Subscribe to Matteo Mecacci's Blog: A Free Tibet in a Free World by Email
Subscribe to Matteo Mecacci's Blog: A Free Tibet in a Free World by Email
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”The technological revolution of the last decades has made the visionary aspiration of sharing information “regardless of frontiers” a concrete daily possibility. In fact, the advent of the Internet makes it possible for everyone not only to express, but most importantly, to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. But this can happen only if one fundamental condition is met: that national governments do not censor the information that citizens are entitled to receive. There are an increasing number of countries that explicitly limit this right by censoring media content available on the Internet. This is allowed to happen without serious challenges from the UN or democratic governments. Pay attention, freedom of speech is the battleground chosen by extremists and authoritarian governments to change the way in which democratic societies operate. In fact, by focusing on “offensive”, “immoral” or “graphic” manifestations of freedom of expression, the goal is to intimidate and limit the right of the people to freely express themselves on sensitive political or social issues, as clearly emerged by the Chinese state news agency’s comment on the Paris attack. The reasons are simple: the main enemy for any authoritarian government or extremist group is the people’s capacity to question or criticize its actions and motives. Imposing fear, and then silence, through violence, imprisonment, and torture are the means used to achieve this goal. Democratic societies have ignored the importance of this issue for too long, and the future of freedom of expression cannot be left to Internet companies to negotiate or decide. It is urgent for our countries to start publicly contrasting the measures that are taken by national governments to limit the right to access information through the Internet. China is leading this effort, having built a firewall and having set up a huge censorship machine, and putting pressure on Internet companies that want to do business in China. And this is why, even before the Paris attack, we were worried to see Facebook, a giant and global social media enterprise, deleting the post of a video of a Tibetan monk’s self-immolation (videos that are censored in China) citing “graphic” concerns regarding a purely political action; and that is why we decided to launch a petition to restore it that has now been signed by over 17000 people. Worryingly, earlier this week, while meeting in Paris also a number of EU Ministers of the interiors called on Internet providers to increase their surveillance capacities. This is the wrong path to follow. It is not by increasing censorship and controls on the general public, like China does, that terrorist attack will be prevented. This will only increase abuses. Experience tells us that a society is more secure when civil liberties are respected. We at ICT are following very closely this debate. We do not want our societies to follow China’s censorship practices on the Internet and we are working to make sure that the opposite happens and that, one day, the flow of free information will break China’s firewall and reach the Chinese and Tibetan people.
The horror of the attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week seems like it should be something we can all agree on. It’s an easy litmus test for any person or government: “Do you oppose the brutal killing of cartoonists?” Judging by the outpouring of support and messages of solidarity from the people of the world (pictured above, Tibetans and Tibet supporters among international demonstrators in Paris), it’s a litmus test almost everyone passes. The Chinese government, sadly, seems to have failed. A Xinhua commentary released on Sunday instead chided the staff of Charlie Hebdo and the West at large, saying that “unfettered and unprincipled satire, humiliation and free speech are not acceptable.” This is the latest iteration of a theme Beijing has been putting forth around the world with increasing boldness in recent years. It’s an attempt to normalize their repression, and to shift global discourse to put free speech itself on trial, instead of the brutal means Beijing uses to suppress it. The problem is that Beijing, like the attackers, does not acknowledge the human right of free speech. Forcibly silencing critics is a way of life for the Party, one of their most important and cherished tools. The Congressional Executive Committee on China 2014 annual report has a whole section devoted to the punishment of Chinese citizens for free expression, along with a separate section for controls on press freedom. Take the story of writer Hu Jia: in July 2014 he was beaten on the street by plainclothes police for his Twitter postings. Chinese rights activist Huang Qi says that these tactics have become more and more common lately: "[They] are targeted in all sorts of ways, including being locked up in black jails, and being beaten up by plainclothes personnel. This attack on Hu Jia is just one example." In this light it makes perfect sense that the Party would take such an odd stance on the events in Paris; they don’t really object to the concept of using violence to stifle expression. It’s yet more evidence confirming that the Party isn’t interested in defending the same values that the rest of the world rallied in support of last week in Paris. Back in Beijing a group of journalists who gathered to show solidarity with the staff of Charlie Hebdo were tailed by police, including one who videotaped everyone in attendance- a traditional mainstay of Chinese police intimidation. Lamenting the Party’s inappropriate reaction and noting that other nations had put aside their differences following the attack, Chinese law professor Fan Zhongxin posed a question to his fellow netizens: “Do you see the distance between us and the rest of the world?” The rest of the world must take note that China is explicitly pursuing a global attack on free speech, and treat Chinese projects with the potential to impact free speech and expression (such as the Confucius Institutes, their attempts to silence and isolate the Dalai Lama, and their interactions with social media giants like Facebook) with the appropriate skepticism and alarm. Chinese citizens, and Tibetans and Uyghurs in particular, routinely face dire consequences for exercising free expression- are we comfortable with the sight of China proudly exporting this model?
Concentration of power at the very top: Ultimate authority over information controls and domestic security has been consolidated in the hands of President Xi himself via new party entities. Expanded targets of repression: Of 17 categories of victims assessed, 11 experienced greater restrictions after President Xi took power. Revival of old practices alongside new methods: Tactics and terminology reminiscent of the Mao Zedong era—including televised confessions—have been revived alongside more novel approaches. Increasingly strategic, multipronged campaigns, criminal and extralegal detentions, and the “community corrections” system have been used to punish activists and intimidate social-media users. Civil society resilience: Despite heightened repression, fear of the regime appears to be diminishing. Civic participation in rights defense activities is growing. Banned information circulates despite censorship. And activities that the authorities have invested tremendous resources in suppressing have continued and even expanded. Regime insecurity and internal resistance: The increase in repression appears to be driven by a deep sense of insecurity. Some of those tasked with implementing censorship, propaganda, and repression are instead showing sympathy with victims, quietly refusing to comply with orders, and expressing regret for their role in obstructing other citizens’ freedoms.The report notes with interest an extreme attention to detail leading to a sense of information-control overkill. The example it cites is a censorship directive on a music video by a Taiwanese singer Deserts Chang. The report says, “… on April 10, 2014, the following directive was issued by the State Council Information Office: “At 0:49 in the music video for Deserts Chang’s song ‘Rose-Colored You,’ the person in the ambulance is holding a ‘Free Tibet’ kerchief…. Please delete this video.” Fred Hiatt has also highlighted this example in his op-ed. I watched the music video and indeed if you observe carefully (as can be seen from this screen shot) the person on the stretcher appears to be holding a Tibetan national flag and the flag seems to be printed on his shirt, too. [caption id="attachment_5634" align="alignleft" width="570"] Screenshot from Deserts Chang’s music video showing a person wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Tibetan national flag who is also holding a flag.[/caption]
As would be the case, many of the study’s findings are applicable to the present situation in Tibet. On the situation in Tibet now compared with pre-November 2012 levels, the study says, “As self-immolations reached their peak in November 2012 and then continued periodically, official reprisals for those involved intensified. In a form of collective punishment, a regulation allowed those found to have assisted a self-immolator to be charged with homicide. A late 2013 crackdown in one county alone led to at least 58 detentions and 15 prison sentences of up to 18 years. At least two monks, including a popular religious leader, were beaten to death in custody in 2013 within weeks of their detention.” So, what should the international community do? The author says, “The United States and other democracies should work together to more effectively assist victims of repression and challenge official impunity. They should also seriously reconsider assumptions that the Communist Party will rule indefinitely, and that any liberalization will come from the top down.”