Friday, March 21, 2008

Media briefings: Guinea-Bissau, Gambia

Today the news is not so good.

Atizar Mendes Pereira, journalist and director of Última Hora, a privately-owned Bissau-based newspaper was arrested and briefly detained by the Intelligence Service of the Ministry of Interior of Guinea Bissau, Senegambia reported.

According to the Media Foundation of West Africa, Pereira was interrogated for six hours following a story claiming the country’s military chief of staff had assumed the role of promoting police officers.

“Pereira later told the media that despite the psychological torture he suffered, he still stands by his story and that he would not retract even a comma,” Senegambia said.

Site blocked in Gambia
The Freedom Newspaper, based in the United States, has had its website blocked by GAMTEL, the state-run telecommunications company. According to Scott A. Morgan in Senegambia news, the reaction came after the Freedom Newspaper ran a story on the telecommunications firm.

Perhaps the story in question was actually a letter written by a GAMTEL employee who claimed “GAMTEL bankruptcy did not comes as a surprise to me.”

The story, which is linked here, follows:

GAMTEL's bankruptcy did not come to me as a surprise due to the high corruption and the high level of dependency of the Gambia government. I have been working for GAMTEL for a long time and almost all staff of this telecommunication company are constantly paranoid about the activities of the current president.

He most of the time forces these parastatals to participate or sponsor either directly or indirectly, party activities taking place in the country.

More to the point, having the website blocked by authorities left Gambians relying solely on the state-supported media for their news. “So effectively for a short period there was a news blackout from the Gambia,” Morgan writes.

How to block websites
For those interested, there are four ways an angry government – like Gambia – could shut down a website. I borrow this from an interesting piece by James Fallows in the Atlantic regarding how Chinese authorities limit the access to certain websites through what is now being called “the Great Firewall of China.” .

The first “and bluntest” method is the DNS block. Every website has a specific IP address, which is a series of 12 numbers separated by periods. When a user requests a specific website, say, a domain name server – DNS – translates the written form of this name to the IP address so it can be read by computers. By simply blocking certain addresses, servers can be directed to give no reply when a specific domain name – like – is requested. Those in charge can tell the server to give viewers a “site not found” error; or, they could merely direct viewers to a different site.

Second, once a request is made to a blacklisted sites, servers which connect a country’s internet with the rest of the world could set a “reset,” which means the connection between a user’s computer and the website in question is cut. Those looking for sites that have raised the government’s ire will receive a “site not found” error or a “The connection has been reset.”

Another way to block sites is to make a list of forbidden keywords in the URL, which is the website’s address in plain English: or whatever. However, instead of blocking specific sites, people could block any websites containing certain words, like “Deyda Hydara” (the murdered Sierra Leonean journalist) or “press freedom” or “Tiken Jah Fakoly.”

Finally, in China an electronic scanner literally could scan the contents of specific pages. For instance, the New York Times may be scanned for stories relating to Sierra Leone or West Africa or Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh.

All of this working together adds a certain amount of unpredictability to internet users in China, Fallows argues. When people don’t know why their requests are being denied, they begin worrying about their searches.

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