Confronting the Contagion of Digital Control
Police detain demonstrators protesting against the government’s policy on the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus situation, in Kathmandu on July 1, 2020. Credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP
The Covid-19 pandemic gave governments in South Asia a readymade excuse to enhance regulation of the internet and in particular, independent media. Hitherto a dazzling story of growth and hype, the pandemic exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the digital space in the region as countries locked down, services and jobs went online and governments closed in.
As countries imposed physical lockdowns and there was a dramatic shift toward digital, the unequal access to the internet and the stark divisions such as urban-rural, wireless-wired, digital haves–have nots could not remain hidden. Coupled with this, freedoms were restricted and democracy declined across the region in the period.
Almost all the countries in South Asia dropped rankings across major global indicators such as the Press Freedom Index, the Economist Democracy Index, the annual Democracy Report published by the V-Dem Institute, the Freedom in the World report and the Freedom of the Net published by the Freedom House.
South Asia remains one of the most dangerous regions globally for journalists in terms of physical safety and professional security, and the shift to digital offers great promise for independent journalism to flourish. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic provided ample justification for governments across the region to regulate and restrict freedoms online.
Besides political controls by governments, the growing religious majoritarianism in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh has also resulted in the exercise of control by non-state actors and vigilante groups on the media. Most of these groups have considerable presence and influence on social media networks and seek to police users, harass and troll them and file complaints, both with local law enforcing agencies and with the social media networks, to force the take down of posts.
Internet shutdowns remain another weapon to block online access of citizens to the internet in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Worldwide, India again reported the largest number of internet shutdowns –including the world’s longest in Jammu in Kashmir, starting in August 2019 and ending in early 2020.
India, touted as the world’s largest democracy, also leads when it comes to the extent of repressive laws regulating online media. It has now brought in further provisions in its Information Technology Act to ensure that social media intermediaries are subject to Indian law and, in the case of their complaince officers, its territorial influence.
Slowly but surely, these punitive actions and regulatory mechanisms, aided by social media companies that seek a larger economic and political role in these countries, have ended up eroding the online space for freedom of expression. In India, several established online news sites continue to resist regulation and have sought legal redressal via petitions in the country’s Supreme Court. A decision is earnestly awaited.
Connectivity and checks
The dissemination of news through digital media platforms in Afghanistan remains highly dependent on connectivity and spread of the internet. According to various studies, there were 7.65 million internet users in Afghanistan in January 2020, though internet penetration remained low at 20 per cent. However, the increase in the number of mobile connections to at least 70 per cent of the population also corresponded with the increase in social media users, to at least 3.6 million users.
The role of the government in regulating online media worsened an already fraught situation for media freedom in Afghanistan. On July 1, 2020, agents of the National Department of Security (NDS) arrested two journalists, Mahboboalah Hakimi of Radio Bayan (Word), for allegedly insulting the president in a Facebook post and Farough Jan Mangol, the Reuters news agency’s correspondent in Khost. His house was searched without a warrant and the NDS later said it was a mistake.
In Sri Lanka during 2020-21, even as connectivity and internet access grew in the year of the pandemic, equally vigorous checks were introduced through a clutch of laws to restrict online freedoms. Tightening of the Press Council Law to increase regulation by bringing under its ambit digital media, was a clear demonstration of the intent to control, rather than encourage self-regulation as is demanded by professional media bodies.
Arming law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka with arbitrary powers of arrest on grounds of hate speech has become another avenue for the onslaught on free speech and minority rights. Significantly, most of the people arrested belonged to Tamil and Muslim communities. It is against this backdrop that the newly introduced Prevention of Terrorism (De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations, which empowers the Attorney-General to ‘rehabilitate’ suspects without proper judicial process, is feared to become yet another tool to suppress freedom of expression. Under the regulations, offences are ambiguously defined and sweeping powers of arrest have been given to ‘any police officer, or any member of the armed forces, or to any public officer or any other person or body of persons authorised by the President by Order.’
Hitherto a dazzling story of growth and hype, the pandemic exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the digital space in the region as countries locked down, services and jobs went online and governments closed in.
