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Mesay Mekonnen was at his desk, at a news service based in Northern Virginia, when gibberish suddenly exploded across his computer screen one day in December. A sophisticated cyber­attack was underway. But this wasn’t the Chinese army or the Russian mafia at work. Instead, a nonprofit research lab has fingered government hackers in a much less technically advanced nation, Ethi­o­pia, as the likely culprits, saying they apparently used commercial spyware, essentially bought off the shelf. This burgeoning industry is making surveillance capabilities that once were the exclusive province of the most elite spy agencies, such as National Security Agency, available to governments worldwide. The targets of such attacks often are political activists, human rights workers and journalists, who have learned that the Internet allows authoritarian governments to surveil and intimidate them even after they have fled to supposed safety.

Many fear that the impact of China’s news media juggernaut will be especially pronounced in countries where freedoms are fragile. In Venezuela, China is building and financing communications satellites for a government that has exercised increasing control over the news media. Similarly, the Ethiopian government received $1.5 billion in Chinese loans for training and technology to block objectionable Web sites, television and radio transmissions, according to exile groups.

“The Chinese are not interested in bringing freedom of information and expression to Africa,” said Abebe Gellaw, a producer for Ethiopia Satellite Television, an exile-run network whose broadcasts are frequently jammed by Chinese equipment. “If they don’t provide these freedoms to their own citizens, why should they behave differently elsewhere?”

Chinese news media officials say such fears are overblown.

“Xinhua is filing hundreds of stories every day for our English service, and these reports are not propaganda,” Zhou Xisheng, the agency’s vice president, said in an interview. “What really matters is which perspective you are coming from.”

Many fear that the impact of China’s news media juggernaut will be especially pronounced in countries where freedoms are fragile. In Venezuela, China is building and financing communications satellites for a government that has exercised increasing control over the news media. Similarly, the Ethiopian government received $1.5 billion in Chinese loans for training and technology to block objectionable Web sites, television and radio transmissions, according to exile groups.

“The Chinese are not interested in bringing freedom of information and expression to Africa,” said Abebe Gellaw, a producer for Ethiopia Satellite Television, an exile-run network whose broadcasts are frequently jammed by Chinese equipment. “If they don’t provide these freedoms to their own citizens, why should they behave differently elsewhere?”

Chinese news media officials say such fears are overblown.

“Xinhua is filing hundreds of stories every day for our English service, and these reports are not propaganda,” Zhou Xisheng, the agency’s vice president, said in an interview. “What really matters is which perspective you are coming from.”