March 12, 2018 – To mark this year’s World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, celebrated on March 12, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is unveiling another round in its Operation #Collateral Freedom, in which it restores access to online media outlets that have been blocked in their own countries.
Blocking access to the websites of independent media outlets is one of the most widely used strategies by information predators. RSF has been combatting this practice since 2015 by creating “mirror” sites, that is to say, exact copies of the original sites.
After unblocking 10 sites in 2015, six in 2016 and five in 2017, RSF is restoring access to three more sites to mark 2018’s World Day Against Cyber-Censorship. So, in all, RSF has restored access to 24 news websites.
In Burundi, Oman and Iran, Collateral Freedom rescues media
The Burundian weekly news website Iwacu is one of the three beneficiaries of this year’s operation. It has been one of Burundi’s few remaining independent media outlets since 2015, when radio stations were closed on President Pierre Nkurunziza’s orders. But, like other news sites, it is now inaccessible in Burundi. Since October 10, 2017, anyone trying to access it arrives at a blank page. They think there is a problem with the web address or even that the site has been shut down.
The second of this year’s unblocked sites is Mowatin (“Citizen”), an independent online magazine that Mohamed al Fazari, a journalist, blogger and human rights defender, founded in Oman in June 2013 shortly after being released from prison. He had been arrested along with other activists in June 2012 and charged with “gathering with the intent of rioting” and “insulting the Sultan.” After the original site was blocked in Saudi Arabia and Oman in 2017, a new one was created that is currently accessible in Oman but not in Saudi Arabia.
The third site is Majzooban Nor, the only source of independent news and information about Iran’s Sufi community. Journalists who work with this media outlet are often targeted by the Iranian regime. In February 2018, the site published reports and video of police violence at some of the protests taking place in Iran. Several of its reporters were badly beaten by police, to the point that two of them spent several days in a coma. The site has been the target of several cyber-attacks and has not been accessible within Iran since 2011. The Iranian authorities have been targeting Sufis for the past decade.
Mirroring – how RSF unblocks sites
To unblock access to a censored site, RSF uses a technique known as “mirroring” in which it creates a “mirror” or duplicate site that is constantly synchronized in real time with the original and is hosted by a major Internet service company such as Fastly, Amazon or OVH. It would be very hard for governments that are information predators 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 – #Collateral Freedom.
This year, in order to be able to continue Operation #Collateral Freedom, RSF is launching a crowdfunding operation on the KissKissBankBank platform.