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January 24 2014

GV Face: Live from the Arab Bloggers Meeting #AB14

In this special edition of GV Face, GV veterans and colleagues join us live from Amman, Jordan, where nearly 80 bloggers and activists from throughout the Arab region came together this week for the Fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting. After four days of training and discussion between bloggers, activists, musicians, rappers, teachers and scholars from across the region, there's plenty to talk about.

GVers Advox Director Hisham Almiraat, GV MENA Region Editor Amira Al Hussaini, SMEX Co-Director Mohammed Najem and Berkman Fellow Dalia Othman share with us their insights from this remarkable event.

Learn more about the meeting and read blog posts from throughout the week (in English and Arabic) on the #AB14 website: http://ab14.globalvoicesonline.org/

January 21 2014

China: Free Ilham Tohti — Support Ethnic Reconciliation

Free Ilham Tohti! by Twitter user @HisOvalness

Free Ilham Tohti! by Twitter user @HisOvalness

Ilham Tohti, founder of Uyghur Online and a moderate advocate for ethnic autonomy policy in China was arrested by police on January 15. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece labelled him as separatist. Many public intellectuals are arguing that his prosecution could result in an irreparable situation on ethnic reconciliation in China.

But current Chinese leaders seem to think otherwise. The CCP propaganda machine represented by Global Times claimed in a January 18 editorial that Ilham Tohti had a close connection with the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas group which has been labelled by the CCP as an extreme separatist group. The report also accused Ilham Tohti of inciting students in his class and spreading rumors and dissent through Uyghur Online, a website founded in 2006 to address ethnic conflicts in China from the Uyghur perspective. The site has been inaccessible since Ilham's arrest.

As highlighted in an online petition signed by more than 1,000 Chinese intellectuals for the release of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur professor teaching in Beijing Minzhu University has played a significant role in ethnic reconciliation in China:

Ilham Tohit has always opposed Xinjiang independence and violence of any kind. He actively pushes for friendly communication between Uighurs and Chinese. He put his faith of solving the Xinjiang issue in the Chinese government adjusting its problematic Xinjiang policy. Because of this, he has criticized the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy, and at the same time, proposed various changes. His criticism and suggestions are all based on serious academic research. He is regarded by the intellectual community as a precious man who bridges Uighurs with Chinese, and by the local Xinjiang people as a courageous representative of Uighurs. In the future, he should be an important civic leader in solving the Xinjiang issue, and play an irreplaceable role in ethnic reconciliation.

Since the 2008 Lhasa violence to the 2009 Urumqi riots to today, the failure of China’s ethnic policy is obvious to all. The detention of Ilham Tohti demonstrates that the Chinese government is continuing its mistakes. The Communist Party’s grip on power is temporary, but the wellbeing of the Chinese people should be lasting. The Chinese Communist Party maintains present stability by sacrificing the future of the people. Every Chinese citizen has the right to hold the Communist party accountable, taking shared responsibility for the sake of the future of the country. Citizens of other countries may also pay attention to this event, because the suffering of the Uighur people is the suffering of all human beings, and China’s failure could jeopardize the entire world.

According to Ilham's wife, in an account recorded by Tibetan writer Woeser, Ilham was arrested in front of his sons and his computers were confiscated:

Probably between 3:30 and 4:00, there was knocking on Ilham’s door. Ilham opened the door and a line of Xinjiang police burst in, pushing him onto the sofa. There were a lot of police and Ilham was quickly taken away by one group of them. The eldest son was frightened and began to cry. Ilham had time to tell his son not to cry.

The police began to search everywhere throughout the home, including the closets and the children’s bedroom. Afterwards they took away the family’s four computers, three cell phones (including Guzelnor’s cell phone), portable hard drives, flash drives and writeable CDs/DVDs. They also took Ilham’s lesson plans, his student’s exams and essays, and books, etc. In addition, they carried off his small strongbox containing his official papers and bank cards.

On the same day, the dormitories of Ilham's seven students were raided and five male students were detained.

Yesterday, while Ilham was being taken away by the police, 7 Uyghur students who were studying at Central Minzu University (5 males, 2 females) were taken by the police from their individual dormitories. Their cell phones, computers and bank cards were also taken. Late that night the 2 female students were released and sent home. However there is absolutely no word about the 5 male students, just as is the case with Ilham.

Currently Ilham's family is under house arrest and cannot be reached by phone. Many believe the arrest is meant to criminalize speech. The online petition urges the Chinese authorities to release Ilham Tohti immediately, or to otherwise provide concrete evidence to prove their case and allow his lawyer and family to meet with him.

January 20 2014

Ukraine Stifles Freedom of Speech, Peaceful Protest With New Law

An anonymous image circulated online. The inscription reads [ru]:

An anonymous image circulated online. The inscription reads [ru]: “Now EVERYTHING is prohibited”

This post is part of our Global Voices’ Special Coverage Ukraine's #Euromaidan Protests.

On the 57th day of Ukraine's massive pro-European, anti-government protests, the country's parliament passed a law that limits freedom of assembly, restricts the country's media and clamps down on freedom of expression.

Law No. 3879 [uk] introduces a variety of legal changes “for protecting the security of citizens.” Members passed the legislation during the parliament's first session of the new year on January 16, 2014.

The law comes as thousands of protesters continue to fill a central square in Kiev. The Euromaidan protests, as they have been dubbed, began as peaceful pro-EU rallies but turned into a large-scale anti-government movement after police unleashed an aggressive crackdown against demonstrators – a handful of brutal beatings by police have been captured on film.

NGO Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group called the new law repressive, citing its key issues:

A draft law “passed” in full by the ruling majority in parliament on Jan 16 criminalizes libel, labels and restricts civic associations receiving foreign grants as “foreign agents” and imposes and substantially increases liability for any forms of protest. If the draft bill is signed by the parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak and president, Viktor Yanukovych, it will set Ukraine’s democracy back by years.

Maksym Savanevsky of Watcher.com.ua noted that these and other measures, such as making it mandatory for citizens to show their passports to buy even a prepaid mobile SIM card, amount to a rise in censorship [uk] of journalists and Internet users’ expression, as well as increased control and surveillance over telecommunications systems and social media websites, under the guise of fighting extremism and violent uprisings:

Сьогодні більшість у Верховній Раді прийняла закон, яким фактично вводиться цензура в інтернеті.

Today the Verkhovna Rada [Parliament] majority adopted a law which basically introduces censorship on the Internet.

Lawyer Dmytro Nazarets posted a few express analysis posts [ru] mentioning a new requirement that all Internet news sites and news agencies are now obligated to register with the authorities:

Теперь уже новости на сайте не попишешь без надзора и регистрации

No more writing and posting news on your website without oversight and registration

Journalist Mustafa Nayyem pointed out [ru] on Facebook the viciousness with which the law’s authors dealt with social media:

Social media denounced by the explanatory note to the controversial draft law adopted by the Ukrainian parliament. The authors insist social media are used as a tool to spread these ideas and fuel hostility, where calls to violently change power and constitution are becoming more and more frequent.

Rachel Denber, the Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia division for Human Rights Watch, succinctly summed up numerous comparisons with Russia:

Budget vote brawl

The parliament also voted on the year's state budget on the same day. The budget has been highly controversial with the opposition criticizing [uk] it for multiple flaws, including a drastic increase in funding for law enforcement agencies at the expense of such items as healthcare. Opposition MPs had pledged to block parliament and prevent voting at all costs. At first, things seemed to progress according to their plan.

However, the opposition quickly lost control, with the pro-government majority voting in support of the budget and bypassing regular voting procedure.

Editor of an English-language Kyiv-based publication, the Kyiv Post, Christopher Miller tweeted:

A brawl during the parliament session followed, with the opposition physically trying to prevent their rivals from using the electronic voting system. However, the pro-presidential majority quickly retreated and continued voting by a raise of hands.

A screenshot of the live broadcast from the Ukrainian Parliament. Pro-Presidential majority adopts the laws by raising hands. January 16, 2014.

A screenshot of the live broadcast from the Ukrainian parliament. The pro-presidential majority adopts the laws by raising hands. January 16, 2014.

Opposition MP Andriy Shevchenko commented [uk] on the violations of voting procedure:

While the whole country is watching, the seventh Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada [parliament] is ceasing to exist. What a f*cking shame… #Рада7

Roman Shrayk, an independent journalist and author of the satirical Durdom Portal, called the parliamentary vote on the bills itself a sham, posting a video [ru] of the vote on his blog for Ukrainska Pravda:

20 минут, которые уничтожили остатки украинской демократии

20 minutes that destroyed the remnants of Ukrainian democracy

“The day democracy died”

Later, President Viktor Yanukovych signed all five laws, including the openly anti-protest law no. 3879, sparking outrage in the Ukrainian online community.

Kyiv-based Anglophone blogger Taras Revunets tweeted:

Twitter user Igor Shevchenko went even further in his comparisons [uk]:

Now we are North Korea. And we have our own Vik Fed Yan [Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych]

Yet many other social media users have ridiculed the new measures, pointing out their absurdity.

The civic movement “Chesno” posted the following photo, noting [ru] that it depicts something already “fobidden” by the new law:

Civic movement

Civic movement “Chesno” depicting an activity technically illegal under new legislation. Photo by Hanna Hrabarska. Used with permission.

Тем временем, вот мы – иностранные агенты, офис движения ЧЕСТНО, группа больше пяти лиц, В МАСКАХ!

