Pakistan election surprise highlights ways to fight censorship

The media in Pakistan, a 240-million strong nation, has seldom been free ever since it removed its colonial shackles from the British Raj in 1947. Spates of draconian laws to curb the press were imposed in the three martial law periods, as well as during the democratic governments, spanning the 77-year life of this South Asian nation. These attacks reached new heights in recent weeks, as Pakistan voted in a tense general election. Critical voices from press and civil society were strangled. The military establishment tried to control the media narrative, while internet blackouts became commonplace. And yet despite this, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) backed independent candidates bagged the largest number of seats in the national and provincial assemblies, in an upset for the military establishment.

“This is peoples’ reaction against the actions,” Mazhar Abbas, a senior award-winning journalist and anchor, told Index. “This is an eye-opener for those who think the suppression could serve their purpose.”

Independent candidates backed by the PTI, the party of Imran Khan, won 93 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly or lower house of 264 seats, but will not be allowed to form a government as they were forced to run as individuals. Parties of thrice-prime minister Nawaz Sharif secured 75 seats followed by the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) with 54 seats. Given these votes the most likely outcome is a coalition government.

“This is a people’s rebellion against the establishment that keeps curbing the media to promote parties of their own choices,” Aziz Sanghur, a senior journalist and author, said. “This is the 21st century and the age of IT, we must not forget.”

Facing fierce clampdowns on their social media accounts, as well as attempts to impede their election campaigns, the contesting candidates had to be on their toes. They managed to outmanoeuvre the censorship through a variety of means including using all of the social media platforms to their advantage.

“Our social media and IT team kept struggling against the closure of data services and our social media accounts, [by] creating VPN connections and using other means,” Yasir Baloch, a PTI candidate for the Sindh provincial assembly told Index.

Members of his constituency extended their help to Baloch.

“On the election day when data service and mobile phone service was switched off, the people in our constituency volunteered to give our team access to their home wi-fi connections. That was a huge favour for us,” he said.

Conventional canvassing methods also had to be re-assessed.

“We managed to hold our meetings [within] the compound wall instead of open places as we had to face the police crackdowns on our rallies,” he said. “We carried our campaign door to door and women played a leading role.”

But it will be hard for Pakistan to establish media freedoms.

“There have been many draconian laws that governed the media and press, but this time ‘invisible’ hands unleashed gagging censorship, which is unprecedented,” said Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a professor and author of several books on Pakistani media and a media practitioner.

Khan was referring to the constant interventions from the powerful military establishment. Many journalists working for the national television channels spoke to Index on the condition of anonymity. They confirmed the practice of daily intervention by the media wing of the military, known as Inter Services Public Relations or ISPR.

“When they [dictated to] us the news packages in the beginning, I predicted that the days were not far off and that they would dictate the whole rundown,” said a senior journalist, who works with Geo TV, the country’s top private television channel.

“My fears came true as now we get dictation from ISPR on a daily basis, with the advice that the news must be broadcast without attribution,” he said.

Empirical surveys with senior journalists at many independent news channels confirmed this, including ARY, Neo News, Abb Takk, Aaj TV, Hum TV, 92 News, KTN, Express TV, 24 News and Dawn News. These are all top-ranking television channels, watched widely across Pakistan.

“We are obliged to run that news to protect our job,” one journalist said.

The party that won the last general election and was in power from 2018 until 2022 remained a pivotal target of the censorship. Imran Khan, the former cricketer turned politician, led his PTI party. Coming into power for the first time in 2018, Khan had a strong backing from the military establishment, a channel that inherently matters more than popular votes in the country. Catalysing the military support, Khan made full use of censorship and media clampdowns to suppress independent journalists as well as political opponents. Legal cases were registered against media houses, journalists and social media commentators for raising voices against his policies and political discourse.

“Khan in fact torpedoed the financial structure of the media industry, [which] was a fatal blow to the free press,” Tauseef Ahmed Khan said.

Geo News, the most influential TV channel in the country which was critical of Imran Khan and supportive of Nawaz Sharif, was cast out of government sponsored advertisements in 2020, the biggest source of revenue to the industry. It was taken off air in different cities and parts of the country, including the cantonment areas, administered by the military.

