21 July 2010

Government ramps up Internet control and leans on Hong Kong to erase dissent

The Chinese government has targeted micro-blogging services in its latest attack on Internet freedom.
The Chinese government has targeted micro-blogging services in its latest attack on Internet freedom.
China Rights Forum
In a series of surgical strikes against Internet freedom, Chinese authorities have imposed restrictions on micro-blogging services and shut down an estimated 60 blogs by prominent legal and political commentators, report Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). China's influence is also reducing space for dissent and independent press in Hong Kong, says a new report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA).

The People's Republic of China routinely deploys major resources to control political discussions on the Internet. Four of the leading Chinese micro-blogging services, Netease, Sina, Tencent and Sohu, were displaying messages on 15 July saying they were down for maintenance or had inexplicably reverted to an earlier "beta" testing phase, says RSF. "Testing" is often a euphemism for strengthening internal self-censorship systems following government pressure, says Freedom House. China's micro-blogging services are closely examined by censorship filters which analyse both the posts and the shortened URLs that appear in them.

"This latest censorship attempt shows that the Chinese authorities, who are obsessed with maintaining political stability, mistrust micro-blogging and its potential for spreading information and mobilising the public," said RSF.

Human Rights in China (HRIC) recently released a translation and analysis of a report that provides insight into the Chinese authorities' approach to controlling the Internet. It is a comprehensive and detailed report by Wang Chen, the country's top official responsible for managing online information, delivered in a speech in April to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. The report reveals how the Chinese government plans to control the Internet to keep out "harmful information" from abroad and to harness its power for guiding "correct" public opinion, "unifying thinking," and countering "the hegemony of Western media."

China has the most sophisticated, multilayered Internet control apparatus in the world, says Freedom House. Twitter and Facebook have been completely blocked for approximately a year. In addition to censorship within the country, Chinese hackers are attacking organisations and companies outside of its borders.

"Internet freedom and free access to information are not simply luxuries but critical avenues for advancing democratic reforms and enabling the Chinese people to protect themselves and their families from threats such as tainted food or environmental pollution," said Freedom House.

Free expression is also under threat in Hong Kong as the political scene deteriorates, says a new report by the HKJA. "The Vice Tightens: Pressure Grows on Free Expression in Hong Kong" details arrests and prosecutions of protesters, as well as scuffles between police and demonstrators.

"These incidents give a taste of the political atmosphere in Hong Kong - an atmosphere in which… there is growing intolerance of dissent and greater emphasis on social harmony - a catch phrase used in mainland China to denote adherence to the Communist Party line," says the HKJA.

For example, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) will remain government-owned, "despite pleas from the public and non-governmental organisations, including the HKJA, that it should be separated from the administration to become an independent public service broadcaster." In addition, HKJA is challenging the constitutionality of the government's superficial changes to the law about licensing radio broadcasters, saying it needs major restructuring to create media diversity. "Broadcasting legislation should ensure that the airwaves are open to all those who wish to set up broadcasting operations, irrespective of political orientation," says the report.

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