Chinese Protest Suspensions of Bloggers
New York Times
By MICHAEL WINES and SHARON LaFRANIERE BEIJING — The operators of China's most vibrant equivalent of Twitter notified each of its 200 million users Friday that several bloggers deemed to have spread unfounded rumors would have their accounts suspended ...
Faced with the menace of the internet, Asia’s censors are not yet giving up the ghost
Aug 27th 2011 | from the print edition
TAKING arms against a sea of troubles, many governments in Asia have long resisted the tide of unfiltered news, rumour and comment washing over their citizens via the internet. On August 15th one prime minister, Najib Razak of Malaysia, appeared to admit defeat. “In today’s borderless, interconnected world,” he said, “censoring newspapers and magazines is increasingly outdated, ineffective and unjustifiable.” Noting that the internet in Malaysia has always been uncensored, Mr Najib announced a “review” of print censorship laws. Yet what it comes up with is unlikely to be a free-for-all. Across Asia, governments find it hard to cede their power to control flows of information.
The unwitting instrument of Mr Najib’s epiphany was The Economist. An article in our July 16th issue covered the government’s crackdown on a huge demonstration organised by civic groups calling for electoral reform. In the copies of The Economist that reached Malaysians, the article was disfigured by black ink. Three passages—concerning the death of a man (from a heart attack), the banning of the protest march and “heavy-handed police tactics”—were censored. However, they could still be read on our website, or indeed on a number of Malaysian news sites and blogs. As Mr Najib noted, the act of censorship created far more of a fuss than the offending passages. Besides being “outdated, ineffective and unjustifiable”, the censorship was also very bad public relations.
His general point is plainly true all over the world. Strict controls over “old” media, foreign and domestic, are increasingly anachronistic since ever more citizens have access to the bottomless shallows of the internet. In both Malaysia and Singapore, where mainstream media have been largely servile in their treatment of the powers-that-be, the internet has changed the political landscape. It was one reason why the opposition did better than ever in Malaysia’s most recent parliamentary election, in March 2008. In Singapore, in the run-up to May’s general election, candidates were for the first time allowed to campaign on social-networking sites; once again, the opposition did better than ever. Opposition politicians in both places also credit online competition with gingering up the mainstream press a bit.
Mr Najib said that, instead of censorship, Malaysia could use “legal means” in the event of defamatory coverage. That for a long time has also been Singapore’s strategy. “Right-to-reply” rules oblige foreign publications that circulate in Singapore to carry government rebuttals. Settling contempt-of-court actions and defamation suits from leading politicians is costly. All of this deters critical foreign reporting.
Elsewhere in Asia, some governments still use the trusted old slash-and-blotch methods. The Chinese authorities simply rip out pages with articles they don’t like; or, if there are too many of them, they block the issue altogether. India tolerates most of what is written about the country, perhaps believing, as a member of the present cabinet put it when in opposition, that “this is India. You can never be wrong.” But officialdom draws the line, stamps the stamp, or confiscates the consignment when it comes to maps showing the India-Pakistan border as it is, rather than as it would be were all of Kashmir under Indian control.
In Sri Lanka, the government never “bans” The Economist. But customs officers spend a hell of a long time enjoying issues with Sri Lankan coverage. In Thailand, again, the government never issues a formal ban. But, in fear of the country’s fierce lèse-majesté laws, no distributor will touch a publication carrying coverage that might be construed as remotely critical of the monarchy.
Online distributors, however, are less easy to cow. The logic of monarchism also compels Thailand’s government to intervene directly on the internet. According to Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, an NGO, it has blocked hundreds of thousands of web pages. Thailand’s efforts to curb unpalatable online material, however, are no more than a picket fence when compared with the great firewall of China. China has more users of the internet than any other country, yet its censors battle the medium, convinced that they can win. The foreign press is the easy part. There are ways around the blockage of websites that the censors do not like. But relatively few people have the will, time or money to bother finding them.
The domestic internet poses more of a challenge, however. Deleted postings on social-networking sites immediately pop up elsewhere; banned internet-search terms morph into bizarre homonyms; small incidents such as hit-and-run road accidents become national scandals. And national scandals, such as the high-speed train crash on July 23rd, news of which the authorities would have liked quietly to bury along with the wreckage, suddenly become enormous political problems.
Hoping to reboot the world
The battle between the Chinese Communist Party and the internet seems fairly evenly matched. When Urumqi, in the western region of Xinjiang, was racked by ethnic violence in 2009, the authorities simply switched the internet off in Xinjiang for ten months. A strange new phenomenon, the internet-café border town, sprang up along the railway line to the east to cater for Xinjiang residents who wanted to get online. China, further alarmed by the alleged role of social networks in the recent riots in Britain, might well counter renewed regional unrest with another local internet shutdown.
But this is hardly an option for China as a whole. Not only might Hong Kong struggle to cope with an influx of more than 450m Chinese internet users needing to check their e-mails; China cannot, in effect, resign from the global economy. Asian governments are stuck with the internet which, worryingly for the dictatorships among them, seems as integral to the future as black blotches on newsprint seem to the past.