But the tables turned when Khan was ousted in 2022 in a no-confidence vote after a fallout with the military. He was jailed for corruption, and later for leaking state secrets.

Tit-for-tat censorship ensued under the new under-the-radar sanctions. Khan’s party was declared proscribed and naming it or Khan on television channels was banned by the military-backed coalition government of the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

No let-up was seen in censorship by the care-taker government appointed in August 2023, which only had a mandate to hold general elections in Pakistan. The caretaker government under Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar took more stringent measures to black out Khan and his party from the mainstream media.

The undeclared news boycott of Khan’s party continued until the election day on 8 February 2024, while its supporters ran a robust campaign on social media. His party was denied the opportunity to contest the election under the pretext of the party’s failure to hold intra-party elections, a constitutional prerequisite for a political party to become eligible for general election participation.

Frustrating the party’s social media ‘warriors’, the authorities clamped down by switching off internet networks countrywide repeatedly over recent years, usually targeting social media or messaging services.

“Curbing internet access during elections strikes at democracy’s heart, betraying human rights,” Surfshark, a media watchdog said in a statement.

On the very day of elections on 8 February, a complete shutdown of mobile services crippled journalists in the field who were covering the elections. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the state-regulator, said it had decided to do so in view of the worsening law and order situation.

“The decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on election day is a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Amnesty International reacted.

The failures of the mainstream media alarms media pundits, who see an ominous trend in the coming weeks.

“This is very unfortunate that the mainstream media seem to have lost its credibility against the social media in the country,” said Sohail Sangi, a veteran journalist, who has served imprisonment in dictatorial regimes for raising his voice for press freedom.

It is feared that propaganda will replace factual news.

“We know that on social media, largely unauthentic info goes viral and its impact is huge,” Tauseef Ahmed Khan said.

“This might transform the media landscape in the country if things are not fixed.”

China’s feminists walk a tightrope

It was in 2015, during my internship at one of China’s most prominent digital media publications, that I had my first close encounter with censorship. Every so often the editor-in-chief would repost a message to our online chat group coming from someone whose username was “The Person is Present” (“人在呢”). They were from the Cyberspace Administration, which is the national internet regulator and censor of China. The message was always an instruction such as “Look up and delete all related reportage on the topic of A, report by 6PM.” The username, together with the requests they made, created an Orwellian atmosphere that even at my level as just an intern was chilling. All I could think was: “Big Brother is watching you.”

That same year, “the Feminist Five”, a group of feminist activists, were arrested for planning to protest against sexual harassment on public transport just before International Women’s Day. Today even more feminists have been targeted, including Index 2022 award winner Sophia Huang Xueqin, who has been in jail for years now for her journalism and activism. Many of those who protested and were later arrested during the White Paper Revolution were also connected to the feminist movement. But not all discussions around women’s rights were or are silenced.

“To be honest, in today’s China, it’s difficult to discuss other topics in detail, but the topic of feminism can be discussed to some extent,” the journalist Qing Wang said in one episode of her podcast The Weirdo. Books about feminism by authors such as the Japanese feminist Chizuko Ueno have become bestsellers in China, even though the publishing sector censors other subjects. Feminist conversations with Chinese characteristics, which oppose the display of female sexuality and eroticism, as exemplified in the discussions around K-pop star Lisa’s Crazy Horse cabaret performance, are allowed to flourish rather than being censored because they essentially align with the ruling patriarchal and traditional Confucius values.  

The most recent incident that sparked a widespread debate on feminism in the Mandarin-speaking world was a unique eulogy article written by Dr Lang Chen, the wife of assistant professor Xiaohong Xu at the University of Michigan, in which she delineated the gender dynamic in an intellectual household. The single article went viral online and reached more than 100,000 readers this January.

General feminist topics such as period poverty and gender-based healthcare inequalities are also essentially allowed. The latter discussion has even led to positive change. For example, in September 2022, after a woman’s complaint about the unavailability of sanitary towels on bullet trains became a trending topic on Weibo, the bullet trains started selling period products.

