Ahead of World Press Freedom Day today, experts said countries including China, Vietnam and Nepal are feeling more threatened by cyberspace than ever before as Internet use booms.
Of a list of 15 "Enemies of the Internet" named by the Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders in a report late last year, seven are in Asia, including China, North Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar.
Experts warn that, with less freedom of information, Asian societies risk more corruption and abuse of power, while public discontent will feed social instability.
"These countries are among the most politically backward countries, that's why they are afraid of the Internet," said once imprisoned Chinese journalist Gao Yu (高瑜), who won UNESCO's Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom award in 1997. "They fear the Internet will spread Western ideas of freedom and democracy which will lead to an overthrow of their power."
Employing sophisticated filtering technology and more pedestrian means, the governments are trying to rein in a medium they realize they must also embrace to spur modernization.
In China, the world's biggest jailer of journalists, the number of imprisoned cyber-dissidents has exceeded the number of reporters locked up. Last year, 32 journalists were jailed while more than 62 people were jailed for posting their political views online, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Internet giants such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Google operating in China have been pressured into censoring their content.
Vietnam, lacking China's money and technology, has employed Internet police to filter content and spy on cybercafes.
One of the people it has thrown in jail is Pham Hong Son, who was given a five-year prison term and three years' house arrest for simply sending an article from the US State Department Web site entitled "What is Democracy" to friends and officials.
Myanmar blocks not only foreign news sites but also Web-based e-mail services like Yahoo and Hotmail and forces Internet cafes to monitor their computer users.
North Korea only allows a few thousand privileged people to have access to a heavily censored version of the Internet with sites praising the regime.
In Nepal, despite restoring Internet access that was initially cut off when King Gyanendra seized power in February last year, his regime continued to block opposition publications to try and subdue a people power uprising that recently forced him to relinquish his grip on the government.
Meanwhile, other Asian countries which are perceived as more open, including Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand, remained on the Reporters Without Borders watch list.
The Malaysian government's intimidation of online journalists and bloggers has increased in the past three years, the group said. It cited a raid on Malaysiakini, the country's only independent online daily.
In Singapore, a blogger who criticized the country's university system was forced to shut down his blog last year after official pressure.
South Korea, the fourth most-wired country in the world, excessively filters the Internet, blocking pornographic sites as well as publications that supposedly "disturb public order," including pro-North Korean sites, the group said.
In Thailand, the government extended its fight against Internet pornography to censoring online news sites as part of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's broader effort to rein in the media, according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.