In the meantime, here we are – foreign agents, office of the CHESNO movement, a group of more than five, wearing MASKS!

This post is part of our Special Coverage Ukraine's #Euromaidan Protests.

Tetyana Bohdanova (listed as the author) and Tetyana Lokot co-authored this post.

January 17 2014

Zambian Police Go After ‘Watchdog’ for Publishing Draft Constitution

Lusaka skyline. Photo by Mike Lee via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lusaka at dusk. Photo by Mike Lee via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Zambian police forces say they will employ “international legal provisions” to take into custody the operators of citizen news websites that authorities claim are threatening the security of the state.

The terse statement was issued a few hours after independent news site the Zambian Watchdog published a draft constitution that the government has written but neglected to release to the public. This violates the Terms of Reference of the Constitution Technical Committee which was appointed shortly after President Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) won the 2011 elections.

The statement issued by the police public relations unit and reported by Zambia Reports reads:

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous people have taken advantage of the cyberspace to commit crimes on the internet through defamatory comments and remarks posted on websites especially through the electronic media in the name of press freedom which end up infringing a number of state security provisions.

As such, the Police shall employ local, regional and international legal provisions to pursue the authors and publishers of such criminal, libelous, defamatory, treasonous and seditious statements and bring them to book.

Echoing recent words of Minister of Information and Broadcasting Mwansa Kapeya, who spoke of the government unmasking the identities of people behind certain citizen news websites, the police statement added:

So far, other investigations into the identities of the perpetrators of such crimes are underway and we shall expose all the people involved in these malicious and borderline treacherous activities hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

Kapeya, a former broadcaster himself, was quoted saying:

We are concerned about some of the news that is being published by online publication most of it amounts to abuse of the social media. A lot of things are said about government officials and the President without [them being] given a chance to respond.

Another minister, Yamfwa Mukanga, in charge of communication, recently said the government was working on a law to regulate online media and hold “them” (websites and services) accountable for their actions:

We have to find a way of controlling them because they are tarnishing the image of our country. Of late, we have seen a lot of things published by online media that are [e]very negative because they publish anything.

The Zambian Watchdog reported that the government was secretly working on a law that would criminalize the act of reading the Zambian Watchdog and other similar sites. Quoting a government source, the Watchdog reported:

The Watchdog is just too advanced for the PF and because of the huge costs involved in blocking it, government now wants to pass a law in the next parliament to criminalise whoever accesses or contributes to the site because by then all data of the sim card will already have been captured. They want the attorney general to complain on behalf of the government and then later it will go to cabinet.

Commenting under the story, Watchdog reader Czar said [Watchdog comments do not have permalinks]:

That “law” is meant to scare semi illiterates. Will Sata and his gang manage to monitor every device that is used to browse the Internet. Don’t they know that you can browse anonymously using a proxy? If China has failed to do this, how will Sata and his gang succeed. Don’t they have better things to do?

Observers widely suspect that the Zambian government has been trying to shut down critical news websites such as the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports for over a year. This isn't the first time government officials have spoken dismissively of the Watchdog — in July, Vice President Guy Scott said he would “celebrate” if the Watchdog were shut down. In separate statements, the government has also threatened to close down social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

January 16 2014

Russia’s Parliament Prepares New “Anti-Terrorist” Laws for Internet

Graffiti in Moscow, 9 June 2013, photo by Victor Grigas, CC 3.0.

Graffiti in Moscow, June 2013. Photo by Victor Grigas via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Another Internet crackdown appears to be looming in Russia, where the Duma is reviewing three new pieces of proposed “anti-terror” legislation that could place hefty restrictions on the activities of website operators and civil society organizers.

Two of the bills address government surveillance powers—one would create new requirements obliging website operators to report on the every move of their users, while another addresses penalties for terror-related crimes. The third would set new restrictions for individuals and organizations accepting anonymous donations through online services like PayPal, a measure that could have an especially strong impact on small civil society groups.

The three proposed laws

The first of the three bills (Legislative initiative 428884-6 [ru]) creates new requirements for mandatory archives and notifications, granting the federal government wide jurisdiction. The most concerning article of the bill stipulates that “individuals or legal entities” who “[organize] the dissemination of information and (or) the exchange of information between Internet users are obligated to store all information about the arrival, transmission, delivery, and processing of voice data, written text, images, sounds, or other kinds of action” that occur when using their website. At all times, data archives must include the most recent six months of activity.

It appears that this obligation would apply to the owners and operators of websites and services ranging from multinational services like Facebook to small community blogs and discussion platforms.

Website “organizers” must also “inform” (уведомить) Russian security services when users first begin using their sites, and whenever users “exchange information.” Taken literally, this requirement could create a nearly impossible task for administrators of blogs, social media sites, and other discussion platforms with large quantities of users.

The legislation also includes an ambitious note about jurisdiction, claiming applicability to all websites that Russian citizens access: “In the event that the communication service organizer is located beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, but the user of the services is located within Russian territory, the location of services rendered is the territory of the Russian Federation.” Jurisdictional inconsistencies and international human rights norms would make such a policy nearly impossible to implement.

Finally, the legislation proposes fines for website owners who do not comply with the law, threatening legal entities (e.g., Facebook, Vkontakte, Twitter) with penalties as high as six thousand dollars per offense. It is also difficult to imagine how such a scheme could be implemented across international borders.

The second bill (Legislative initiative 428889-6 [ru]) would broaden police powers and raise penalties for terrorism. This legislation grants the Federal Security Service (post-Soviet Russia’s successor to the KGB) rights to inspect travelers that currently only regular police enjoy. It also increases the maximum prison sentences for several terrorism-related crimes.

Finally, the third piece of legislation (Legislative initiative 428896-6 [ru]) would place new limits on online money transfers. This draft law would raise limits on anonymous online financial transactions and ban all international online financial transactions, where the electronic money operator (e.g., PayPal, Yandex.Dengi, WebMoney) does not know the client’s legal identity. The legislation also raises operating costs for NGOs, requiring them to report on every three thousand dollars spent in foreign donations. (Currently, NGOs must report on every six thousand such dollars.)

The proposed restrictions on anonymous online money transfers could be significant. Currently in Russia, one can deposit up to 1,200 dollars into a single anonymous online wallet, and one can pay out almost 450 dollars from that account in a single transaction. Under the new legislation, Russians wouldn’t be able to spend more than 450 dollars in a whole calendar month from any one anonymous online money account, and single-day transactions would be limited to just under 30 dollars (1000 rubles).

Freezing civil society’s electronic wallet?

How much money do Russian netizens typically send when they transfer rubles online? Consider Alexey Navalny’s August 2013 Moscow mayoral campaign, which he funded largely with online donations through Yandex.Dengi  (a service similar to PayPal). Navalny’s public audit [ru] of his online donations is still accessible, and it’s clear from just a glance that a sizeable number of the transfers were well above 1000 rubles.

Perhaps anticipating today’s backlash to the new crackdown on anonymous RuNet money transfers, the Duma actually raised the allowed maximum balance [ru] for identified (non-anonymous) online money accounts in late December 2013, increasing it from 100 thousand rubles (3 thousand dollars) to 600 thousand rubles (almost 18 thousand dollars).

Arkady Babchenko in an interview, 18 March 2012, YouTube screen capture.

Arkady Babchenko in an interview, 18 March 2012, YouTube screen capture.

Indeed, the legislation’s potential impact on crowd-funded projects (like Navalny’s mayoral campaign, his anti-corruption organizations, and others’ grassroots efforts) has alarmed many in the Russian blogosphere. Writer and activist Arkady Babchenko, who runs a civic group called “Journalists without Intermediaries,” published an emotional blog post [ru] on Echo of Moscow, declaring that the new legislation would destroy any efforts to fund his project, which he promotes unceasingly in his online social media (always directing his readers to the group’s Yandex.Dengi account). “Now I can close down the project with a clear conscience,” he announced fatalistically.

RuNet guru Anton Nosik blogged [ru] in a similar tone on LiveJournal, claiming that Russians who order pizzas online costing over 1000 rubles run the risk of being labeled “terrorists.” With even greater hyperbole, economist and city council member Konstantin Yankauskas proclaimed in a Facebook post [ru], “Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Federal Duma is preparing to shut down Yandex.Dengi.” Like Babchenko, Yankauskas manages his own crowd-funded civic group—a local newspaper in the Moscow suburb of Zyuzino.

Curiously, Babchenko, Nosik, and Yankauskas all downplay the fact that the proposed limitations on Internet money transfers apply exclusively to anonymous accounts. Presumably, their panic is rooted in the assumption that Russians will donate to civic initiatives only if they can do so anonymously, without alerting the authorities to any ostensibly “oppositionist” leanings.

These intended reforms may have been designed to force Russian civic society’s supporters into the open, thereby thinning their numbers. Even now, while the legislation is not yet law, civic groups like Babchenko’s and Yankauskas’ are far from wildly successful. “Journalists without Intermediaries” has just 110 “likes” on Facebook, and “I Live in Zyuzino” has fewer than 300 followers on Vkontakte. As the proprietor of the former rushes to announce a closure of operations and the head of the latter concludes immediately that “Yandex.Dengi will be shut down,” it seems that some struggling online initiatives might use the latest RuNet crackdown to save themselves from the ordinary disgrace of unpopularity.