As shown in the Baidu Index, searching for the word “nvquan” (feminism) surged to a historical high at the time of the 2022 Tangshan restaurant attack, in which four women were savagely beaten by a group of men after rejecting their unwanted advances. However, the censorship machine soon turned the narrative from gender-based violence and femicide towards gang violence. Any efforts to approach the incident from a feminist angle on social media such as Weibo and WeChat was subject to the accusation of “inciting conflict between genders” and therefore scrubbed by the censors. For example, an article from the account Philosophia哲学社, which discussed the incident under the title “The Tangshan Barbecue Restaurant Incident Is Exactly An Issue of Gender”, was promptly removed from the WeChat platform. All the while other discussions asserting the idea that it was not a gender issue but rather a matter of human safety were allowed to spread.  

Another illustration of where it starts to move into murkier waters is the well-known case of Zhou Xiaoxuan (better known as Xianzi) accusing Zhu Jun, a host from the state broadcaster CCTV, of sexual harassment. This case did spark widespread feminist discussions and helped launch the #MeToo movement in China. But the #MeToo term itself was promptly banned on social media (which led to a series of other terms to try and bypass the censors), Xianzi was suspended from Weibo and the court case ruled against her, symbolising a setback for China’s feminist movement.

The Chinese-US novelist Geling Yan was also silenced on Chinese social media because she voiced her anger in 2022 about the Xuzhou chained woman incident, where a woman was trafficked before being chained to a wall for years, continuously raped and gave birth to eight children. Yan called Xi Jinping “a human trafficker” in one interview. Directing her anger to the top was not appreciated. Her essays were removed from social media, she was blocked and her name was even removed from a Zhang Yimou film based on one of her novels. 

So how can we make sense of the fact that some discussion of feminism is allowed while some discussion is not? Essentially feminist debate faces censorship once it starts to attract public attention, challenge the ruling power and has the potential to move to offline collective action. As one activist and member of the civic group BCome, who acted in the feminist theatre play Our Vaginas, OurSelves, has said:

“The censorship machine is most concerned with the potential of offline gathering and organised collective action. As made evident in ‘the Xuzhou chained woman incident’, Wuyi was just an ordinary netizen who had no previous activist records, and she got arrested only because she took the action of going to the actual place and investigating the incident herself.”

Due to the action-oriented nature of her work, the actor-turned-activist suffered from constant harassment from state security agents, and her phone which was registered in China, was traced and tapped.

This also helps explain the swift action around Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a top Chinese official of sexual harassment. Shuai has largely disappeared from the public space since she spoke out. While what she did didn’t necessarily fit into the box of collective action, like the Feminist Five’s actions, Peng still went after a top official. As this Index article highlights, China has space for people to accuse low-level officials but not those at the top and Peng learnt the hard way. 

Another issue that feminists now face is China’s low birthrate, which fell for the seventh year in a row in 2023. Fear is that censorship of feminism will increase as an growing number of Chinese feminists now hold negative views on marriage and childbearing. This is especially true for those identified as “radical feminists”, who are strongly against heteronormative marriage and childbearing. Many believe this was the reason behind the overnight crackdown on eight radical feminist groups in 2021 on Douban, with the officially stated reason being that they “consisted of extremism and radical political ideology”.

One episode of the critically acclaimed feminist podcast Seahorse planet, which discussed resisting the tradition of unconditionally obeying one’s parents, was similarly censored as filial piety is seen as the bedrock of the Chinese patriarchal order – which demands an increasing birthrate. On the flipside you have labels like “leftover women”, a negative term that gained traction from 2006 to essentially try and shame women into getting married, which continues to be used on one form or another. Ultimately it’s expedient for the government to pressure Chinese women into having children and they’ll ramp up rhetoric that helps that, while curtailing conversations advocating the opposite. 

So is the topic of feminism free to discuss in China? Yes, so long as it’s not oriented towards collective-action, it leaves the ruling power of the party-state untouched and doesn’t threaten the birthrate, which doesn’t really leave much to discuss at all, except perhaps sanitary pads and lipstick. 

Chinese election interference tests Taiwan’s capability to defend freedom of speech

As Taiwan gears up for the presidential and legislative election on 13 January, the Chinese government is also ramping up its efforts to interfere. From sponsored trips to China for local leaders, economic coercion, fake opinion polls, and disinformation campaigns, some analysts say the wide-ranging tactics that Beijing has unleashed will have an impact on the election’s outcome.

In recent weeks, Taiwanese authorities have launched investigations into several cases of individuals attempting to sway voters by inviting local borough chiefs and village leaders on group tours to China. These trips are partially sponsored by local Chinese authorities.

