6 June 2012

Authorities censor all talk of Tiananmen Square anniversary

Some Sina Weibo users were able to circumvent the censors and post this photo of soldiers in Tiananmen Square just after the 1989 crackdown
Some Sina Weibo users were able to circumvent the censors and post this photo of soldiers in Tiananmen Square just after the 1989 crackdown
via Zola
Less than a week after Google unveiled a feature to help Chinese Internet users dodge censorship, China has blocked all Internet access to search terms relating to the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre (4 June 1989), report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

RSF and CPJ report that the terms "six four," "23," "candle," and "never forget" have been blocked on some sites, with users on Sina Weibo, China's largest social network, being told that search results for any of those phrases cannot be displayed "due to relevant laws, regulations and policies."

According to "The Globe and Mail", even the Chinese word for "today" - "jintian" - was a banned search term on some social networks on 4 June, while other terms were allowed but only show results linking to politically approved material, including an article that claims that the Tiananmen Square massacre is "a myth".

"Twenty-three years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese government continues to stifle any criticism and to filter information on the subject," RSF said.

Among the posts that have been removed from Sina Weibo, which has been likened to Twitter and boasts more than 300 million users, was a joke about online censorship by journalist Chen Baocheng, reports RSF.

Weibo also prevented users from changing display photos to prevent the distribution of images commemorating the anniversary, says RSF. But some images slipped through, including this banned picture of soldiers in Tiananmen Square just after the 1989 crackdown, made available on the Twitter account of the blogger Zola.

Perhaps the eeriest search term blocked was "Shanghai Composite", which was added to the list after the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index on 3 June dropped 64.89 points, mirroring the date of the protest and massacre (6/4/89).

The censorship has provoked an outcry in the blogosphere, with users complaining that their posts have been "harmonised" (a censorship-friendly word for censored) within minutes of being posted, says RSF.

A recent study by the University of Hong Kong shows Internet censors in China are able to remove Sina Weibo posts deemed "sensitive" - and not necessarily using banned keywords - in under three hours.

"There can be no social stability if people cannot speak out and must live in terror of punishment," one commenter managed to post on Sina Weibo.

Tiananmen's anniversary has historically provoked censorship, whether of the massacre or about activities on the anniversary of the protests. Last year, protesters appeared to defeat censors by referring to the anniversary as "May 35″ instead of "June 4," but this year even that non-existent date has been added to the list of blocked terms, reports CPJ.

Last week, Google added a feature that suggests alternatives for search terms that might result in blocked results.

Until now, users who searched for banned or sensitive words received a "webpage not available" message and their connection was temporarily cut.

Google will now provide advice to users when they enter a sensitive word, and suggest alternative terms. Google cited as an example the Chinese character "jiang," or river, without mentioning that it also is the name of former President Jiang Zemin, the possible reason explaining why the government blocks such related search results. It says the site will recommend users in China write their search terms without that character.

Soon after Google made its announcement, which did not mention censorship or Tiananmen outright, activists dug up a list of 456 banned Google search terms that elicit a broken connection, and published it online, reports CPJ. Included on the list are several international and Chinese language news sites, names of activists and journalists, and the combined search phrase, "June 4 + truth."

CPJ is hoping the new leadership expected to be elected later this year will begin to relax censorship of Tiananmen-related issues. "The tragic history contains a truth that still applies today: Information is not the enemy. Controlling and distorting it will undermine social harmony, not strengthen it. And silence is not stability," CPJ warns.

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