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Netizen Report: Authorities in China and Indonesia Threaten Whatsapp, Telegram Over Political Content

Flock of birds. Photo by Christoffer A Rasmussen, via Wikimedia. Licensed to public domain.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology threatened to ban the secure messaging app Telegram on July 15, reasoning that it is being used to “recruit Indonesians into militant groups and to spread hate and methods for carrying out attacks…”

As a partial measure, the government has already blocked access to 11 URLs offering the web version of Telegram. In response, Telegram has vowed to double its efforts to remove “terrorist” content from the platform by forming a team of moderators tasked with monitoring networks in Indonesia and removing such content as swiftly as possible.

Although Telegram may prefer this solution to being banned altogether, it may also increase the likelihood of overcompliance by the company, which could lead to censorship of lawful speech.

On July 18, Facebook’s popular messaging app WhatsApp was blocked in China, following the funeral of Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. The world-renowned democracy advocate was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power” for his involvement in Charter 08, a manifesto that called for democratic reforms in China, and died of liver cancer on July 15.

Liu’s passing brought a new wave of censorship of social media, also affecting conversations on WeChat and Sina Weibo. Before his death, discussion of Liu on WeChat was allowed as long it did not touch on sensitive topics. After his death any mention of his name has resulted in the blocking of messages, including images sent over one-to-one chat. Until this week, WhatsApp had been the only Facebook app product accessible in the country.

Turkey detains human rights defenders with no charges

Ten human rights defenders who were arrested while attending a digital security and information management workshop in Istanbul on July 5 received a preliminary ruling from a judge on July 18. Four of the defenders were released on bail and the remaining six will be held in pre-trial detention while they are assessed for charges. They have been detained on accusations that they “aided an armed terror group,” though the authorities have cited no evidence to support this accusation and it is unclear whether they are formally charged. Protests have been held around the world calling for their release.

Ethiopia’s resistance musicians face arrest, censorship

Ethiopian authorities are now cracking down on musicians. Seven producers and performers of a popular YouTube video were arrested several weeks ago and last week were charged with terrorism for producing music videos and ‘uploading them on YouTube’. Musicians such as Seenaa Solomon, a well-known singer who is among those recently charged, became an important source of inspiration and provided the soundtrack to the resistance movement against government plans to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, into the Oromo region. The plan led to wide-scale protests and a violent crackdown between 2014-2016. Despite her jailing, Solomon’s music continues to flourish on YouTube.

In UAE, another arrest for “showing sympathy” with Qatar on social media

An Emirati man was arrested for showing sympathy with Qatar on social media. Ghanem Abdullah Mattar was detained after posting a video urging Emirati citizens to show respect for their “Qatari brothers” during the UAE’s blockade of Qatar. The UAE has criminalized any show of sympathy towards Qatar, punishable by a jail sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $13,500. Mattar’s whereabouts remain unknown since his arrest.

Bangladesh’s ICT Act spawns record number of lawsuits against journalists

More than twenty journalists have been sued over the past four months in Bangladesh under the country’s controversial Information and Communications Act, which prohibits digital messages that “deteriorate” law and order, “prejudice the image of the state or person”, or “hurt religious beliefs.” The Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs pledged in May to eliminate the Section 57 of the law, which has been used to file these lawsuits, but has shown no progress on this thus far. Nearly 700 cases have been filed under the law since it was amended in 2013.

China forces citizens in ethnic minority region to install mobile spyware

On July 10, mobile phone users in the Tianshan District of Urumqi City received a mobile phone notification from the district government instructing them to install a surveillance application called Jingwang (or “Web Cleansing”). The notification from police said the application would locate and track the sources and distribution paths of terrorists, along with “illegal religious” activity and “harmful information,” including videos, images, ebooks and documents. Among other things, the application can negate the password requirement of a Windows operating system and access the computer hard disk with no restrictions.

Facebook blocks newspaper accounts in India

Two Indian newspapers were blocked by Facebook in the past month for reasons that remain unclear. The first, Vartha Bharati, was blocked on two occasions in June and July, while the second, Kashmir Ink, was blocked once in July after posting a cover image of the militant commander Burhan Wani.

Can Australia strongarm US tech giants into weakening their security standards?

The Australian government proposed a new cybersecurity law that would force Facebook and Google to give government agencies access to encrypted messages. The law, which Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said would be modeled on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, would grant the Australian government expansive surveillance powers and require companies provide them “appropriate assistance” in investigations. When asked how the government plans to prevent users from turning to other software not controlled by tech companies that could turn over data, Turnbull asserted the laws of Australia would override the laws of mathematics.

Netizen Activism

The Association of Progressive Communications launched a survey collecting data concerning threats to and enhancement of sexual expression online. The survey is available at this link.

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Ellery Roberts Biddle, Angel Carrion, Leila Nachawati, Inji Pennu and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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