According to Vedomosti newspaper [ru], work on the bills has been underway for some time, but a recent string of terrorist attacks in the city of Volgograd accelerated the process. Four of the laws’ sponsors are former professionals in Russia’s security apparatus (including one former prosecutor, two former FSB agents, and a former deputy chairman of the federal “Information Policy Committee”). The legislation was drafted in closed meetings with representatives of Rosfinmonitoring (an anti-money-laundering agency), the Federal Security Service, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Whatever the ulterior motives of Russian lawmakers and the fundraising strategies of civic groups, this move to peel back the privacy offered by online exchange will have an inevitable chilling effect on the country’s netizen self-organization. One of the bills’ authors, Oleg Denisenko, even admitted [ru] to Kommersant newspaper that the legislation “will be unpopular.” As the Duma discusses and revises the bills over the coming weeks, Denisenko will learn whether his colleagues agree that the fight against terrorism warrants such sacrifices. The initial reactions from the RuNet, however, indicate that the proposed measures will never be popular with the country’s bloggers.

January 14 2014

Monitoring the Russian Internet for Big Bucks

The FSO's emblem graces LiveJournal's logo. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The FSO's emblem graces LiveJournal's logo. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) is asking software developers to design a system that automatically monitors the country’s news and social media, producing reports that study netizens’ political attitudes. The state is prepared to pay nearly one million dollars over two years to the company that wins the state tender, applications for which were due January 9, 2014. Though the FSO’s RuNet-monitoring contract has been online [ru] at the government’s official Procurement Portal, www.zakupki.gov.ru, since December 18, 2013, news of the project broke only today, January 10, 2014, when the newspaper Izvestia published an article [ru] about it.

Izvestia’s coverage of the story bears all the hallmarks of Kremlin-friendly reportage, sandwiching comments by one critic of the FSO between two supporters of monitoring the Internet. Indeed, Izvestia quotes Maxim Kononenko, a pro-Putin RuNet guru, as its lone opponent of the FSO. (Kononenko doesn’t actually oppose the project, but only argues that the FSB, rather than the FSO, should oversee such work.) Journalist Sultan Suleimanov tweeted the following joke about Izvestia’s apparent integrity:

When it must, Izvestia works as a true propaganda machine. See how, for the blogosphere monitoring story, they went for “criticism” to Kononenko.

Anton Nossik, another titan of the Russian Internet and an extremely popular blogger, agrees that Izvestia’s article played the role of propaganda, but he sees it as distraction rather than promotion. According to Nossik [ru], the FSO’s grand monitoring system is nothing more than a cheap scheme to siphon money from the state budget, charging millions of rubles for software that simply googles publicly available content. More importantly, Nossik discovered that the FSO hired a company to design an identical project [ru] in September last year, when the price tag was far smaller, at just over US$200,000.

Anton Nossik, 21 February 2007, public domain.

Anton Nossik, 21 February 2007, public domain.

One week after the FSO launched a second auction for a new round of Internet monitoring, an entrepreneur named Lana Istomina [ru] lodged a complaint with the Federal Antimonopoly Service, objecting to terms in the FSO’s 75-page contract [ru] that specify the need to use one of four preselected media-monitoring software tools (Glass, Medialogia, Prism, or Medialogia-BAZZ). According to Istomina, the FSO’s refusal to accept bids built on equivalent tools represents a violation of Russian antitrust law.

Nossik argues that Istomina’s complaint was her way of disrupting a redundant tender clearly designed to waste a million dollars on a system that the government already bought:

Весь смысл тендера — второй раз заплатить государственными деньгами за то же самое, что уже куплено в прошлом году. ИП Истомина Л.А. так написать не может, потому что она не может это доказать. Но схема эта не блещет новизной и революционностью, мы такое видим из года в год. Объявление тендера на создание уже существующего продукта — простой и удобный способ по-быстрому освоить бюджетное бабло под благовидным предлогом.

The whole point of the tender was to pay out state money for a second time for the same thing they’d already bought last year. Now, the entrepreneur Lara Istomina can’t write that because she can’t prove it. But this scheme hardly shines as novel or revolutionary. We see the same thing from year to year. Announce a tender for the creation of an already-existing product—it’s an easy and convenient way to spend some quick government cash on a reasonable pretext.

Nossik believes that the officials responsible for arranging the tender also planted in Izvestia the “grand nationwide horror story” of FSO censorship, in order to divert attention away from their crime. Nossik’s theory is familiar in the Russian media sphere, where any major news event produces a range of skeptics who are inclined to view the story as plot to manipulate public opinion and pursue private gains. (For instance, after Ivan Okhlobystin’s homophobic letter to Vladimir Putin earlier this week, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky produced an interpretation [ru] of the stunt that mirrors Nossik’s tone, calling Okhlobystin’s letter a “PR move” with ulterior motives.)

Because it’s so common on the Russian Internet, Nossik’s skepticism about the FSO’s monitoring project would be easy to dismiss. That, however, could be a mistake. The fact that the FSO already operates an identical monitoring project, the steep rise in the cost of this already-completed and automated work, and the presence of Ms. Istomina’s antitrust complaint—it all lends credence to Nossik’s suspicions.

In other words, Russian bloggers now screaming bloody murder about state censors may be ignoring the real bad guys, petty crooks that they are.

January 13 2014

‘Red Pencil Protest’ Demands Media Freedom in Malaysia

Journalists shouted 'Free The Media' and 'Free The Heat' during the 'Red Pencil' protest in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Journalists shouted ‘Free The Media’ and ‘Free The Heat’ during the ‘Red Pencil’ protest in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Malaysian journalists and activists banded together and organized a ‘red pencil’ protest early this month in reaction to the decision of the Ministry of Home Affairs to suspend news weekly magazine The Heat for an indefinite period. Protesters accused authorities of suspending The Heat in retaliation for publishing a story on the spending habits of the Prime Minister and his wife.

More than 200 people gathered to demonstrate in downtown Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. Participants belonged to the Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm) or Angry Media Movement, a loose coalition of journalists which was formed to push for greater media freedom in the country.

During the protest, red pencils were broken in half to symbolize the violence perpetrated against the media. Fathi Aris Omar, spokesman of Geramm and editor of online media site Malaysiakini, explained further the meaning of the red pencil:

The red pencil represents journalists who were injured (in the past, by the authorities) and a culture of control by the powers that be.

Listen to the breaking sound. That is the suffering of journalists and the media when it is ‘broken'.

Geramm has eight demands addressed to the government. Aside from calling for the withdrawal of the suspension order against The Heat, the network is also pushing for the easing of the tight media regulation in the country. Some of the other demands include the following:

Abolish the publication permit which is made mandatory under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984.

Allow all media practitioners to cover government events and access to public buildings for news gathering purposes.

Apologise to media practitioners for any breach of media freedom and rights.

The controversial PPPA was invoked by the government when it suspended The Heat. Malaysian journalists and activists are demanding the repeal of the law which they argue institutionalizes media censorship in the country.

The appeal for the review of the law was supported by Christopher Leong, president of the Malaysian Bar:

It is an archaic piece of legislation that no longer holds any relevance in a modern democracy. The Act has been used and abused to influence, bully, intimidate, threaten and punish the press. Such legislative and governmental control of the press, including licensing regimes, should end.

Red pencils were broken in half to symbolize media violence in Malaysia. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Red pencils were broken in half to symbolize media violence in Malaysia. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Prominent activist and Bersih (clean) founder Ambiga Sreenavasan attended the protest and noted the political importance of the gathering:

This is one of the first times I have seen journalists come together fighting for this very important fight. I know you are not just fighting for online or specific media, you’re fighting for all journalists. For me, this is about your self-worth and integrity as journalists.

Ambiga founded the Bersih a few years ago to push for electoral reforms.

Meanwhile, journalist Eric Loo criticized mainstream media for tolerating censorship in the country. He asked Malaysian netizens and the alternative media to persist in reporting the truth:

Let’s refuse to buy their interpretation of political realities, their version of history. It’s time we tell our own stories and circulate online what we know to be true, stories that reflect today’s political realities than those framed by the mainstream media.

Alternative Malaysian TV station KiniTV has additional reporting on the ‘red pencil’ protest

January 11 2014

“No”, the Brilliant and Optimistic Campaign that Boosted a Revolution

“No” campaign logo. Released to public domain.

Augusto Pinochet, perpetrator of the 1973 coup d’etat in Chile, fell from power by the force of the ballot box in 1988. He is history’s only dictator who organized an election to decide his future, and was deposed democratically. As in any political race, there were campaigns supporting each side. The “Yes” was advocating for Pinochet’s reelection; the “No” aimed to put an end to the military dictatorship. Openly airing an advertising message against a military regime that controls the media is a heroic task, even today. But the “No” campaign used an optimistic message — bringing about a paradigm shift in the art of presenting raw and painful human rights issues — and with that was able to propel a revolution.

The 2012 film “No” by Pablo Larraín, tells the story – without being a documentary – of the October 5, 1988 referendum on Pinochet in a positive light. The central character – René Saavedra (Gabriel García Bernal) is a bright young advertising agency creative and the son of a well-respected opposition figure who returns to Chile after growing up in exile in Mexico. His talent and family background lead the “No” campaign leader, José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), ask him to participate in the strategy and design of the “fringe” (a name given to the official 15 minute television program used for political propaganda by all parties during elections).

At the beginning of the process, members of the Concertación (the group of opposition parties) wanted to show the vicious reality of the dictatorship: murders, tortures and disappearances, as a way to open people’s eyes and lean public opinion towards their just cause. René managed to convince the opposition to bet on selling democracy as a desirable product rather than emphasizing the dark realities of the present. “No” became the campaign that talked about the joy of living in freedom. And the “No” beat Pinochet.

