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Twitter crackdown, defamation surge, electoral attacks, encryption, and transgender bill opposition

China's social media crackdown, a surge in worrying defamation cases in Southeast Asia, press freedom violations during Bangladesh polls, encryption legislation in Australia, and transgender bill opposition in India.

Young women look at their smartphones, in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China, 22 February 2018
Young women look at their smartphones, in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China, 22 February 2018

Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

China's 'silent slaughter' of social media

Since September 2018, Chinese authorities have launched a crackdown on social media accounts. In particular, hundreds, if not thousands, of Twitter users were interrogated, detained, and told to delete tweets that spread 'political rumor'. Human rights website China Change called the crackdown a 'silent slaughter' which targeted activists and their followers. Other social media platforms such as Weibo and Wechat were reprimanded for their 'lax management' over accounts that violate the country's laws. An estimated 10,000 social media accounts were affected by this campaign of the Cyberspace Administration.

Twitter is banned in China, which made the crackdown even more alarming, since it demonstrated that authorities can identify and locate Internet users who are accessing circumvention tools and those who are posting critical commentaries. Since Twitter has little impact on domestic politics, the crackdown reflected the government's intolerance of any dissenting views that are shared via online platforms, even those not readily accessible to the public.

China's recent suppression of social media should lead Google to reconsider its reported plans to re-enter the Chinese market by launching 'Project Dragonfly' - a censored search engine. In December, civil society groups and other free speech advocates cautioned Google against "actively aiding China's censorship and surveillance regime." They warned that if reports of the prototype being developed by Google are true, the company "would directly assist the Chinese government in arresting or imprisoning people simply for expressing their views online." It has since been reported that Google may have shelved the plans.

According to a recent report by Freedom House, China has been actively promoting its propaganda and censorship tools around the world. The country's enhanced surveillance capabilities, demonstrated by this recent social media crackdown, could embolden Chinese cybersecurity authorities to recommend this model to other governments, leading to worsening digital censorship worldwide.

Free speech a casualty during Bangladesh polls

The ruling Awami League dominated the 30 December elections in Bangladesh, but the opposition has rejected the results and is calling for a new vote.The opposition, as well as numerous civil society organisations, decried the violence on election day and cited irregularities.

• The press faced major challenges covering the elections. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) cited the 24 December attack against 12 journalists by 30 masked individuals as an example of the violence that confronted the media throughout the campaign period. Furthermore, laws like the Digital Security Act, passed last October, have a chilling effect that effectively prohibit investigative journalism.

• The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) ordered the temporary blocking of 54 websites for allegedly undermining national security. Indeed, there are websites and social media pages that spread disinformation, but the order also included independent and opposition-linked news websites.

• On 27 December, the BTRC ordered mobile operators to suspend 3G and 4G services so that websites sharing disinformation would be slowed down. The resulting outcry only calmed down when Internet services were restored the following day, without explanation.

• There are reports that thousands of opposition members were arbitrarily arrested by security forces between October and December. Some have reportedly been disappeared. Furthermore, authorities have reportedly filed 300,000 'politically motivated' criminal cases against opposition party members and supporters. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the systematic attack against the opposition has "created an atmosphere of fear and repression that is not consistent with credible elections."

The ruling coalition conducted a swearing-in ceremony for the winners of the election, but it was boycotted by the opposition. Now, the coalition will have to address the appeals from many sectors calling for a credible investigation to determine the extent of electoral violations.

Southeast Asia: Worrying surge in defamation cases

In Singapore, the editor of the news website The Online Citizen and a letter sender were charged with defamation for publishing an article in September 2018 which authorities said defamed the country's Cabinet members.

During the police investigation, several civil society groups signed a statement telling the government that "instead of persecuting individuals who ask difficult questions and publish critical views, [it] should be more transparent and refute assertions it does not agree with."

Meanwhile, blogger Leong Sze Hian was also charged with defamation - by no less than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself – after simply sharing an article on Facebook which authorities decried as containing outright lies and baseless information. It is unclear why Leong was singled out by authorities, since other Singaporean netizens shared the contested article on Facebook but were not sued by the prime minister.

In Thailand, a poultry company sued one of its former workers and a human rights activist in relation to a video exposing labor rights violations on its chicken farms. Thammakaset Co. Ltd. has filed civil and criminal defamation complaints against activist Sutharee Wannasiri, as well as Nan Win, who appeared in the video produced by the civil society group Fortify Rights.

The chilling effect of criminal defamation laws on the right to freedom of expression and information is a serious concern in the country. Civil society groups from around the world signed a statement on 3 December asking the Thailand government to "ensure that no person is prosecuted or held criminally liable for defamation for activities protected under international law." They added that it's time to decriminalize defamation and stop the use of "abusive litigation aimed at curtailing the exercise of freedom of expression."

In Indonesia, a teacher was sentenced to six months in prison for documenting the sexual harassment she experienced at work. Public outrage over the verdict has forced the Office of the Attorney General to suspend her imprisonment.

What these controversial defamation cases in Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia underscore is the need to review laws which are not only outdated, but often abused by those in power to stifle legitimate criticism and harass ordinary citizens.

In brief

The passage of proposed encryption legislation in Australia could have an adverse impact on how journalists conduct their work, said the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA). "This would grant access to the communications data of journalists without any proper judicial oversight, and with no consideration of the need to protect public interest reporting."

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the South East Asia Journalist Unions have published a report about the state of impunity, journalist safety and working conditions of the media across the Southeast Asian region. The report surveyed the views of nearly 1000 journalists and media workers while studying legislative controls and other policies hampering independent journalism. According to the report, "there is little doubt that media freedom in South East Asia is consistently being challenged by the overriding influence of a well-entrenched authoritarianism, sometimes resulting in a deferential press." has compiled a list of banned and censored books in India. The group also summarized the major 2018 tech-related policy developments in the country, which included the Personal Data Protection Bill and the Aadhaar verdict.

Focus on gender: #StopTransBill

On 17 December, India's Lok Sabha (Lower House) passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill with 27 amendments. But this was quickly rejected by LGBTQI+ groups for, among other things, failing to recognize the right of transgender persons to self-identification, the criminalization of begging with severe punishment, and making no mention of providing alternative employment opportunities. The government is urged to redraft the bill and consult the transgender community before deliberating this again in the parliament.

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