2020 has already marked a tough year for press freedom. As we ring in the new decade, the first few months of the year have proven to be a critical juncture for media freedom and how news is distributed.
Regionally, there has been a marked increase in media violations in Southeast Asia, according to the press freedom advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The Asia Pacific region has seen the greatest hit to press freedom violations globally, with a rise of 1.7% of violations compared to the previous year.
Adding to the clamp-down, human rights organisations have flagged Covid-19 as amplifying the war on truth, signalling that countries are utilising the pandemic as a means to undermine independent media and control their political agenda.
In a statement in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index report, secretary-general Christophe Deloire warned that public health crises provide authoritarian governments opportunities to implement “shock doctrines” that take advantage of the epidemic. “The fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times,” Deloire said.
Since late January, the Cambodian government has arrested 30 people over their dissenting views concerning the Covid-19 pandemic which has currently spread to 187 countries and infected over 3.5 million people worldwide. Twelve of the 30 people are associated with the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which was disbanded in 2017 after the government arrested CNRP leader Kem Sokha on dubious treason charges.
In Myanmar, the government arbitrarily closed 221 news websites last month on the grounds they were spreading “fake news” about Covid-19. Local news sources have said many of the banned sites are prominent sites which report on the country’s ethnic minorities.
Thailand has seen sweeping government legislation impose “state of emergency” decrees that give the government absolute power over what they believe to be true or false news. Even Singapore has fallen seven places to 158th on the RSF press freedom index in the past year thanks in part to “fake news” laws enacted last year, pushing the country into the black in terms of oppressive measure the government uses to control the media.
However, as governments come down hard on traditional news sources, the sands of the media landscape have begun to shift as journalists and organisations adopt new ways of bypassing government restrictions. Using unlikely tools and platforms, journalists are breaking free of media orthodoxy to share information to the masses.
In March, RSF launched the ‘Uncensored Library’, a catalogue of banned articles buried deep within Minecraft, one of the world’s most popular online games. Using a loophole within the game, online censorship can be bypassed by players from countries whose restrictive laws have limited press freedoms.
The library took 24 people from 16 different countries around 250 hours to design and construct, and in the first month of opening, nearly 4000 players from 75 countries had visited the library reading prohibited articles from Egypt, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
Articles from Nguyen Van Dai, a Vietnamese human rights lawyer, activist and blogger can be accessed, avoiding the country’s extensive digital methods of repressing journalists and cybercrime laws. “We need to reach the next generation in order to change the future!” Van Dai told RSF following the library’s creation.
Christian Mihr, executive director of Reporters Without Borders in Germany, told the BBC they chose Minecraft because of its reach. “It is available in every country,” he said. “The game is not censored like some other games which are under suspicion of being political.
“There are big communities in each featured country, that’s why the idea came up – it is a loophole for censorship,” he added.
Whilst 4000 players may not sound like a huge win for media freedom, it does reveal the innovative methods available to bypass even the most repressive of regimes.
People began using innovative ways of encrypting their messages to skirt the censorship, even using fictional languages such as Klingon from Star Trek and Sindarin from The Lord of the Rings
In 2018, RSF also devised the Uncensored Playlist, recruiting five journalists from five countries to record articles into pop songs free to download on streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music that can be accessed anywhere in the world.
China, Egypt, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Vietnam were the countries chosen, and journalists were asked to record two songs from articles that they felt summed up their government’s political situation.
Thai online news site Prachatai, founded in 2004 in direct response to increasing government control over the Thai media, recorded Infographic and Underground Radio. The songs were inspired by articles they had written about the Kingdom’s Lèse Majesté laws, which can land you a hefty 15 years in prison for insulting or defaming the royal family.
Vietnamese blogger Bùi Thanh Hiếu recorded songs When Did Do Dang Die? and “Introducing Chaos” both which discuss state corruption in Vietnam. Thanh Hiếu now lives in exile in Germany, yet his family remains in Vietnam and faces ongoing harassment by the government over his journalistic posts.
But it is not just organisations and journalists taking censorship into their own hands. In China, which ranks 177 out of 180 countries on the RSF press freedom index, people have found innovative ways of evading censorship on China’s largest messaging app, WeChat.
By using emojis, writing backwards, translating into fictional languages and sharing it as a PDF, a widely suppressed interview was able to be shared widely from Covid-19 whistle-blower, Ai Fen, who was the first to flag the-then mystery illness inundated the hospital she worked at.
Ai Fen shared photographs she took of her patients’ charts with other doctors on WeChat, raising the alarm over Covid-19 in December. In an interview with state-run magazine ‘People’, Ai explained how her hospital severely reprimanded her after these actions, accusing her of “spreading rumors”. Wuhan police also arrested all of the doctors involved in late December on charges of “spreading rumors”.
WeChat’s censors immediately began to block messages that contained segments of the interview by using optical character recognition identifying parts of the interview, however people began using innovative ways of encrypting their messages to skirt the censorship, even using fictional languages such as Klingon from Star Trek and Sindarin from The Lord of the Rings.
The censorship of Fen’s interview is not alone, research done by Citizen Lab, a research group based at the University of Toronto, found WeChat had been aggressively censoring all Covid-19 content since the outbreak in late December by tracking keywords, as Chinese health officials attempted to downplay the virus.
But despite these inventive ways journalists and citizens are fighting to have their voices heard, RSF’s Deloire said journalists cannot do this alone and need support from all corners of society if they want to continue having a robust media.
“For this decisive decade to not be a disastrous one, people of goodwill, whoever they are, must campaign for journalists to be able to fulfil their role as society’s trusted third parties,” he said. “Which means they must have the capacity to do so.”