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Yahoo email accounts of foreign journalists feared hacked

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 31 March 2010 - The debate on Internet censorship in China flared today with reports that Yahoo Email accounts of foreign journalists in the country had been hacked and blocked, or were otherwise rendered inaccessible.

According to the Associated Press, several foreign correspondents based in China have reported receiving error messages when attempting to log into Yahoo Email accounts.

Last week, search giant Google announced it was withdrawing from mainland China over a dispute with the Chinese authorities about censorship and Internet security.

Google reported in January that its servers had been the target of a hacking attack that originated in China, and which Google claimed was aimed at gaining access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google warned as well that over 20 other companies, including Microsoft and Yahoo, had also been targeted.

In January, the foreign correspondents club in Beijing warned its members that the Google email accounts of some of them had been compromised. As IPI reported at the time, several journalists discovered that emails from their accounts were being forwarded to unfamiliar addresses.

Yahoo released a statement on Tuesday condemning all hacking attacks and vowing to "take appropriate action in the event of any kind of breach." Yahoo representatives were not immediately available for comment.

Clifford Coonan, Beijing-based China correspondent of the Independent, told IPI that he had received the error message when he logged in on Tuesday. He had contacted Yahoo regarding the error, he said, but had not received a response. He also said that he had spoken to at least two other journalists working in China who had faced similar problems with their accounts.

According to AP, those affected are professionally focused on China and related issues. AP said it had heard of other colleagues having similar problems, including one journalist who lost his Yahoo account entirely in January.

"The timing is suspicious and it's a little unsettling", said Coonan.

Meanwhile, Google reported that the blocking of its search engine in China was due to technical issues, and not censorship by the Chinese government. These issues have now reportedly been resolved.

China's censorship of the Internet is a matter of grave concern to human rights and civil society organizations. The government utilizes a complex, multi-part firewall and filtering system, sometimes referred to as the Great Firewall of China, to control what information is available to its citizens via the Internet.

Censorship is often also used to stifle protest. In the wake of deadly ethnic riots in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in July last year, the Chinese government cracked down on Internet and cellphone access in the region, blocking social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, slowing cell phone service and activating keyword filters. Internet search results were restricted to reports that echoed the official line.

IPI Director David Dadge said: "Any attempt to hack into private Email accounts, especially those of journalists, is unacceptable. It jeopardizes the journalists' confidential sources, and is a form of intimidation. We are glad that Google has chosen to take action over China's repressive policies towards the Internet. Unfortunately it appears that the Chinese authorities are determined to pursue policies that run counter to the free flow of information."

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