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404 error, stating that a web page is not found, and the name given to a campaign against censorship in Tunisia

Around 120 people are currently being detained for expressing their views freely online, according to press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which today described 2011 as the "deadliest year for netizens", those reporting using the web.

On top of that an unknown number of citizen journalists have been killed within the past year, Frank Smyth from the Committee to Protect Journalists told Journalism.co.uk.

Today is World Day Against Cyber Censorship, intended to "rally everyone in support of a single internet without restrictions and accessible to all".

Google and Reporters Without Borders have joined together to mark the occasion and to hand out a prize for defending online freedom.

"Never have so many countries been affected by some form of online censorship, whether arrests or harassment of netizens, online surveillance, website blocking or the adoption of repressive internet laws," RSF says.

In this feature we take a look at the restrictions, penalties and tragedies involved in the online reporting of the Arab spring.

The boundaries between those recognised as journalists and those who are seen to be citizen journalists are certainly breaking downFrank Smyth, CPJ
"It's unclear how many citizen journalists have been killed in Syria, Libya and other nations," Smyth, who is executive director of private firm Global Journalist Security and part-time senior advisor for journalist security for the CPJ, told Journalism.co.uk

"Certainly dozens of journalists and activists" have died over the past year for attempting to report, he said, "and that may be a conservative estimate".

"I think what this shows is that citizen journalists, citizen activists, are the ones on the frontlines of reporting activities in nations that are under siege, in many cases by their own governments."

It is the efforts of these frontline reporters in Syria and elsewhere that have brought news of the violence of oppressive regimes to the world's attention, he said.

"What compelled international journalists to enter the country have been the video images and still photographs that were uploaded from Homs and from elsewhere in Syria by activists, bloggers and citizen journalists who are out there with cell phones and other handheld devices in order to capture what is occurring and upload that and get it out to the outside world."

Those like Rami Al-Sayed, a key provider of online videos showing the Syrian government's bombardment of Homs – who was tragically killed last month – have gained recognition as extraordinary journalists rather than ordinary citizens.

"The boundaries between those recognised as journalists and those who are seen to be citizen journalists are certainly breaking down," Smyth said.

Syria and satellite connections

Smyth added that in Syria the government is doing all it can to censor information leaving the country.

"There's some concern that citizen journalists and others are using satellite phones to upload images and video of abuses and attacks," Smyth told Journalism.co.uk

Several technology experts have warned of the dangers of using satellite phones, including Smyth who blogged on the CPJ website about the issue.

There are several ways to track satellite phones, including through its radio emissions and using other technologies, Smyth said.

"Anyone using a sat phone needs to realise that it could be actually tracked and used for targeting ordinance or for military attacks.

"It has to be used in a limited manner for no more than 10 minutes and some would argue that even that isn't safe before switching it off and even taking out the battery and switching locations."

Libya and 'fighting with the camera lens'

Under Gaddafi's long rule of Libya citizen journalists were censored.

There was a danger for activists and ordinary citizens if they appeared in video footage or were quoted in blog posts. For those trying to report there was the danger of being in the street to gather information, video and pictures, a risk of being caught with the footage on a phone or device and fear induced by patrols looking to catch anyone trying to connect to the internet.

"There were reports that the security forces were going round checking whether people had some kind of internet signal or internet connection in their homes," said Haret Alfasi, a Libyan raised in the UK who runs LibyaFeb17.com, a site he set up as soon as the Arab spring spread to Libya using his knowledge of the country and language to curate and translate citizen journalist reports coming from inside the country.

There was always a danger of not merely people fighting with each other using weaponry, but there was the media and the camera lens and that was also a means of fighting the regimeHaret Alfasi, LibyaFeb17.com
"The police and army were driving round in trucks trying to detect internet signals," he said. "If you were found with an internet connection in your house that was considered, at the time, an act of treason."

"It was considered that you were not serving the best interests of Libya and you were considered to be working with the West and with the enemy."

Next Monday (19 March) marks the first anniversary of the death of Mohammed Nabbous, described as "the face of citizen journalism in Libya".

"He was tragically murdered hours before the UN resolution came out to enable the no fly zone, resolution 1973, which he was so desperately calling for in the morning while I was listening to him," Alfasi said.

"Benghazi was being shelled, people were telling him to stay at home but he went out and was tragically killed. He left behind a wife who was pregnant with a beautiful baby girl."

Foreign journalists also spoke of violence experienced by them in Libya. Last year four New York Times journalists told how they were detained and suffered "days of brutality", claiming they had been blindfolded, taunted, and beaten.

"There was always a danger of not merely people fighting with each other using weaponry, but there was the media and the camera lens and that was also a means of fighting the regime," Alfasi added.

Tunisia and journalism training

The cyberspace was strictly censored in Tunisia before the ousting of President Ben Ali.

During his rule Tunisians connected to proxy servers based outside the country in order to avoid detection by the oppressive regime.

"Almost all Tunisian citizens know how to use proxy," Khalil Ghorbal, co-founder of Le PaCTE Tunisien, an organisiation promoting democracy and training citizen journalists in the country told Journalism.co.uk

It's amazing, everybody knows how to use a proxy and how to get the information outsideKhalil Ghorbal, Le PaCTE Tunisien
"It's amazing, everybody knows how to use a proxy and how to get the information outside."

For anyone who was found to be blogging about the political situation, the penalties were harsh.

"The Tunisian government and the ATI, the former internet agency in Tunisia, were tracking and trying to steal information about the administrators of [Facebook] pages, to find out who the guys were behind them.

"Three were arrested, two bloggers and a rap singer, right before the revolution," Ghorbal said.

"The rap singer was arrested because of the lyrics of his songs which were clearly denouncing the repression and the governance of the previous regime.

"The two other activists were arrested because of their known actions before the uprising and were trying to organise a peaceful march to denounce the internet censorship."

The three had called themselves "Ammar 404", named after the number error page message received when a website is unavailable or possibly blocked and the generic name given to someone who makes you upset or angry.

Although severe penalties and restrictions are in place in many countries including in Syria, in Tunisia citizen journalists are now receiving training in how to report.

Ghorbal is one of the project leaders of Speak Out Tunisia, a Le PaCTE Tunisien project offering training to citizen journalists. Later this month will see the first cohort of citizen journalists receiving training in practical skills such as photo and video editing.

But as well as teaching the tools, the project will also teach the ethics of journalism. Although citizen journalism has played a huge role in the Tunisian revolution, through videos, photos and Facebook, some of the information that has since been published is inaccurate.

"We have seen a huge amount of wrong information which has led us to re-think and re-teach the ethics of journalism," Ghorbal said, talking to Journalism.co.uk from the US where he is currently living.

The first session will be held the end of this month with further training next month. "We are targeting all citizens, not just journalists, in order to help preserve this freedom of expression," Ghorbal said.

A spring conference in citizen journalism will then follow, hearing from expert bloggers, focusing on "how citizen journalism can help in the next important steps of the Arab spring".

This article was amended on 18 April as Khalil Ghorbal added further explanation to details of the arrests.

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