It has now become tradition for Pope Francis to hold informal press conferences with journalists traveling with him on the plane while returning to Rome from his trips abroad. The last trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines was no exception and the Pope commented on a wide range of issues with some quite candid remarks. Among them, there was also an interesting comment about his missed meeting with the Dalai Lama last month in Rome. Questioned by Anaïs Feuga of Radio France about why he hadn’t met the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis said (transcripts are available in Italian) that according to the Protocol of the State Secretary “Heads of States or persons of that level are not received when in Rome for an international meeting. For example, during the FAO summit in Rome I did not meet anybody. This is the reason why I did not meet him.” The first observation to be made is that Pope Francis has publicly confirmed the high regards in which he holds the Dalai Lama – as also stated by the Vatican’s spokesperson last month in Rome - rightly comparing his stature to that of a “Head of State or person of that level.” At the same time, he referred to the “Protocol of the State Secretary” to explain why the meeting did not take place. This would seem, at first glance, an uncharacteristically bureaucratic explanation for a Pope who is universally known (and has become popular for this) for not mincing his words and for taking the Vatican’s bureaucracy to tasks on many issues: from the constant call on the need for the Church to stick to the values it preaches, to the promotion of transparency and accountability of its administrative structures. Also, the Pope felt the need to add something to the official answer provided by the Vatican last December, which included reference to “the delicate situation” with China (and which irritated many Catholics and many others all over the world), probably with the goal to reassure them of his intentions: “I have seen that some newspapers have written that I did not meet him for fear of China: this is not true. In that moment the reason was that one [the protocol].” Then he went on saying “He [the Dalai Lama] had asked for an audience and he was given a date at some point. He had asked before, but not for that moment, but we are in contact. But the reason was not the rejection of the person or the fear of China.” So these remarks clearly indicate that the Pope was and still is willing to meet with the Dalai Lama, but that some “protocols” of the State Secretary (the Vatican Government) did not make it happen last December. These protocols, and the reference to the “delicate situation” with China, probably did not make him very happy. This is a positive shift that other world leaders should watch and follow closely, to avoid becoming hostages of Beijing’s desiderata. Now, the ball is in Pope Francis’s court and to reach the goal he will probably have to have another match with the Vatican’s bureaucracy, in addition to China. Matteo
The terrorist attack of last week in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is sparking a debate that goes beyond reflecting on the killings of innocent people for political or religious reasons. Unfortunately, the killings of innocent people as a result of different extremist ideologies happen every day and in huge numbers in many parts of the world. Sometimes, the violence comes from individuals, sometimes it comes from organized armed groups, and sometimes it comes directly from authoritarian governments. We should all remember that the loss of innocent lives is always unacceptable and we should learn to stay away from the moral double standards that the media inevitably impose on us by choosing which events (often tragedies) should deserve our attention instead of others. Having said this, the genuine outpour of indignation and attention that has emerged as a result of the Paris terrorist attack has an objective basis. A satirical magazine represents the essence of freedom of expression in any free society, and to violently and brutally target its employees, as it happened in Paris, has raised the concerns of every citizen who is interested in protecting this right. What is now becoming clear is that while the “international community” generally agrees to “condemn” this kind of violence, it has not yet agreed on the central issue that is at stake here: how to advance the fundamental human right of free expression for billions of people who do not yet enjoy it. Globally, nation states have approached this issue with too many different laws and regulations, many of which are in direct contrast with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the UN General assembly in 1948 after a war that left millions upon millions dead after the rise of authoritarian ideologies. Article 19 states:
“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. Matteo

Charlie Hebdo and the Chinese assault on free speech

On Thursday, January 15, 2015, in Recent, by John N
[caption id="attachment_5641" align="alignleft" width="570"]Tibetan flag flies at a march A Tibetan flag flies at a march in Paris (Image: MyYak)[/caption]
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?
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My Thoughts on Reading Freedom House Report on China and Censorship

On Tuesday, January 13, 2015, in Recent, by Bhuchung K. Tsering
Three weeks back, Freedom House, the Washington, D.C. based organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world issued a report titled “The Politburo’s Predicament: Confronting the Limitations of Chinese Communist Party Repression”. I have just finished reading it and the encouragement to do so came from an op-ed by Fred Hiatt about it in the Washington Post of January 12, 2015 and a discussion that took place in Freedom House on January 13, 2015. Written by Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, the report examines the state of censorship and internal security apparatus in China, under President Xi Jinping. It says repression has intensified under President Xi and that the Chinese Communist Party is also trapped in a vicious circle whereby increasing coercion breeds growing resistance, requiring ever more intense crackdowns. In brief, the report finds:
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. 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.”