It would be naive to think that an advertising campaign alone was able to overthrow a dictator. But it is interesting to consider the idea proposed by this campaign: re-thinking the way we advocate today by shifting the focus on the negative, the vile and painful towards hope and happiness and – why not humor – that the future may hold. In recent years, we have witnessed multiple revolutionary movements around the world, but also many instances of mass violence and injustice. Many of us have reached the point of an overload of messages of struggle that are so often disheartening. Media studies scholars like Wendy Johnston and Graham Davey have studied the ways in which this abundance of images and stories of atrocities online can be enough to leave one feeling apathetic, even helpless. It may be critical to find new ways to spread this sense of urgency towards achieving peace and freedom — many activists are doing this already, and finding great success. The humorous “No Woman, No Drive” (a spoof on Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”) video created by Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh to support the Women2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia is a terrific example of this kind of ingenuity — Syria Untold, a web platform that highlights creative and journalistic projects within the non-violent Syrian uprising, is another.

The harsh realities that people in these situations face still need to be documented and shared openly — but we can complement these narratives with humor, hope, and an optimistic approach towards realizing the changes this planet is looking for.

On a recent edition of GV Face, co-founder Ethan Zuckerman and GV editors Solana Larsen, Sahar Habib Ghazi, and Ellery Roberts Biddle discussed the ins and outs of “solutions journalism.”

January 10 2014

Award-Winning Egyptian Activists Receive One-Year Suspended Sentence

Prominent Egyptian activists Alaa Abd El Fattah, his sister Mona Seif, and ten others on January 5 received a one-year suspended sentence in a case in which they were accused of torching the headquarters of ex-Presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s campaign. This is one of many cases that has Egyptian and international activist communities worried about the government’s apparent backlash at those active in fueling the January 25 revolution in Egypt in 2011.

Tweet showing Mona Seif coming out of the court hall where she was just handed a one-year suspended sentence.

Alaa did not attend the court session. He has been detained since November 28, after being accused of organizing a protest in front of The Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's Parliament) without obtaining legal permission. Two days prior to the protest, legislators passed a law requiring all protest organizers to submit logistical information about planned protests to the Ministry of the Interior. Under the new policy, the Ministry reserves the right to (indefinitely) require a change of logistics. Practically speaking, this enables the Ministry to prevent protests from taking place, if it so chooses.

The protest in question was organized by the No to Military Trials for Civilians group, a campaign initiated by Mona Seif but of which her brother Alaa is not a member. The group has issued a press statement claiming responsibility for the organization of the protest. Members of the group have also filed a report with the public prosecutor claiming responsibility for the event. The protest, which took place on November 26, called for the abolishing of military trials for civilians in the new constitution which Egypt is to vote on later this month.

The protest was violently dispersed by the police roughly half an hour after it began. Police detained 11 women, most of them members of the No to Military Trials group, and 24 men. The women, all of whom were beaten and some of whom were sexually harassed while being detained, remained in custody for a few hours. They were then forced to ride a police car and thrown in the desert sometime after midnight. The men were detained for a week and are now released (except for one, Ahmed Abdel Rahman) pending investigation. Alaa was detained after police stormed his house two days later and accused him of organizing the protest. This allegation came despite the fact that Alaa waited outside the police station where his sister was detained on November 26 all evening until she was picked up by friends after police threw her and her colleagues in the desert. Although both Alaa and Ahmed Abdel Rahman have been detained for over a month pending investigation, no court date has been assigned yet for the case.

The suspended sentence should allow the activists to serve a period of probation, rather than jail time, on the condition that they abide by the law during this period.

These are not the only two cases currently in progress against prominent activists in Egypt. Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Mohamed Adel have all recently been given a hefty 3-year-sentence with hard labor in another case, in which they were also accused of organizing a protest without permit. Maher is the founder of the April 6 Youth group, and Adel is the group’s spokesperson. The three activists have also been each fined EGP 50,000 ($7,000) each, and would be put on probation for another three years if found guilty. The activists have appealed the sentence, but they currently remain in prison.

In Alexandria, long-time activists Mahinour El Masri and Hassan Mostafa, along with four others, were convicted of organizing a protest without permit, and were given two-year prison sentences and a fine of EGP 50,000 ($7,000) each. Hassan Mostafa had just been released from jail in November after the public prosecutor suspended a one-year-sentence he received for slapping a prosecutor while filing a complaint for torturing detainees.

Activists in Egypt believe these cases and others are merely political in nature, and meant to keep prominent activists behind bars while intimidating others to keep them away from the political process. The government passed the Protest Law in November claiming it was necessary to control the chaos created mostly by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in clashes with security forces that often turned violent. Since it has been put in effect however, the law has been used to crack down on all kinds of opposition, including peaceful protesters, and individuals and groups that have been closely associated with the January 25 revolution and its aftermath.

January 09 2014

Prison Flees: Reflections on Alaa, Activism, and Community

Adapted from Alaa’s own Twitter icon by Hugh D’Andrade. Free for reuse.

Adapted from Alaa’s own Twitter icon by Hugh D’Andrade. Free for reuse.

By Lina Attalah, Chief Editor, Mada Masr.

He has two hours of fresh air and 22 hours of cell air.

He discusses the constitution draft with other inmates from across the wall of his cell.

And then he reads. He mostly reads.

He is not receiving letters this time. Letters are barred.

But he is receiving books. Some books, not everything. Some are novels. Others are comics. And others are social theory.

He reads both comics and theory because he believes that we are both plumbers and philosophers; we, the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. We work and work and work on bits and pieces and then sit back and reflect on the whole that our work is gazing at. And sometimes we write about it.

When the revolution broke out and everyone celebrated the kids that came out of the Internet, Alaa, who had tirelessly spent years on the forefront of organizing online activism, reminded us how our encounter with technology became a way of living. Everyone celebrated the Facebook, the Twitter and the Blogosphere. Alaa was thinking of the community and the way in which activism was changing and differing from what he had heard about from his folks and from tales of the 1960s and 1970s.

Alaa rose to fame with the hype of the Egyptian blogosphere in the beginning of the millennia, the stars of which have been mostly young middle-class Egyptians. He believed in this new wave of activism and created with Manal, his partner, the famous Omraneya aggregator, which collected and archived blog entries and which was at times the house of alternative expression and at others the amplifier of muted voices. He often reminded us how at the same time that he and others were blogging in the heart of our cities, the youth of our slums scrambled to buy locally assembled computers. This all happened while the government announced the forming of colossal partnerships, promising to provide a laptop for every child in the context of some grand 2010 scheme. He also reminded us how bandwidth was already being shared by hundreds and supporting the livelihoods of dozens in the countryside and the slums every day, while it took years for the government and its service providers to promise connectivity for all.

While he spent years building websites around causes and campaigns and developing Arabization tools to make that sea of knowledge accessible, he sat back and observed how our social and political work is evolving on a multiplicity of levels: organization, the production of narrative, and ambition. He would talk about this evolution, and eventually write about it, but most importantly, he was actively thinking of how Internet tools should serve these changes.

When we set out to create Mada, which we commonly describe as a product of crisis and inevitability, Alaa and Manal naturally became our technology partners. When they sat with us to brainstorm on the website we would build, they made us think about the different ways we want to tell our stories, at a time when a mainstream narrative is dominating the news from Egypt. Being both techies and tellers, they made us think of technology as more than a sheer logistical tool, and more of a vehicle of possibility. For us, web development became less of a list of technical requests but more a process of carving out a space for expression, where prose would unfold in performance, and so would the visual narration, and other unknown forms of storytelling.

What happens when you confiscate a computer from a kid for whom technology has become a trigger for thinking, an entry point to philosophy, to a new and emerging social theory?

This is not theory crafted by academics or theorists, but rather by the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. And this is theory born out of practise. The computer and the tools are no prison companions. But the thinking is. It is a prison companion for Alaa and also for us, who strive to fetch for his presence in his absence, through written correspondence, memory and imaginary conversations.

In his incarceration, Alaa continues to exist, by reading, by talking, by eventually writing and most importantly, by staying in conversation with us. It takes a leap of faith to be in conversation with a prisoner today. We do it because we are capable of imagining and because his thinking transcends time and space.

In the grandeur of analysis and punditry, we are deemed the losers of the margins today in Egypt’s dazed revolution. But we remain the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. That is so long as we read and write and talk and continue to exist.

This article originally appeared on Mada Masr.

Lebanon: SMEX Tracks Web Filtering Through Research, Crowdsourcing

Casino du Liban. Photo by HAL_ via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Casino du Liban. Photo by HAL_ via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The original version of this post appeared on SMEX.

As co-director of Social Media Exchange, a small non-profit that promotes the strategic use of new media for civic participation and advocacy in the Arab World, I have spent much of this year researching blocked websites in Lebanon. This past summer, I was able to obtain web blocking data from a Lebanese Internet service provider.

Of various sites blocked, cases that stood out included one site that played a key role in uncovering child molestation allegations against a Lebanese priest, a series of unauthorized gambling sites, and Israel-based sites related to commerce.

In October 2013, Lebanese Priest Mansour Labaki was convicted by the Vatican of child molestation. He was sentenced to a “life of penitence,” a decision that triggered outrage from his family and supporters who insisted that he was innocent and requested an appeal. In contrast, others in the civil society wanted his case to be transferred to a civil court where he would be condemned and sent to jail for his actions.

