVH. It is hard for regimes that are enemies of the Internet to block access to the mirrors without cutting themselves off from all the services provided by these Internet giants, thereby sustaining major collateral damage. Hence the operation’s name – Operation Collateral Freedom.
These companies charge a fee for hosting the mirrors that is consistent with their size. Please help us to keep #CollateralFreedom going and thereby enable millions of citizens to continue accessing information they would otherwise be denied.