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A few months ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, in October 2021, activists gathered at multiple locations in Athens to protest China’s hosting of the Games. In an alarming turn of events, Greek police arrested several of the activists. Some were arrested for unfurling banners, others for simply handing out fliers or, even just attending the “No Beijing 2022” events. Some were released without charge, others were acquitted after trial. For three activists, their trials were postponed until later in 2023.
Before travelling to Greece, the activists – who were mostly Hong Kongers and Tibetans from Switzerland, the USA and Canada – tried to engage with International Olympics Committee (IOC) officials. They explained that hosting the Olympics in an authoritarian country that commits genocide was a violation of the Olympic Charter, which ensures that the games promote “a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. However, their arguments fell on deaf ears. Frances Hui, the director of “We The HongKongers”, told Index that IOC officials dismissed them, saying “you’re young, this is a complicated issue.”
Another activist, Zumretay Arkin, director of the World Uyghur Congress Women’s Committee, told Index that protesting at the Olympic flame lighting ceremony “was an opportunity for us to counter Beijing in Greece.”
While the activists knew there are always risks involved in protesting, they were not particularly worried. The most common tactic used to silence dissidents abroad – threatening the safety of loved ones – could not work as most activists involved had no direct family left in their homelands. Tsela Zoksang, a Students for Free Tibet member, told Index: “I have the privilege to raise my voice up against the CCP, unlike many communities who remain under the brutal rule of the CCP, and so I think I have a duty to amplify their voices and their stories.” Greece’s position as a member of the EU also reassured the protesters. According to Pema Doma, one of the activists and Executive Director at Students for a Free Tibet, they believed it “very unlikely that a country of the EU would act on orders of the Chinese government”. These beliefs were unfortunately misplaced.
On 18 October, activists congregated outside the flame lighting ceremony. The activists planned to stand outside the security cordon and hand out flyers to journalists as they entered the Temple of Hera.
The activists were first approached by a Greek police officer curious about their activity but were left undisturbed. This soon changed. According to four activists that Index spoke to, the Greek officer spoke to an individual who identified themself as and was dressed in the uniform of, a member from the Chinese Embassy. The Greek officer insisted that “They’re just sitting there, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to sit there”. According to the activists’ retelling, this was met with the firm instruction to “make them leave. Tell them they can’t stay here”. They were moved from the entrance car park to a public pavement.
The activists had spotted other plain-clothed Asian men earlier taking photos of them. These same men approached the Greek police, and after a short discussion the activists were detained by Greek police officers. They were arrested without being informed of their rights and taken in unmarked cars to Pyrgos Police Station.
The Greek police possess broad powers to arrest activists for unsanctioned actions. Avgoustinos Zenakos, an investigative journalist from the Manifold Files, told Index: “The Greek police interpret these laws in their favour…This means whether it is abused or used in an honest way depends on the culture of the police rather than the letter of the individual law.” During an official visit to Greece, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported that they received “credible information involving non-nationals in pre-trial detention who were detained exclusively on the basis of police testimony, including when there was other evidence that did not support the guilt of the persons involved.”
The protesters believe that the decision to arrest them was not made by the police alone. Doma told Index: “We knew right from the beginning it was the Chinese Embassy staff directing the Greek police quite directly, quite closely, you know, telling them exactly what to tell us”.
The next day, another group of activists were detained after holding a press conference to discuss the CCP’s human rights abuses to members of the media. The event was monitored by unknown individuals, some of whom attempted to stare down and harass the activists. When some of the activists confronted the individuals and asked them where they were from they laughed before replying, “We’re from China”. Tsering Gonpa, a Tibetan Youth Association of Europe activist, and Tenzin Yangzom, Grassroots Director at Students for a Free Tibet, climbed into a taxi together after the event and immediately heard sirens. Their passports were confiscated and they were escorted to the Athens police station.
“We were extremely shocked by the CCP’s influence and leverage in democratic Greece. We knew the situation was bad, but we certainly didn’t expect this level of transnational repression,” Yangzom told Index.
According to Zenakos, to find criticism of Greece’s relationship with China, including Chinese state ownership of key Greek assets and Greece’s involvement in key initiatives such as the 16+1 grouping of countries and China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy, “you would have to dig deep.” These all raise questions as to whether increasing economic entanglement is leading Greece to become overprotective of its relationship with China. For instance, in 2016 Athens pushed for an EU statement on the South China Sea to be amended to remove criticism of Beijing and a year later it vetoed an EU statement at the UN Human Rights Council condemning human rights abuses in China. According to media reporting, this was the first time the EU didn’t make a statement of this nature at the council.