During the trips, participants were allegedly encouraged by officials from China’s propaganda department to vote for political parties and candidates favoured by Beijing. At least one man has been indicted while several others are facing ongoing investigations.

Apart from sponsored trips, Beijing also rolled out coercive economic measures to pressure Taiwan, suspending tariff relief on imports of 12 Taiwanese petrochemical products, and blaming it on the trade barriers enacted by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“Since 2023 is a major year of cross-strait exchange for China, Chinese authorities have devoted a lot of resources to facilitate influence campaigns against Taiwan,” Puma Shen, chairperson of Taipei-based research group Doublethink Lab, told Index on Censorship. “They want to make sure that Taiwanese people feel threatened but also are not too afraid of the influence campaigns from China.”

The most recent example of China’s influence campaign is an investigation into alleged lip-sync by popular Taiwanese rock band Mayday, a practice that is banned for live musicians in China. A Taiwanese security agency internal memo claims the investigation is Beijing’s attempt to pressure the rock band into publicly supporting the position that Taiwan is a part of China.

Shen from Doublethink Lab said Taiwanese people who have huge financial stakes in China, such as artists and businessmen, often become targets of China’s influence campaign. “Even though they are earning money in China, they are more like victims,” he said.

Multi-pronged cognitive warfare

In addition to economic coercion and influencing local politicians, some experts say China has also launched multi-pronged cognitive warfare against Taiwan ahead of the election, amplifying narratives criticising the ruling party through state media outlets and initiating disinformation campaigns on social media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube and Facebook.

Over the last few months, China’s state-run media outlets have repeated the narrative that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is pushing Taiwan to the brink of war with its efforts to pursue “Taiwan independence”. The narrative resonates with criticisms against the DPP by opposition candidates in Taiwan, who have repeatedly accused DPP’s presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te, of being “the golden child of Taiwan independence.”

There are also signs that Chinese state media and online troll groups are amplifying narratives aimed at damaging the image and credibility of the Taiwanese government, including controversial domestic issues such as the de-sinicization of Taiwan’s curriculum and scepticism toward the Taiwanese government’s deepened relations with the USA.

According to Taiwan AI Labs, online troll groups have mirrored narratives promoted by Chinese state media, including the People’s Daily, Haiwainet, Xinhua News Agency, Global Times, and China Central Television (CCTV). While there is no direct evidence to prove that China is behind all online troll groups, Taiwan AI Labs said their behaviours fit the criteria of autocratic countries’ interference in democratic elections.

“Since the online troll groups promote narratives about Taiwanese domestic issues and U.S. President Joe Biden and there is a high similarity between the narratives they promote and the narratives preferred by Chinese state media, we can conclude that it fits the methods that autocratic countries use to interfere in democratic elections,” Ethan Tu, the founder of Taiwan AI Labs, said.

Compared to China’s efforts to interfere in previous Taiwan elections, it is becoming harder to determine whether disinformation targeting the upcoming Taiwanese election originates from China or not.

“This time around, it’s very difficult to determine whether the disinformation originates from China or is created by actors within Taiwan,” Chiaoning Su, an associate professor in communication, journalism, and public relations at Oakland University, told Index on Censorship.

In her view, China has built up a better understanding of public opinion in Taiwan and they realise that for efforts of election interference to work, the narratives they amplify need to match the trend in Taiwan’s public opinion.

“The way that China is amplifying social economic issues such as the controversy of lack of eggs or the debate about reducing the amount of ancient Chinese literature in the curriculum shows that their efforts to initiate disinformation campaign are becoming more localised and harder to trace,” Su said.

Shen from Doublethink Lab said one of the main goals of China’s disinformation campaign is to denigrate democracy. “They want to show the Taiwanese public that Taiwan’s democracy is a mess and that while the DPP claims to protect democracy and freedom, in the end, it is not democratic and free at all,” he told Index on Censorship.

Since Taiwan is a democracy that values freedom of speech, Shen thinks Taiwanese authorities need to deal with the threats that come with China’s election interference through ways that will safeguard Taiwanese people’s freedom of expression, by specifically identifying remarks which originate from sources external to Taiwan.

“Otherwise, they will fall into China’s trap,” he said.