In the midst of the drama, the website that exposed the priest and documented stories of the victims was blocked inside Lebanon.

The Priest Labaki scandal website was blocked under Lebanon's libel and defamation law, despite the fact that he was convicted of the crime by the Vatican. The decision to block the site exemplifies the power that some religious institutions wield over Lebanon's judicial system.

Nine gambling sites were blocked in Lebanon in 2013. Casino Du Liban, established first in the Middle East in 1959, has had a legal monopoly over this industry in Lebanon since 1995. @sygma refreshed our memories in last summer's debate [ar] about its status: “Decree 6919 of June 29 1995, Casino du Liban was given monopoly over all gambling activities to protect public morals.” Therefore blocking the nine gambling websites is justified, from a legal perspective, despite the fact that it is easy to bypass filtering.

Lebanon is also blocking six Israeli websites under the economy and trade law. The Ministry of Economy and Commerce administrates the Arab League boycott on Israel and thus is responsible for restricting a range of economic and trade relations between Lebanon and Israel. Concurrently, Israeli authorities are also blocking Lebanese IPs from accessing two websites, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and TASE, a website that provides employment information.

While we can debate the legality of blocking specific websites, we cannot support the lack of information and transparency surrounding the process. A state needs more than legal support to function and survive: It needs community input and support to remind them that some laws — such as the libel and defamation laws — are in need of new amendments, and that unblocking gambling sites can create economic opportunity. Most importantly, we need to have all this in place to call on our politicians and public officials to account for their actions.

The technical methodology through which we obtained these results will not be published here, but we hope to make it available in the future. In recent days, we've begun receiving messages leading us to believe that web blocking in Lebanon is applied inconsistently across ISPs. To try to gather more information about this interesting phenomenon, we’ve made our Google spreadsheet public and added columns for ISPs. Through crowdsourcing, we can try to map what’s actually going on in the country with regard to blocking of websites. Please test the URLs and add your results, or if you find other blocked URLs, add them too. The following Maharat Foundation article [ar] also offers useful information about the blocking.

January 06 2014

Minister Offers $2000 Reward To Unmask Zambian Watchdog Editors

A Zambian government minister has offered a US$2000 reward to anyone who can unmask the identity of people behind independent media website Zambian Watchdog for writing stories and printing pictures alleging infidelity against him.

In a counter-offer, the Zambian Watchdog has offered iPads and other tablets to people with what they call “credible information” on an alleged extra-marital romantic affair of Miles Sampa, Zambia's Junior Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry. Sampa, a senior member of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), sued the independent social news website Kachepa 360 (which is no longer available online) for defamation and was awarded US$50,000 in damages by a United States court early last year.

The Minister made his offer after the Zambian Watchdog published a story alleging that he recently travelled to the Northern provincial town of Kasama to dish out money to party cadres to stir trouble after local parliamentarian Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba announced his resignation as Minister of Defense.

The Watchdog quoted Sampa as saying:

I don’t care whether they are hiding in London or wherever they are. I recently won damages in the United States and I have no qualms about pursuing people that spread falsehoods [in reference to the Watchdog]

Sampa continued his commentary on his Facebook page, insinuating that these news items were a form of “cyber crime”:

I am making an appeal to all upright and noble people. If anyone knows the name and address of a man or woman, local or abroad, that writes or is an agent for Publishers of falsehood or are into character assassination on the Internet or Facebook for political expediency or just for fan [fun], please inbox me those details or text to [number given]

A reward of K10,000(rebased) [Zambia recently rebased her currency by removing three zeroes from it] or $2000 if abroad will be availed to Senders of bonafide details sent.

Full confidentiality is guaranteed to all informers and reward will be via Western Union if not in person. My hobby for 2014 and on behalf of all those who feel they are victims of this cyber crime, is to locate the abusers so they can see the inside of a court room nearest to their physical address anywhere on this planet.

Sampa added:

Those who enjoy defaming other people be it politicians, should be brave enough to validate their stories in court.

The Zambian Watchdog reproduced Sampa’s post on its Facebook page and in its response, stated:

We (Zambian Watchdog) are also appealing to anyone who knows any of Miles Sampa’s current concubines to tell us. You can ‘inbox’ us just here or email to editor@zambiawatchdog

If you send us credible data, we shall send you an Ipad or Kindle for you to continue browsing the Watchdog. But make no mistake, a courier will deliver the Ipad or Kindle to you but you will never know from which direction it came from.

And for you Sampa, take notice that we [are] with you.

Commenting on the Zambian Watchdog Facebook post, Kaluku Musumadi advised Sampa to stay away from the fight with the news website:

This hide and seek (Tom & Jerry) between Miles and the ZW Dog will be getting out of hand. Miles must just learn to ignore such because the more he “pulls his sleeves to clinch a fist,” the dog is also jumping for another bite of him. Learn to ignore certain media nonsense and their attention on you will eventually shift to other hotter subjects.

Several Zambian journalists have in the past been arrested on trumped up charges on suspicion of being linked to the Zambian Watchdog.

 

Related stories, all by Gershom Ndhlovu

Minister Ridiculed Over Website Closure Statement

Another Journalist Arrested in Zambia

Journalist Charged With Sedition in Zambia

Zambia: ISP Faces Backlash Over Blocked News Site

Zambia: VP “Would Celebrate” Shutdown of News Site

Zambia: Minister Threatens Editors of Online Watchdog with Treason Charge

Egypt: The Muppets Intelligence Agency

Look into the beady evil eyes of terrorism, via @SooperMexican

Look into the beady evil eyes of terrorism, via @SooperMexican

On one of Egypt's most famous talk shows, the screen was split in two. A Muppet-like character occupied one side of the screen — on the other side, a menacing teenager threatened to throw the puppet in jail. The show's host moderated the debate between the two, Abla Fahita, the puppet, and Ahmed Spider, the teenage-looking conspiracy theorist.

Such a scene would be fine if the show were a satire, but it is not. Last week, Ahmed Spider made an official complaint against Vodafone Egypt and puppet character Abla Fahita, who appeared in one of their advertisements, accusing them of sending hidden messages to terrorists in the ad. The complaint was subsequently referred to state security prosecutors, who deal with cases involving terrorism and security threats. The prosecutors have since brought officials from Vodafone Egypt in for questioning. The list of suspected spies and terrorist allies in Egypt already includes a pigeon, a stork and a shark – now we can add Abla Fahita the puppet and her daugher, Carolina, aka Carcoura, to the list.

In response to the news, Paul Sedra ‏tweeted:

@sedgate: With the Abla Fahita investigation, #Egypt once again challenges North Korea for the title of most paranoid state on earth.

Many Egyptian netizens could only deal with the news through sarcasm.

@Cairo67Unedited: If anyone from TV calls asking 2 use ur Kitten in their next phone ad #Egypt hang up on them:Next thing u know cat is on trial

Abla Fahita portrayed as a revolutionary Che Guevara -  via @khlud_hafeez

Abla Fahita portrayed as Che Guevara – via @khlud_hafeez

Nevine Zaki mocked Abla Fahita calling her the Che Guevara of our generation.

May Sadek and Pakinam Amer tweeted about the puppet, who now has more than 1 million fans on Facebook, and is no less than a revolutionary figure.

@maysadek: ‘F’ for fahita. Not as strong as ‘V’ for vendetta .. But it'll do the job fine..#ablafahita

@pakinamamer: Abla Fahita should lead the next revolution. She'd be our V. The faceless resistance. #3abath #Surrealism

@MohAnis: Rumor has it that #ablafahita is seeking asylum with the muppet show or sesame street.

Satirical comments kept on drawing laughs on social media.

@_amroali: #Egypt has saved the world from a big terrorist threat not seen since the Muppets tried to take Manhattan #AblaFahita

@HoudaBelabd: #Egypt: Ministry of Interior is actually recording phone calls and Facebook conversations between #AblaFahita & Mickey Mouse!

@anasaltikriti: After the Vodafone puppet fiasco, are there any more sensible people out there who respect the coup government?

@AyaYousry: The #AblaFahita story made it to The Economist under “Silly Season in Egypt

Rumors also suggested that SpongeBob SquarePants may be the next suspect. A question was asked on Google Ejabat wondering whether the cartoon character is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood given the fact it is yellow and has four fingers — just like the banners of Rabia.

Rabia banner, via @Rassd_Now

Raba logo, via @Rassd_Now

Out of the fear of getting arrested for using the Rabia logo as their avatar [after Egypt outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood], some social media users created alternative logos.

Alternative Rabia logos via @nsfadala

Alternative Raba logos via @nsfadala

On a more a serious note, Mohamed ElGohary wondered whether the Egyptian government is using the case as a vehicle for blackmailing Vodafone Egypt:

Earlier in November Bloomberg published that “Telecom Egypt May Buy Vodafone Local Division When 4G Is Offered“. Personally I don't want for this acquiring to happen, since it will decrease/eliminate competition in mobile/4G emerging market .. The million dollar question here, as Vodafone actually wants to buy the government stakes, is this BS accusation a dirty step for blackmailing/forcing Vodafone Egypt to comply to what the government wants?

The Facebook page of Kazeboon published the following image that asks which cases prosecutors investigate and which ones they don't.