Journalists protest against the world’s longest internet shutdown in Kashmir. Credit: MUDASIR AHMAD
That the Covid-19 pandemic has become a pretext for an authoritarian crackdown on the thriving independent digital media was clear in the most populous countries of South Asia.
In Bangladesh, the government continues to arrest many journalists, censor free speech and target its critics. The death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in a high-security prison near Dhaka on February 25, 2021, brought into sharp focus the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA), which was passed in 2018 replacing the erstwhile Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006. Repeatedly denied bail, Mushtaq Ahmed was incarcerated for almost 10 months for allegedly “spreading conspiracy theories and rumours against Bangladesh govt and its Covid response.” Ahmed had published an article raising the issue of inadequate protective personal equipment (PPE) for doctors. Co-accused cartoonist Kabir Kishore was released on bail March 3, 2021. He said he had been subjected to torture while in custody.
Bangladesh’s Cyber Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka, set up in 2013 and mandated to cover the whole country, is reeling under a caseload of 3,324 pending cases. The majority pertain to charges against citizens for social media posts. The cases filed under the DSA are dealt with by this tribunal.
As the pandemic spread in Bangladesh, government control over the narrative tightened. The first seven days of May 2020 saw the arrest of eight journalists and writers under the DSA over news articles and Facebook posts. The detainees included freelance journalist Jamal Mir (on May 7, 2020), cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore (on May 5) and writer Mushtaq Ahmed (on May 4), the editor of Haorancholer Katha and district correspondent of SATV, Mohammad Mahtab Uddin Talukder (on May 5), editor of Pakkhakal Shafiqul Islam Kajol, (on May 3), Dainik Grameen Darpan’s news editor Ramzan Ali Pramanik, staff reporter Shanta Banik and publisher and editor of online news portal Narsingdi Pratidin, Khandaker Shahin (On May 1).
Shutting down websites is another heavy-handed approach to censor media by the Bangladesh authorities. For instance, the Bangladesh government blocked the website of BenarNews, an online affiliate of Radio Free Asia, in April 2020 after it covered a leaked UN memo warning that as many as two million Bangladeshis could die from Covid-19 without appropriate government measures. A list of 50 social media accounts were sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) for action against them and the commission said “we are also working at the moment to identify and locate people involved in spreading rumors from 82 other accounts, pages and sites.”
Censoring taboo topics and shaping narratives
As in most parts of South Asia, religion was a sensitive issue attracting government control and intervention. With free internet access and 70 per cent of the population using social media, the Maldives has a thriving digital space where independent digital media, bloggers and activists find space for free expression.
Though influential bloggers face intimidation and threats, and have also paid with their lives, guarding the digital space has been important. In this context, the blocking of websites with allegedly anti-Islamic content by the Communications Authority of Maldives upon mere request by ministries and other agencies does not bode well for digital rights.
There is no transparency and there is no public list of banned sites available for scrutiny. The 2008 constitution states that laws and exercise of freedoms must not be “contrary to any tenet of Islam”, and the Maldives maintains reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ article 18 on freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
In India, the government tightened its grip over digital platforms in the period in a bid to control the narrative about misgovernance, attacks on religious minorities and political opposition.
This regulation comes alongside a concerted push by the Indian government for a ‘digital India’, though wireless and internet connectivity grew marginally in India and the urban-rural divide became starker. Rural “teledensity” has not grown in the country since 2019 and currently sits at 58.9 per cent while the number of rural subscriptions saw a decline, according to data released by the Telecom and Regulatory Authority of India in its Telecom Services Performance Indicator Report in July-September 2020. Only a third of rural Indians currently have access to the internet against nearly universal access in urban areas, according to the report.
In 2020, India also experienced slowest internet speed in the world owing to increased loads on networks. Industry association Cellular Operators Association of India wrote to the India’s department of telecommunications to direct video streaming services to ease pressure on the internet infrastructure. Subsequently, the major video streaming service downgraded and locked streaming on cellular networks to standard definition.