Myanmar’s growing doxxing problem

More than two years ago, as Myanmar’s coup unfolded, open-source content provided unique insight into what was happening in the country and the battlelines that were soon to emerge. Live from a roundabout in the capital of Naypyidaw, exercise instructor Khing Hnin Wai unwittingly captured and disseminated live footage of the coup taking place via Facebook. For a brief period, images of Khing Hnin Wai dancing in front of a military convoy became symbolic of Myanmar’s struggle to maintain democracy.

Here at Myanmar Witness, we use user-generated, openly available content like this to identify, verify and report on events across Myanmar involving abuses of human rights and contraventions of international law. We let the evidence speak for itself when we publish the results of our investigations, collaborate with media and share evidence with justice and accountability mechanisms.

Content we examine is rarely as innocuous as Khing Hnin Wai‘s video. Since our inception as one of the witness projects at the Centre for Information Resilience, we have used imagery from social media, geospatial providers, and other forms of ‘open’ sources to contribute towards accountability for crimes being committed. These include horrific beheadings, the widespread intentional use of fire, the impact of the conflict on sites with special protections, and at a scale and sophistication beyond what we see in our other witness projects — hate speech and doxxing.

Doxxing exposes the private information of individuals, such as addresses, phone numbers and more, without their consent. In Myanmar it is done with the intent to intimidate, spread fear and suppress voices. Doxxing has become the digital manifestation of the real-world violence faced by thousands of people in Myanmar everyday. Our findings have repeatedly shown that in Myanmar, the internet is being used as a weapon – and this is steeped in history. Facebook was widely used as a vehicle for the promotion of hate speech and incitement to violence during the Rohingya crisis, which led to the social media company admitting failings in the way it handled content on its platform.

In January this year, following an investigation into online abuse against Burmese women, we released our Digital Battlegrounds report, which showed how the situation is worsening. Its findings were damning: Facebook and Telegram were hosting politically-motivated abuse targeted at Burmese women. Abuse included real-world threats of violence, gendered hate speech and sexually violent commentary. The source of this content was clear – pro-Myanmar Military accounts and users.

To their credit, and in response to Myanmar Witness and BBC outreach, both Meta and Telegram removed a large amount of content which violated their respective terms of service. However, in the case of Telegram, soon after some accounts were removed or suspended, new ones emerged to take their place. Identifying online abusers and their violent content continues to be painstaking and tedious work.

The online information environment in Myanmar has been, and continues to be, part of the conflict. In the wake of an airstrike by the Myanmar Air Force against Pa Zi Gyi village in April 2023, the darkness of Myanmar’s digital conflict resurfaced. With some media reporting more than 160 dead it was one of the worst airstrikes seen in Myanmar and led to an outpouring of domestic and international sympathy and condemnation.

In Myanmar, a ‘black profile’ campaign emerged online, mourning the victims of the attack. Today’s report by Myanmar Witness investigators shows just how the military regime retaliated with a brutal crackdown — online and offline — against those who dared to show sympathy. For engaging in non-violent online protest, individuals were met with arrests, threats and physical violence. Both their digital and real-world voices were silenced.

Pro-junta groups doxxed those who protested digitally as online sympathy grew in the wake of the airstrike. We found a link: at least 11 of the 20 individuals who were doxxed were then arrested for their activities on Facebook within days of being exposed by pro-junta Telegram channels. They were among a total of 69 people who were arrested within three weeks of the airstrike. In the vast majority of cases, social media activity was the stated reason for their arrest by the authorities.

Some months following their arrest, five individuals who were influential and well-known — a former journalist and several celebrities — were released. Multiple pro-junta Telegram channels hinted at their release before it occurred, indicating information sharing, if not coordination, between these channels and the military authorities. The fate of the more than 60 others detained in the same period remains unclear. Our research only scratches the surface of the vicious digital and physical conflict in Myanmar, and there are no signs of it abating.

While those who incite and intimidate online are ultimately responsible, inadequate moderation of content by social media platforms is part of the problem, as is the protracted war in Myanmar which recycles and reinforces the online violence. While others go online to perpetuate conflict, we at Myanmar Witness will continue to use digital content to identify, verify and report on the conflict, and to ensure that those at risk of being silenced have their voices heard.