#BannedByBeijing: Monitoring Chinese censorship abroad

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117061″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Threats to free speech and free expression come in many guises. In the year since I’ve joined the team at Index, I’ve used this blog to highlight issues as diverse as journalists being assassinated in Afghanistan to the threats of new British legislation on online harms.

One of recurring themes of my blogs has been the way in which authoritarian regimes and groups use every tool at their disposal to repress their populations. From Belarus to Myanmar, from Modi to Trump, we’ve seen global leaders act against their own populations to hold onto power and stop dissent.

For an organisation such as Index it would be easy to think that our job was solely to highlight the worst excesses of these despots, to shine a spotlight on their actions and to celebrate the work and activities of those inspirational people who stand up against this tyranny. And of course, that’s exactly what we were founded to do. But as the world moves on and technology and finance facilitate new ways of communicating to the world, Index also has a responsibility to investigate, analyse and expose the impact of some countries beyond their borders.

Over the course of the last year, Index’s attention has been drawn to the fact that there have been multiple high-profile examples of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) using its influence beyond its border in order to manipulate the world’s view of China and what it means to be Chinese:

Since the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong in June 2020, universities in the UK and in the US have reportedly had to change the way they teach certain courses – grading papers by number not name, asking students to present anonymised work of others so nothing can be attributed to an individual student and limited debate in lectures. All in order to make sure that the students are protected, and their families aren’t targeted at home in China.

In September 2020 Disney released a new film – Mulan. This film not only represents Mulan as Han Chinese rather than Mongolian as she likely was in the legend, but it was also filmed, in part, in Xinjiang province, home of the persecuted Uighur community. Seemingly an effort to change the narrative on the ongoing Uighur genocide happening in Xinjiang.

In October 2020, a scheduled exhibition on Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire in Nantes, France was postponed – not because of Covid19 but because the CCP reportedly attempted to change the narrative of the exhibition, attempting to rewrite history.

It is clear that the CCP is using soft (sharp) power in a concerted effort to censor dissent and to create a narrative that is in keeping with Xi Jinping’s vision in an effort to secure international  support for the CCP, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. We have no idea how strategic or vast this level of censorship is. What we do know is that it is happening across Europe and beyond.

It is in this vein that I’m delighted to be able to tell you about a new workstream for Index:

#BannedbyBeijing will seek to analyse and expose the extent to which China is trying to manipulate the conversation abroad.

Next week I’m delighted that we have an amazing panel to get the ball rolling and to establish how big an issue this is.

So join Mareike Ohlberg, Tom Tugendhat MP, Edward Lucas and our Chair Trevor Phillips, on Wednesday as they start this vital conversation. You can sign up here >> https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/banned-by-beijing-is-china-censoring-europe-tickets-162403107065[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

A year is a long time in human rights violations

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116995″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]It’s a year since I joined the Index family.

I think for all of us the last 12 months have been an emotional rollercoaster. The impact of Covid-19 has been a cloud over our lives; we’ve lost people close to us, we’ve all feared the effect of a virus no one had heard of 18 months ago, we’ve missed our loved ones and we’ve looked on in horror at events both at home and abroad as political leaders have both failed to manage the pandemic and undermined basic human rights under the guise of public health protections.

Repressive leaders have moved against their citizens, we’ve witnessed coups, heard testimony from detention camps and totalitarian regimes have restricted freedoms to an even greater extent throughout the world. And we’ve seen some of the most important vehicles of media freedom undermined – from Rappler to the Apple Daily.

It’s been difficult not to feel impotent. We haven’t been able to travel to stand with those being oppressed. Democratic countries have understandably focused their efforts on their domestic challenges and the institutions we depend on to enforce our shared norms as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been distracted by the global public health emergency. In other words, it has felt that totalitarian leaders have had a free pass to enforce even harsher restrictions on their peoples.

At Index, even despite the pandemic, we’ve strived to shine a spotlight on some of the most egregious attacks on free expression around the globe. In the last 12 months, we’ve supported journalists, writers, artists and academics in over two dozen countries. We’ve published reports on the impact of Covid-19, the current use of SLAPPs to undermine journalists and on online harms. Index has held events exploring the impact of 100 years of CCP rule in China, as well as on the untold stories hidden by Covid-19 and the impact of AI on social media content. And nearly three quarters of a million people have engaged with our work.

We’ve rebranded, redesigned the magazine and have completely changed our annual Freedom of Expression awards and we’ve started the celebrations to mark our 50th birthday. All of this and our team have only met in person three times, as we continue to do our work from home.

I’m so proud of the Index family, they have adapted and continue to push the envelope, making sure that no dictator can think that the world isn’t watching and that activists around the world know that we have their back. There is so much work to do in the months and years ahead in the ongoing battle for free speech, but after working with the team for a year I don’t doubt that we are making a positive difference, highlighting the bravest campaigners in the world and with your help – providing a voice for the persecuted.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

UK football social media blackout raises free speech issues


The Premier League and a coalition of football governing bodies from across the United Kingdom are set to commence a social media blackout from 30 April to 3 May to raise awareness of online racist abuse, but the initiative has raised questions over its end goal.

Clubs, players and governing bodies have called for implementation of the contentious Online Harms Bill (also known as the Online Safety Bill), which will impose regulation on social media companies in order to ensure they remove hateful speech online. They hope the blackout will draw awareness and support of the issue.

The legislation has been criticised as the bill will introduce several key points that a number of free expression groups, including Index, believe to be regressive and will impact on people’s free speech online.

This includes the definition of terms such as “legal but harmful”, which will classify some speech as legal offline but illegal online, meaning there would be inconsistency within the UK system of law.

The Professional Footballers Association (PFA), however, are in strong support of the bill. In a statement they said they hoped social media companies would be held “more accountable”.