The internet was shut down 155 times globally in 2020, according to a report by Access Now. India continued to have the highest number of internet shutdowns worldwide for the third consecutive year. The country accounted for 70 per cent of the 155 shutdowns globally in 2020. Between January 2021-April 2021, the country witnessed 18 shutdowns including two in the country’s capital, New Delhi, according to data maintained by the Software Freedom Law Center, a legal services organisation based in New Delhi specialising in digital rights. Ironically, in March 2021, the government of India informed the parliament that it had no data on shutdowns in the country though the online space is closely monitored by online freedom of expression outfits.
Arming law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka with arbitrary powers of arrest on grounds of hate speech has become another avenue for the onslaught on free speech and minority rights. Significantly, most of the people arrested belonged to Tamil and Muslim communities.
A bystander listens as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, addresses the nation on television, in Karachi on March 4, 2021. Credit: Asif HASSAN / AFP
Censorship and criminalising speech online
In Pakistan, censorship, hate speech, digital surveillance and breach of privacy and disinformation and misinformation online, rose, according to a report issued in late 2020 by Freedom Network, a Pakistani civil liberties advocacy and research group.
Across the country, there was an increased reliance on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to encourage censorship with the cybercrime law repeatedly invoked against journalists and opinion makers for exercising freedom of expression and social media activism.
The media legal context of Pakistan is currently characterised by an aggressive federal government seeking to extend and expand its authority to overregulate the media sector and to redefine the boundaries of free speech. This attempt to control was not restricted to the media and online citizens, but also extended to opposition political parties and civil society movements and their leaders. There was an increased reliance on the PECA to encourage censorship. The cybercrime law in Pakistan was repeatedly invoked against journalists and opinion makers for exercising freedom of expression and social media activism.
Internet freedom in Pakistan declined in 2020 due to authorities’ increased blocking of political, social, and cultural websites and undeclared policy of connectivity restrictions and increased disinformation. Several journalists and rights activists faced inquiries, abductions, investigations, arrests and criminal related to their online / social media activities and posts.
In March 2021, the Peshawar High Court forced telecom regulator Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) to ban TikTok for its failure to remove “immoral content.” Earlier, in October 2020, the PTA itself enforced a month-long ban on TikTok for not “proactively moderating unlawful online content.”
On April 16, 2021, Pakistan blocked access to social media sites and instant messaging services after violent anti-France protests by far-right Islamist groups.
Hate speech against journalists and religious minorities on social media and their online harassment were prevalent in 2020. The themes of religious minorities, security agencies, human rights, gender, politics and development were identified in a survey of online journalism platforms conducted by Freedom Network as the main reporting and discussion subjects that elicited the most hostile reactions from detractors online. Independent online news media platforms in 2020, in the same survey, reported facing hate speech, hostility and organized targeting for their content related to religion, religious minorities and human rights and face threats, abuse, trolling, hacking, blocking and charges of treason from various threat actors including individuals, political parties, religious groups, unknown organized groups and even official sources.
In the period, concerns in Pakistan grew about misinformation, disinformation and fake news. This was further exacerbated by the increased with political polarisation encouraged by the ruling party and the prime minister himself.
Misinformation spread principally through social media platforms. The targeting of women activists and journalists participating in the annual Aurat March (Women’s march) on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021, was a case in point wherein disinformation, including false-subtitling and video doctoring of protests and slogans, led to blasphemy allegations and death threats against some women activists, forcing them to go underground.
In the period, concerns in Pakistan grew about misinformation, disinformation and fake news. This was further exacerbated by the increased with political polarisation encouraged by the ruling party and the prime minister himself.
As the pandemic forced lockdowns globally, India imposed one of the most stringent lockdowns globally resulting in one of the largest migration crisis in the country’s history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting with media owners in the hours before announcing the lockdown and asked them to refrain from negative coverage of the Covid-9 pandemic in India, according to a report by The Caravan, a New Delhi based magazine.
Days into the lockdown, the government argued in the country’s Supreme Court that no media outlet should print, publish or telecast anything on Covid-19 without first ascertaining facts from the mechanism provided by the government
The government also started an initiative online in response to critical reporting by independent news organisations. News reports critical of the government were publicly labelled as “fake news”, further emboldening online attacks on journalists – many of which were also led by government bureaucrats. Online attacks in the period were particularly virulent against women journalists.