Kazeboon wondeing about which cases the prosecutors investigate and which ones they ignore

When human rights organizations call for opening investigations with Vodafone [Ar], after illegal recording for activists are being leaked from the state security, but the general prosecutor ignores them, and only wakes up when Spider calls for investigations with the same company because of Abla Fahita, then it is safe to call Egypt The Muppet Show. (via Kazeboon)

Sarah Carr compared Ahmed Spider to Glenn Beck in her blog post about Abla Fahita's case:

Every country has its Glenn Beck type public figures, the difference in Egypt is that they are taken seriously where it suits the political ambitions of those at the reins and serves a useful purpose. Thus we have the Public Prosecutor accepting a complaint about a finger puppet while nobody has been charged for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Rab3a, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated. If there was a page equivalent to We Are All Khaled Said now it would be Turns Out We Are All Adolf Hitler. Comedy and tragedy often overlap.

Finally, Holly Dagres tweeted:

@PoliticallyAff: Although we're getting a good laugh from Abla Fahita, it shouldn't shift our focus from @Repent11 and rest of imprisoned AJE staff #Egypt

Censorship, Prosecution Drive Exodus of Opinion Leaders from China's Sina Weibo

Screen capture of Sina Weibo message when the user click open a deleted page.

Screen capture of Sina Weibo message when a user opens a deleted page.

Famous law professor at Peking University He Weifang greeted his followers in the new year on Sina Weibo, China's most popular social media platform, with a goodbye message. The professor, who has often been attacked online for his support of constitution rights, is one of many opinion leaders who have fled the microblogging website since China has upped its censorship and prosecution efforts.

He wrote:

【祝新年】各位本微博之友:新年来临之际,谨表达真诚的祝福和感谢!三年里,你们给了我很多鼓励,从评论中我也学到不少新知。美好的交流让我在虚拟空间里寻觅到真实的情感。过去一年里,眼看着一个又一个我熟悉的博主从这里消失,心中不免怅然。于我,是将本微博告一段落的时刻了。再见!

[Wish you well in New Year] I express sincere wishes and thanks to Weibo friends with the coming of the new year! You have given me encouragement and I've learned plenty of new knowledge from your comments. Good communication lets me find true feelings in a virtual space. I've felt upset seeing some familiar accounts gradually disappear throughout the past year. So now it’s the time for me to call it quits with Weibo. Goodbye!

Popular citizen lawyer Yuan Yulai pitied He:

2014第一天,贺卫方说要告别微博。但愿只是一时的情绪宣泄。这年头,没微博,就是哑巴。尽量说些真话,是一种社会责任,同时也是一种生理需要。

Professor He said he plans to leave Weibo on the first day in 2014. I wish it’s just a temporary emotional response. Without Weibo, people would be dumber nowadays. Speaking the truth is a social responsibility and a physical need.

Fan Zhongxin, a law teacher, is also considering quitting Weibo:

【是否该休博?】微博敏感词与日俱增,删帖禁言销号日益严重,很多朋友退出微博,微博一片萧条肃杀,温和改良的声音越来越没有人愿意听。我是否也该退出了!新一年了,也许不该再耗时间在微博上费口舌,对国家和社会该做的且实际有益的事情太多了!

[Is it about time to quit Weibo?] Sensitive words are increasing, meanwhile the phenomena of deletion, censorship and banning user accounts are so common. Many friends have quit Weibo and gone silent. The atmosphere on Weibo is so chilling. Meanwhile, moderate voices and discussion of political transformation have received less and less responses. Should I quit Weibo as well? Facing a new year, maybe I shouldn't spend too much time talking on the platform. There are too many more effective things that I should do for the nation and for society.

China's crackdown on online “rumor-mongering”, widely seen as a movement to suppress criticism of the ruling Communist Party (CCP), has effectively silenced Weibo, with high-profile bloggers reining in sensitive posts for fear of detention. Since the launch of the nationwide campaign in August 2013, hundreds of people have been detained across the country on charges of libel or “inciting trouble” for posting unverified or critical information on Weibo.

In addition, China's top court fueled public fear by publishing a judicial interpretation in September that said users can be prosecuted for posting rumors seen by more than 5,000 people, or forwarded more than 500 times. The main target of the crackdown are liberal public opinion leaders, in particular, citizen right lawyers and activists, whose Weibo accounts have been banned or deleted.

Data by Weiboreach, a firm providing social media data analysis, showed the number of posts by influential microbloggers was on average 11.2 percent lower per day in August than it was earlier in the year.

Below is a list of prominent public opinion leaders who have been prosecuted and harassed in the past few months:

- Xu Zhiyong, an anti-corruption campaigner who has called for officials to disclose their wealth, was arrested in August and his account on Weibo was deleted.

- Wang Gongquan, an outspoken venture capitalist, was taken away by police in September on charges of disturbing public order after he helped lead a campaign for the release of another activist.

- Pu Zhiqiang, a citizen right lawyer, has seen his account in Weibo banned and he has to change his account names to publish posts.

Xu, Pu and Wang are all listed on Foreign Policy’s Global 100 Thinkers of 2013.

- Zhu Ruifeng, one of China's most prominent whistleblowers, discovered that authorities had deleted his four microblog accounts in July after he released a video of a district party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing having sex with a mistress.

- Liu Hu, an investigative journalist who has accused deputy director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce of dereliction of duty, was arrested on a charge of defamation in September, and his Weibo account removed.

- Zhang Lifan, a prominent scholar of modern Chinese history and outspoken critic of Mao Zedong, found that all of his microblogs and columns were removed simultaneously without warning or any tip-off on the same day the Third Plenum of the Communist Party ended.

- Zhang Xuezhong, a law associate professor in Shanghai critical of Marxism and excessive political infringement on judiciary, was forced to quit his job and lost his Weibo account.

- Zhang Qianfan, a constitutional law expert at Peking University and one of the leaders of the constitutionalist movement, also found that his account was deleted.

While the ruling party certainly gains an upper hand in the ideological battle, it is also slowly killing Sina Weibo, a tool to build trust among people. Chinese venture capitalist Wang Ran lamented the situation:

和微信上的各种爆料比,微博也快成新闻联播了。

In comparison with breaking news in WeChat, Weibo is turning into Central Television's National News Broadcast Program [party propaganda].

Popular online commentator and Sina Weibo administrator Old Xu proclaimed the coming death of Weibo:

微博成为新闻联播,那就离死不远了!

Weibo would be close to death when it becomes [state-owned] CCTV News!

January 03 2014

Chinese Netizens (and Political Discourse) Migrate to WeChat

A few weeks ago, an Internet freedom researcher asked me: What were the most significant developments in the Chinese Internet in 2013? My answer: The rise of WeChat as a social media and communication platform. She spoke with several scholars and media workers in Hong Kong and mainland China who felt the same way.

At a December 2013 forum entitled “How the Government Can Improve Governance Through Better Communication” at Fudan University, one conclusion was: WeChat has replaced Weibo as the main platform for opinion-making in mainland China.

According to the findings of an audience study released in the forum, the Internet is the second most popular medium among citizens — television remains the first. On average, an Internet user in mainland China spends 2.92 hours online. The three most popular online tools are (in descending order) chatting tools, news sites, and search engines. Users’ primary motivations are “searching for news and perspectives that cannot be found on TV and radio”; “getting access to insider information”; and “maintaining ones’ own social circle”.

People's Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Unit director Zhu Huaxin (祝華新)pointed out that, while government mouthpieces and authorities have successfully dominated Weibo, WeChat has replaced Weibo as the most important platform for public opinion making. He warned against the further repression of speech on public platforms like Weibo, arguing that “when public opinion is formed on private communication platforms like WeChat, social discontent cannot be relieved.”

The latest figures from Tecent show that WeChat's had over 600 million users in October 2013, about half of whom are active users. In February of 2013, Sina Weibo's registered users numbered roughly 536 million, but with less than 50 million active users.

The popularity of WeChat is related to its integration with people's need to communicate and their impulses as consumers. It has multiple privacy settings ranging from Peer to Peer Chat, to secret groups, open groups, public platforms where people can subscribe to friends’ news feeds. WeChat also offers a payment system that connects users’ bank accounts to apps for all kinds of online and offline transactions.

Despite the fact that WeChat is notorious for its spying practices, many Chinese activists are using the tool for communication.

Radio Free Asia recently interviewed Wang Zhang, the founder of an online forum on Chinese Discursive Power to comment on the censorship practice of Weibo and WeChat. Wang pointed out that WeChat seldom deletes post, whereas Weibo censors regularly screen and delete posts, creating a chilling effect among users. For many, Weibo largely has been turned into an echo chamber for official patriotic memes like “Without Motherland, You are Nothing” or public relations campaign such as Chinese president Xi Jinping's recent steam buns meal.

However, Wang is also aware of the fact that sensitive posts on WeChat may not be delivered to his contacts. WeChat user Hua Chunhui reported on Twitter that WeChat has also set up a “report” system for “illegal content” through which he witnessed a critical piece of information vanishing from his group chat timeline.

A human rights lawyer told Global Voices that even though activist circles know that they are under surveillance, WeChat is still a better platform for activities like community building. Its privacy settings can filter away 50 cents [government paid online commentators] and infiltrators whose mere aim is to disrupt communication.

Wang Zhang told Radio Free Asia that with the ideology battle that has been underway since August 2013 and the criminalization of “rumor mongering” in September, both liberal opinion leaders and ordinary netizens have withdrawn from the Weibo public sphere and migrated to WeChat or other private platforms. As WeChat becomes more influential in forming public opinion, Wang worries that freedom on WeChat will shrink.