“While football takes a stand, we urge the UK Government to ensure its Online Safety Bill will bring in strong legislation to make social media companies more accountable for what happens on their platforms, as discussed at the DCMS Online Abuse roundtable earlier this week,” they said. “We will not stop talking about this issue and will continue to work with the government in ensuring that the Online Safety Bill gives sufficient regulatory and supervisory powers to Ofcom. Social media companies need to be held accountable if they continue to fall short of their moral and social responsibilities to address this endemic problem.”

Index’s CEO Ruth Smeeth has questioned using the bill as a solution to targeting racism, as well as the use of a blackout.

“No one who has spent any time on social media could deny the fact that there is a real problem, with abuse, racism and misogyny,” she said. “The nature of social media platforms seems to bring out the worst in too many people and empower hate from every corner. The question is, though, how to fix it.”

“This is more than about what platforms allow on their sites, it’s about the culture that has been allowed to thrive online. We are all responsible for it, so we all need to work together to fix it as we can’t legislate for cultural change.  I understand why the PFA wants to boycott social media platforms – but we saw only last year when others did the same because of antisemitism, boycotts deliver only temporary respite, the haters are still hating. We all deserve better.”

The blackout will see a period of silence on social media to symbolise clubs and governing bodies coming together against the serious issue of racism in football, though some believe the action to be counter-productive and may discourage those affected from speaking out, or removing a place for discourse where people can debate such issues.

Editor of football website These Football Times, Omar Saleem, released a statement explaining why they won’t be joining the blackout over the weekend saying clubs need to take “genuine action”, “not the weekend off”, but also called for social media companies to be held accountable.

“Silence is not the answer. I truly believe that. As a minority in football, that’s my opinion,” he said. “Racism cannot be fought by white-led social media teams suggesting we go silent for the weekend during some of the quietest times on those platforms.”

“Instead of silence, we need action. We need voices to speak louder than ever, programmes that educate and organise. We needed that societally post-George Floyd and we need it in football, too. We need clubs to take genuine action – not the weekend off.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Letter to MSPs on Scotland’s Hate Crime and Public Order Bill


Dear MSP,

We the undersigned have serious concerns about Part 2 of the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, and increasingly so in light of recent parliamentary deliberations.

Over the last year, there has been a robust debate about Part 2 of the bill, which outlines new offences on the stirring up of hatred. We all condemn crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice. The difficulty with this Bill, in its current form, is its potential to have a wider, negative effect on freedom of expression in Scotland.

When the bill was published last year, the police, the legal profession, academics, civil liberties groups and others cautioned that the offences could catch legitimate debate on a range of issues. The vague wording of the offences and a lack of adequate free speech protections could, they warned, place a chill on free expression in the arts, the media and the public square when it comes to discussions about contentious issues such as religion and trans rights.

After a wide and sustained backlash, the Scottish Government announced several concessions. Most significantly, Ministers conceded that offending should be limited to ‘intent’. It also committed to ‘broadening and deepening’ a free speech clause covering religion and inserting a new clause on transgender identity.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf lodged amendments to effect these changes ahead of Stage 2 deliberations by the Justice Committee, which began on 2 February 2021. However, the Cabinet Secretary, in agreement with other MSPs on the Committee, decided to withdraw amendments on freedom of expression at the eleventh hour, saying he would seek ‘consensus’ on a ‘catch-all’ free speech clause, to be drafted ahead of Stage 3.

This move has, in our view, undermined the whole process of scrutiny to date. Amendments to safeguard freedom of expression on religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity – topics that are subject to strong and often controversial debate – were vitally important and agreed upon by the majority of stakeholders who have engaged with parliament over the last 12 months.

Providing separate and robust freedom of expression provisions on these topics was also the approach advocated by Lord Bracadale QC in evidence to the Committee last year. He said: “Such amendments to the bill would be an expression of the kind of line that we want to identify between ‘offensive behaviour’ on one side and ‘threatening and abusive behaviour’ on the other”.

The idea that a workable ‘catch-all’ provision covering these topics, as well as the characteristics of age, disability, and variations of sex characteristics, can be agreed upon by the government and other parties before final, Stage 3 proceedings take place is, frankly, untenable. Manufacturing such a clause over the next few weeks, behind closed doors, will also necessarily preclude the views of parliament, stakeholders and the public from being taken into account.

We strongly believe that producing workable provisions on the stirring up of hatred in this parliament is now entirely impracticable. These provisions could impact upon the most precious liberties in any democratic society: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and religion. They must be handled with the utmost care.

We urge MSPs in every party to oppose Part 2 of the Hate Crime Bill and allow other, non-contentious aspects of the bill to proceed without it. New proposals on the stirring up of hatred could be brought forward in the next parliament, where they would be scrutinised thoroughly over time, with renewed input by a wide range of stakeholders.


Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship;

Emma Webb, Associate Fellow, Civitas;

Ian Murray, Executive Director, Society of Editors;

Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner;

Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party;

Stephen Evans, CEO, the National Secular Society;

Simon Calvert, Deputy Director, The Christian Institute;

Hardeep Singh, Deputy Director, Network of Sikh Organisations;

Trina Budge, Director, For Women Scot;

Andrew Allison, Head of Campaigns, Freedom Association;

Kapil Summan, Editor, Scottish Legal News;

Dr Kath Murray, Research Fellow in Criminology, Uni. of Edinburgh;

Lucy Hunter Blackburn, researcher and former senior civil servant;

Lisa MacKenzie, independent researcher;

Dr Stuart Waiton, sociologist, Abertay University, Dundee;

Madeleine Kearns, journalist;

Jamie Gillies, Free to Disagree campaign.