In late 2020, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles indicting senior officials of Facebook India for working with the Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Modi, for not taking down hate speech and calls for violence against Indian Muslims. Following the revelations, the head of public policy in India for Facebook resigned. The BJP party works with a range of actors including political actors, private firms, volunteer networks, automated accounts, and social media influencers to shape public opinion over social media, according to the Oxford Internet Institute making India one of the countries where “cybertroops” are engaged to sow disinformation, target minorities and silence critics. The party is reported to call it the IT Cell. The conflict of interest between Facebook and the BJP goes back to 2010, when the company partnered with the party. The head of the company in India is a former campaign manager for the party.
Most recently, a former employee of the company revealed how Facebook chose not to act against a network of fake accounts linked to the BJP and ignored calls for action against the network despite being flagged internally by the company’s threat intelligence team. The actions are in contrast to the action taken by the company against opposition parties in the country.
India’s Press Information Bureau started labeling as fake news, reports and investigations critical of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as the Government of India (GoI), members of the cabinet and the prime minister seeded and amplified political and life-threatening medical misinformation. This only embolded further online attacks on journalists and unleashed trolls. In some cases, attacks were led by bureaucrats. The government also invoked a spate of sedition and terrorism charges against journalists for Facebook posts.
Following the Indo-Chinese border skirmishes in May 2020, the GoI banned more than 200 Chinese apps, including news aggregators such as UC News and News Dog. Journalists were restricted from using satellite imagery to analyse the extent of Chinese incursion into Indian territory. Later in the year, the Indian government restricted foreign direct investment in digital media to 26 per cent, mandated that digital media companies operating in the country must have an Indian CEO and that any such investment be subject to approval.
Within hours of the annoucement, HuffPo India ceased operations in India, the website has been credited for some of the most important investigations into the country’s political economy in recent years. In an internal note, Jonah Peretti, the company’s CEO pointed to Indian FDI restrictions. “The India team was surviving with a grace period. Verizon Media would’t have been able to own them for much longer either. Foreign companies aren’t allowed to control news organisations and BuzzFeed India can only operate because we are a culture and entertainment property”.
The government and the members of the ruling party have also accused streaming platforms, news publishers and journalists of “hurting religious sentiments” of majority Hindus to silence any portrayal of and critical reporting of rising religious violence and intolerance in the country. Most recently, the head of Amazon Prime in India was threatened with arrest following the premiere of a web series on its streaming platform.
With the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic raging in India, India ordered further content takedowns across social networks. Content directly targeted in the take downs was that which was critical of the government’s handling of the crisis. However, the government contends that only misinformation was taken down. Among those affected include members of the opposition. Following the takedown orders, Facebook temporarily censored content with #ResignModi hashtag on its platforms.
As the country faces acute shortage of medical supplies and infrastructure, hospitals and even crematoria, the elite in India turned to Twitter for sending out SOS calls, organising relief and coordinating medical supplies. However, the government began cracking down on groups trying to organise help online. The state of Uttar Pradesh threatened seizure of property of those “spreading rumours” online. Following the announcement, a youngster was arrested for seeking help on Twitter to organise an oxygen cylinder for his grandfather.
The heavy-handed desire to control the narrative and block ground reality from being exposed has never been clearer than during this public health and economic crisis.
India continued to have the highest number of internet shutdowns worldwide for the third consecutive year. The country accounted for 70 per cent of the 155 shutdowns globally in 2020.
Journalists in Nepal demonstrate in front of media house protesting salary cuts and illegal job terminations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Photojournalists Club Nepal
Bogey of ‘National Security’
Governments across the region displayed great anxiety about purported threats to national security by journalists and citizens posting content online. Heavy handed laws and sweeping powers to law enforcement agencies have been the knee-jerk response to try to contain critical views and dissent.