December 30 2013

A Different Kind of Free Speech

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

Today is the birthday of the friend of the youth, our Mr. President. I sincerely congratulate you on behalf of “Azerbaijani Youth Alliance” public union and myself. I wish you lots of luck in all the work you do for turning our Azerbaijan in the worlds most strongest states! We are proud of you!

She was wishing him a happy birthday, on Facebook. The man’s whose birthday she was so candidly celebrating was Ilham Aliyev, the current President of a small country called Azerbaijan. She is a young woman from Baku who works for a government institution.

Reading the message was heart wrenching. At the time of its writing, there are people behind bars for doing something not unlike what this user was doing – expressing their opinions. Perhaps this young woman doesn’t know them, but I do. They are not hooligans or terrorists — they represent no threat. They are innocent men who have families and friends waiting for them to get out.

According to the Baku-based Human Rights Club, currently there are 142 people “in detention or imprisoned for politically motivated reasons” in Azerbaijan. The comprehensive list includes the names of journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, activists, religious figures and others. To be more precise, this group includes ten journalists and bloggers; two human rights defenders; eleven youth activists (so much for the caring love and compassion of the president); six political activists; seventy-four religious activists; seventeen people (of various background including police, former employees of the executive authorities, militia, and former prime ministers) serving lifetime prison sentences; and nineteen cases involving other politically motivated charges.

On December 18 of this year, Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) landed behind bars on charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship (failure to obtain proper institutional permits) and “abuse of office” (Criminal Code Article 308.3), suggesting that he sought to interfere with election results. Mammadli’s arrest was seen as yet another politically motivated move by the government.

The EMDS Center is one of the few independent election observation bodies that does transparent work and publishes its findings in Azerbaijan. When the case against EMDS was originally brought in late October, following national elections, the Center’s offices were searched and equipment, reports, news releases and financial documents were confiscated.

Overall, 2013 was not a good year for human rights in Azerbaijan. While many protests shook the country starting in early January of this year, organizers and participants in these protests are now paying a high price for their activism. Advocates who share information with foreign media and international institutions have been warned. In a recent speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aid and regime loyalist argued that it is the “Western influence” and so-called “donor grants” that are corrupting the minds of Azerbaijanis and letting them “engage in an anti- Azerbaijani activity for some AZN 2,000-3,000 (approximately EUR 2,000-3,000).”

Last year, Azerbaijan hosted the 7th international Internet Governance Forum — the annual multistakeholder meeting organized by the United Nations to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet. Many government representatives attending the event repeated over and over again that human rights, press freedom and Internet freedom were all doing just fine in Azerbaijan. Ironically, as over 1500 international delegates attended the event, at least eight journalists and three human rights defenders were serving prison terms for criticizing public officials and for writing on sensitive government issues. All were sentenced on dubious charges.

A year later, similar remarks and statements were heard during the 8th annual Internet Governance Forum, held in Bali, Indonesia. A session titled “Azerbaijani government open forum building bridges: elimination of the digital divide” brought together a panel of like-minded people praising each other and commenting on successful partnership rather than on the pressing issues in Azerbaijan. This affable atmosphere was interrupted with a question from the audience on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and government persecution of activists. Nariman Hajiyev, an Azerbaijani government representative to the United Nations, responded: “I could easily say there are no concrete human rights violations or concrete freedom of speech [violations].”

The Azerbaijani government is working hard to present a rosy picture of our country abroad. Government supporters — like the young woman wishing Aliyev a happy birthday — have helped this effort. Like anyone else, she used the Internet to express her views on government activities — she’s exercising her right to free speech. But this woman will not find herself in jail. She will get a pat on a shoulder and a golden star for her immaculate behavior. How many more gold stars will be issued and innocent lives ruined before things really change?

 

Arzu Geybullayeva is an Azerbaijani blogger and regional analyst based in Istanbul.

December 23 2013

Facing New Licensing Rules, Leading Political News Site Closes in Singapore

breakfastA Singaporean news site known as Breakfast Network was forced to close down after it rejected “onerous” new government registration requirements. Founded by former Straits Times journalist and blogger Bertha Henson, the site features social and political news and commentary. Henson elected to cease website operations after failing to submit documents demanded by the Media Development Authority (MDA). Despite warnings from the MDA, Breakfast Network is maintaining an online presence through its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Under a section of the Broadcasting (Class License) Act introduced last June, a corporate entity or website providing political commentary must register with the MDA to ensure that it does not receive foreign funding. Aside from revealing its funding source, the website must submit the personal information of its editors and staff.

Breakfast Network was ordered by the MDA to register on or before December 17 but the website editor said the government’s technical requirements and registration forms contained too many vague provisions.

For its part, the MDA said the “registration requirement is simply to ensure that Breakfast Network will not receive foreign funding.” It directed Breakfast Network to “cease its online service,” including its Facebook and Twitter publications:

Since Breakfast Network has decided not to submit the registration form, and will therefore not be complying with the registration notification, MDA will require that Breakfast Network cease its online service.

MDA would like to reiterate that the content is not the issue. Rather, it is the mode of operation, i.e. via a corporate entity which means there is greater possibility for foreign influence. Should Breakfast Network Pte Ltd remain active as a company, it must not operate any iteration of www.breakfastnetwork.sg on other Internet platforms as doing so would contravene MDA’s registration requirements. These other Internet platforms include Breakfast Network’s Facebook page and Twitter Feed.

Netizens and media groups quickly denounced the “overly-intrusive requirements” imposed by the government and warned against excessive media regulation. Cherian George described the site's closure as “death by red tape.” Braema Mathi of the human rights group Maruah worried that the “registration requirement has chilled and reduced the space for free expression in Singapore.” She continued:

As a regulator tasked with developing the media landscape in Singapore, MDA should consider the substantive impact of its decisions, not just its own subjective intent. Registration requirements can operate to censor free expression as effectively as, and more insidiously than, outright demands to remove content.

Blogger Ng E-Jay accused the government of being a “highly sophisticated oppressor” by “forcing the removal via legislation” of a website that is known for advocating “constructive and critical dialogue” in the country.

MDA insisted that it merely implemented a policy that seeks to prevent foreign interests from manipulating the local media. It added that the registration procedure is not a form of censorship.

Nevertheless, the closure of a leading socio-political website has put a spotlight on what the Singaporean government calls a “light touch“ approach Internet regulation. Many groups believe this and other new policies are undermining media freedom in the country.

December 21 2013

Zambia: Register Your SIM Card, or Lose Your Service

Mobile phone shop in Lusaka. Photo by Curious Lee (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mobile phone shop in Lusaka. Photo by Curious Lee (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In autumn of 2012, the Zambian government issued a new policy requiring citizens to register their mobile phone SIM cards, using their real identities. Now they are threatening to deactivate services on mobile phones with unregistered SIMs.

Mobile service providers in Zambia mainly offer pay-as-you-go services, meaning that mobile phone customers can acquire SIM cards anonymously and pay for air time as needed. Many Zambians also rely on their mobile phones to access the Internet. This is critical, given that dial-up and broadband services are not only expensive but poorly distributed throughout the country.

Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) stated that citizens must register their SIM cards by December 31, 2013, or they will begin to lose certain services. Phones will be fully de-registered by February 15, 2014 if owners do not comply with the registration order.

An MTN call to its subscribers to register their SIM cards.

An MTN call to its subscribers to register their SIM cards.

Citizen media website Zambia Reports quoted Communications and Transport junior minister Colonel Panji Kaunda saying subscribers would have a window of up to February 15 when their SIM cards would be completely de-registered.

Kaunda reportedly said that 5,360,093 SIM cards were registered as of December 16, out of a total of 10,343,527 mobile phone subscribers in the country.

On Facebook, media worker John Chola, apparently after receiving a promotional message from one mobile phone service provider, wrote:

“Your number will be disconnected if it is not registered by December 31, 2013. Visit your nearest MTN Agent or Zampost to register your SIM card today!”
Isn't this appaling and silly coming to one who has done so more than twice and even made several stopovers to verify with a particualr service provider? Go ahead cut them off, am out!

One comment on Chola’s post by Mwamba Kanyanta reads:

[…] I have been opting out on as many promotional messages as possible from these carriers. Receiving a message like the one ba (Mr) Chola got can be very irritating considering that he had just done the needful.. Does the law oblige a subscriber to disseminate the ZICTA message? If I register my sims, I shouldn't be made to preach to my neighbour about sim registration. In fact, campaigns of threats never yield tangible results. By January, no single sim will have been blocked. Bet?

When ZICTA announced SIM card registration last September, the agency warned that failure to register SIM cards after the deadline would result in SIM deactivation, leaving subscribers unable to communicate. The action by ZICTA was in apparent compliance with the Information Communication Technologies (ICT) Act No.15 of 2009 and the Statutory Instrument on the Registration of Electronic Communication Apparatus No. 65 of 2011.

When ZICTA initially faced resistance from mobile phone users, it explained that the mandatory registration of SIM cards was being done to create a security data base for users.

December 18 2013

Dozens Detained on Human Rights Day in Cuba

“We salute the party congress.” A 2011 pro-government rally in Havana. Photo by Reno Massola, labeled for reuse.

On Human Rights Day this year, somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred people — including punk rockers, intellectuals, dissidents, and a pair of Argentine tourists – were detained in Cuba.

Several were taken into police custody outside the home of Antonio Rodiles, the embattled organizer of Estado de SATS, an independent intellectual forum with a strong web presence. Rodiles held a small, two-day human rights conference at his home in Havana that became a hub of activist and police activity on December 10 and 11.