In Nepal, since 2019, two controversial bills were heavily criticised by the media rights organisations including IFJ affiliates FNJ and Nepal Press Union (NPU). One of the bills, the Information Technology Management Bill threatens freedom of speech online. Among the concerns are that it includes provisions to impose fines of up to NRs 1.5 million (approximately USD 12,500) or jail terms up to five years for posting content on social media that in the eyes of government may pose a threat to the “country’s sovereignty, security, unity or harmony”.
The bill also includes mandatory provisions for social media companies to be registered in Nepal. If not, the use of their services will be banned. The bill provides for far tougher punishments for committing the same offense on the Internet as compared to committing the crime in person. The bill remained in the parliament for more than a year without the government tabling it for discussion and many stakeholders thought it was as good as gone, but it appeared in the schedule of parliament in April. This drew strong criticism from media and social media users prompting the parliamentary affairs committee to remove it in the eleventh hour. However, the bill with all its restrictive provisions, remains in the parliament and could be tabled any day, posing a serious impediment to freedom of expression online.
In India, the new IT laws enacted in February 2021 require social networks and messaging apps to “enable identification of the first originator of the information” to allow “prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order,” effectively breaking encryption and privacy.
The same month, the Indian government ordered content takedowns across social networks following a violent protest in the country’s capital. Among those affected by the orders were news publishers who questioned the government’s version of events. The New Delhi police also arrested a young climate activist who tried to organise a Twitter storm against India’s new farming laws that triggered the protests. Although Twitter restored some posts following a social media outrage, the government threatened arrests of Twitter employees.
Most content takedown orders by the Government of India are opaque, not public and have limited avenues for appeal. Blocking of content happens under Section 69A of the IT Act and the 2009 Blocking Rules 181, which empower the central government to direct any agency or intermediary to block access to information when satisfied that it is “necessary or expedient” in the interest of the “sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above.” Failure to comply is punishable with fines and up to seven years of prison terms. ISPs are not legally required to inform the public of blocks, and the rules mandate that executive blocking orders be kept confidential.
Pushing back digitally
Strengthening its online arsenal, in February 2021, India announced new intermediary liability laws and a code of ethics for digital publishers. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 now give the government the power to censor, order takedowns and block content in India without the publishers having any recourse to appeals. It also requires digital media entities to have a compliance officer who will be held liable for compliance.
The rules have widely been criticised by both international and national organisations such as the Mozilla Foundation, the Editors Guild of India, the Internet Freedom Foundation, and the new association of online publishers DIGIPUB, an association of 11 digital news media publishers. In response to the new IT Rules, 2021, DIGIPUB said any attempt by the executive to regulate the content of news portals or publications would be to “strike not only at the constitutional scheme but at democracy itself”. DIGIPUB also mounted a challenge to the new IT Rules in court.
In Pakistan, partly as a result of increasing regulation of the online space, over a dozen of Pakistan’s most vibrant independent online journalism platforms, that are not extensions of legacy media, in October 2020 determined to band together. Collectively they formed the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP) – to challenge and resist the state’s increasing authoritarianism on national dialogues initiated by grassroots communities.
DigiMAP represents the emerging bold new ecosystem of independent media start-ups that have mandated themselves to be the champion of public interest journalism that the legacy media has been forced to surrender before an increasingly hostile state. DigiMAP also put out a strong statement against Pakistan’s new digital regulations.
This organised pushback by coalitions of independent media such as that by DigiMAP in Pakistan, DIGIPUB in India and 16 media organisations in Sri Lanka that came together to oppose the transformation of the Press Council into a state-controlled media regulatory body, show a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak scenario. The struggle to retain the digital space as a democratic platform accessible to all citizens and a forum for free speech, has been the good fight to stem the contagion of control over the online space.
Indeed, the good news is that despite increased regulation and control, a plethora of innovative digital start-ups have sprung up, fuelled by independent journalists. A sizeable number of these innovators are journalists who lost jobs in mainstream media in the wake of the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is these efforts, along with a larger movement of media rights activists, citizens and internet users who are invested in keeping the online space free of control from the state and the market, that will mark the struggle to preserve and protect digital freedom in South Asia.