Twitter users reported that throughout Havana opposition activists trying to make their way to Human Rights Day events were stopped and detained by state security officials. Conflicting accounts have made it difficult to confirm precisely how many people were detained. According to friends of Rodiles, state security officers surrounded his home the night before the event began, stopping participants en route to the house.

The next morning, organizers were faced with a new obstacle: teenagers. A group of secondary school students arrived outside Rodiles’ home and remained there throughout the day, playing games, singing songs, and reciting political slogans.

Artist and opposition blogger Lia Villares described an absurd scene of bloggers, activists, friends and family gathered inside Rodiles’ home and attempting to focus on their conversations, while students loudly sang and chanted patriotic slogans outside. Villares suspected the students were brought to the site by State Security, in a deliberate attempt to disrupt the event. She tweeted:

They’ve brought a group of secondary school students in front of the house, typical manipulation, the S.E. [state security] doesn’t show its face, it uses minors instead

Some hours later, she continued:

#DDHHCuba2013 the high school students recite poetry and do skits about children’s rights, shouting “fidel” they sing a chorus

Upon exiting the house, several participants were arrested, including Rodiles. Boris Larramendi, a Cuban musician based in Spain who performed at the event, told Diario de Cuba:

Llevaban rato allá afuera, pensábamos que no iban a hacer nada (las autoridades) delante de todos esos niños, pero de pronto miro y veo que hay una molotera, que les están dando golpes y que los están arrastrando.

They stayed outside for a little while and we thought they weren’t going to do anything in front of all those kids, but then I look and I see there is a whole mess of people, that they’re hitting and dragging people away.

Among others arrested were bloggers Calixto Martinez and Walfrido López and filmmaker Kizzy Macias. Multiple sources reported on the arrest of political punk rock musician Gorki Aguila, who has been detained and imprisoned several times in recent years. Other arrests took place around the city, but it has been difficult to track and verify reports. The Miami Herald estimated that over 150 arrests took place in total, and reported on December 12 that police had freed all of those taken into custody on December 10 and 11.

Arrests were not limited to Cubans — two Argentine tourists, both active PRO (right wing) party supporters who had heard about the event online, were arrested shortly after arriving. A group of college students from the US, traveling the world with the academic tourism program Semester at Sea, somehow found their way to the event but were spared detention.

Yohandry Fontana, a mysterious online figure regarded by many as the digital voice of state security, tweeted that Rodiles was arrested for “attacking children” on the street.

I confirm that Antonio Rodiles was detained for attacking and insulting children who were playing in the street, as part of their play time.

Although friends of Rodiles documented the event on camera, the resulting video is somewhat overproduced, making it difficult to determine the veracity of the footage.

Iroel Sanchez, an outspoken pro-government blogger, wrote a long post decrying activists and foreign media who portrayed the circus outside Rodiles’ home as an injustice. He described the organizers of the forum as “those who ask for a stronger blockade, who depict themselves as terrorists and receive technology and money to deliver falsehoods about Cuba.” 

In a similar vein, Yohandry Fontana later tweeted:

Antonio Rodiles es un pagado por la Fundación Cubano Americana (terroristas) para provocar violencia en #Cuba #DDHHCuba

— Yohandry Fontana (@Yohandry8787) December 11, 2013

Antonio Rodiles is paid by the Cuban National Foundation (terrorists) to provoke violence in #Cuba #DDHHCuba

Rodiles has been a target of state security for some time and has been arrested in the past. There is some evidence of Rodiles communicating and sharing information with US government agencies that sponsor “democracy development” programs in Cuba, a controversial activity that is forbidden by the Cuban government. Fontana's allegation that he is associated with the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, a longtime advisor and supporter of conservative federal lawmakers in South Florida, is not a baseless claim. But the character of Rodiles’ advocacy efforts and the tone of the intellectual debates he convenes are not entirely consistent with those of Miami's old-guard exile community. Rodiles’ messages are often rooted in international human rights doctrine – freedom of expression and access to information are hallmarks of his discursive style.

While many of the island's most prominent human rights activists are now known to receive support from the US government, there are those who genuinely want change but do not want to associate with foreign interests. It is this small minority that may prove most interesting in Cuba's near political future.

December 17 2013

In Some China's Ethnic Minority Regions, Internet Blackouts Are the Norm

Student-led protest in Chabcha county, Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Photo by Students for a Free Tibet via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Student-led protest in Chabcha county, Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Photo by Students for a Free Tibet via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

… as we approached Aba County, something changed. I stopped getting messages on WeChat and QQ, China’s most popular mobile apps…When I tried to load e-mail, an error occurred: “Could not authenticate cellular data network: PDP authentication failure.” I still had a signal—the little 3G icon was there and everything. But the signal didn’t seem to contain any data.

Stories of Internet censorship in China often focus on surveillance and social media filtering, practices that violate the rights to free expression and privacy of all users in mainland China. But those living in remote, embattled ethnic minority regions of the country face a far more bleak reality when it comes to using the Internet.

Prolonged network shutdowns have become a regular occurrence in Uyghur and Tibetan minority regions of western China, as Christopher Beam describes in the New Republic article quoted above. Chinese authorities believe that foreign forces, such as the Tibetan Government in Exile and World Uyghur Congress are involved in the organization of separatist activities in China. Seeking to contain unrest and discontent in conflict areas, authorities have imposed Internet shutdowns, depriving individuals of their right to communication online. In some extreme cases, network shutdowns have extended to local mobile networks.

This kind of “political punishment” began in Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures with 2008 political riots in Lhasa. The Internet was shutdown in March of 2008, and briefly restored in December 2008, only to be cut off again a few months later when the first self-immolation protest took place. Internet access has remained unstable in the area ever since.

According to Tibetan dissident writer Woeser's blog, Internet and mobile SMS connections for more than 18 counties from Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture were cut off from the global Internet for at least three months beginning in February 2009. A number of counties in Aba Prefecture, predominantly Tibetan, suffered a similar fate. Connection disruptions now have become a norm in conflict areas where self-immolation protests and anti-government demonstrations are frequent. Most recently, a network shutdown occurred in Diru county, following protests against a policy that required Tibetans in a local village to put Chinese national flags on their rooftops.

The Xinjiang region, mainly populated by the Muslim Uyghur minority group, has faced similar challenges. Amid protests in 2009, residents faced a nearly year-long Internet shutdown and were even deprived of telephone service for a week at the height of the unrest. Since then, network disruptions have happened on a smaller scale during politically sensitive periods. In March 2013, protests erupted after a seven-year-old Uyghur boy was stabbed to death by a Han Chinese in Piqan county of Turpan Prefecture, leading to a three-day Internet blackout. This past June, the Internet was again shut down temporarily in Urumqi to stop the spread of rumors related to forced demolitions in Piqan county — 27 people were killed [zh] in riots during a violent confrontation between protestors and police surrounding the demolitions.

These shutdowns have violated citizens’ rights to communication of expression, and have left them unable to seek information, goods, and services through the Internet. They have also given local authorities a monopoly on information — control over news and analysis of these regional conflicts now sits firmly in the hands of the government.

For example, the above-mentioned demolition protest in Piqan county was characterized as a “terrorist attack” by state media. When the Uyghur community attempted to report on the situation, spreading an alternative version of the story using Sina Weibo, the Internet blackout expanded from Piqan county to Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang. Citizen journalists in Bachu county faced a similar situation last month, when both local authorities and state media quickly labeled riots as a terrorist attack, thus justifying an information crackdown. Many Han Chinese have fully embraced official state explanations of conflicts in Xinjiang and have even criticized ethnic groups for not being grateful for preferential ethnic policies, such as exemption from the One-Child Policy. As the online public sphere has been dominated by Han Chinese, mainstream public opinion has further marginalized ethnic communities in unrest areas.

Internet shutdowns in China have not been limited to areas of ethnic conflict. In June 2009, the Internet was shut down for a few days in the Hubei province city of Shishou, following riots triggered by the alleged murder of a young woman working in a local hotel. But Shishou is connected with other cities by a major highway — information about the incident and crackdown spread through Chinese social media and was even translated into English for global readers. Ultimately, the shutdown did not paralyze the city as it might have in Xinjiang or Tibet.

Within the Chinese Communist Party, many have questioned the value of this “hard” practice of social control. Softer approaches have been used in much of the country and seen as effective, but they have not been applied to far west border areas where conflict has become endemic. With state officials suggesting that ethnic minorities may be linked to terrorist organizations, they have justified harder tactics on the grounds that these groups are a risk to national security.

Thus far, Internet shutdowns in China have been regional and targeted at specific areas of unrest, with one exception — for an hour in April 2012, all users in mainland China were unable to visit overseas websites and foreign IPs could not access the Chinese network. Many speculated that the disruption was caused by the upgrade of the Chinese Great Firewall. The incident demonstrated the ability of the Chinese authority to cut off the domestic network if and when necessary.

More and more countries have begun to resort to Internet shutdowns when facing mass protests. During the Arab Spring, both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria severed Internet connections in an effort to control protests. A nation-wide Internet blackout took place in Sudan after riots erupted in northern Khartoum in September 2013. But while shutdowns have lasted just a few days in most of these cases, China’s minority regions face a different paradigm. Prolonged blackouts have exacerbated minority citizens’ marginalization. Literally disconnected from the rest of the country, these communities have been left on the wrong side of what appears to be a growing digital divide.

 

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