Mistreatment in the police stations
On 17 October 2021, Tesla Zoksang and Joey Siu, and one other anonymous activist, planned to install a banner onto the outer-walls of the Acropolis. Within about two minutes of ascending, a security guard approached and cut down the banner. The activists remained perched on the scaffolding watching police cars arrive before they were escorted down. Greek barrister Alexis Anagnostakis, who represented the activists, told Index that “the activists’ removal from the protest site, their arrest, and their remand in police custody was a disproportionate interference with their rights for freedom of expression and assembly, as is their criminal prosecution.” Anagnostakis was also surprised by the escalation “since similar protests on the Acropolis reportedly have never before been prosecuted.”
According to Tsela Zoksang, at the police station during an interrogation, one activist who wished to remain anonymous, was told by Greek officials that a representative from the US embassy was there to see them. However, the representative later allegedly admitted to being from an unspecified Greek agency. With assistance from the non-profit Vouliwatch, Index submitted an FOI request to the Greek police, attempting to verify these claims but were denied the disclosure on the basis that Index does not have “specific legitimate interest”. Index has lodged an appeal.
Other detained activists were not informed of their rights or what crime they were alleged to have committed. When the activists detained outside of the press conference asked why they were being detained an officer told them “to be completely honest with you, I don’t know why we’re taking you with us but I got orders from the higher ups”.
They were asked to sign documents without an English translation. After refusing, Zoksang reported that the officers “began getting very angry and frustrated. They were saying, ‘You are disobeying me, you are disobeying the law.’ I said, ‘No, but I can’t sign something if I don’t know what it says’”. They were told they would be punished for not signing documents and giving their fingerprints but at the time of going to press, nothing has yet come of this. The activists were also asked a series of seemingly irrelevant questions such as their parents’ names. Given the potential involvement or presence of CCP-affiliated actors in their detention, they feared this information would be shared with the Chinese authorities, potentially imperilling their ability to travel and the safety of any family members in CCP-jurisdiction.
Every Tibetan is an activist
Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan activist, explained to Index: “Every Tibetan that was born after 1959 is born an activist … because your existence is by default political in nature when you are born stateless.”
While the Games still went ahead, the campaign nonetheless left its mark. As Lhamo told Index, “There was a moment of time, in the world, in the busy world that we are in, when people stopped for a moment to ask, ‘what’s happening? What’s happening within Tibet?’”
The diplomatic boycotts were also found to have had a major impact on viewership. Yangzom told Index that the oppression of the activists was “vindication that the work that we’re doing is making an impact and we must be doing something right – so we mustn’t give up and keep raising our voices on behalf of Tibetans inside Tibet and all those oppressed.”
All charges against the Acropolis actors were dropped on 17 November 2022. Michael Polak, their British ‘Justice Abroad’ barrister, stated “It is hoped that the acquittals today will send a strong message that legitimate peaceful protest and assembly, of the type banned totally in China and Hong Kong, will be allowed even when it hurts the fragile sensibilities of the Beijing and Hong Kong regimes.”
Yet, the charges against others for attempting to “pollute, damage and distort” the historical monument of Olympia, punishable by up to five years in prison, still stand. The original trial against Lhamo, Jason Leith and Fern MacDougal was delayed before being again pushed back to November 2023. MacDougal told Index she worries “the delay in trial has the effect of both avoiding public discussion of the human rights violations that we took action based on and of obscuring the meaning of our action.”
Lhamo also noted that “it is another year of waiting, and having a pending court case has its own consequences which seem to unfold in various ways for us.” She elaborated to Index that she is “lucky” to have continued support from the lawyers and organisations, but the charge is a significant barrier for them to engage in more direct actions and affects their ability to travel. Yet she emphasised: “Don’t feel anxious for us [about the court case] … Let’s channel that energy of solidarity and support to the folks we are actually working for, those inside Tibet.”
I had my first taste of Chinese censorship in 2007. I was living in Shanghai and working at a lifestyle magazine. In the journalistic world the gig was about as uncontroversial as it gets – a calendar of spa treatments and interviews with restaurateurs. But there was a features section and – keen to work on something meatier – I pitched an article on the rise of obesity in line with the rise of US fast-food outlets. The editor gave me the thumbs-up and I spent the next month working on it. Only it never got printed. Because the magazine was published from within China, all material had to go through a censor and this censor was not happy. He told the editor that while the article might blame US chains for the problem, ultimate responsibility lay at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How will it reflect on them if they can’t control their nation’s waistlines?
Little did I know then that this uncommon experience, which felt like dealing with the world’s most pernickety censor, would be fairly typical by 2022. We have, after all, just seen children’s book publishers in Hong Kong sent to jail merely for publishing a series about a flock of sheep resisting a pack of wolves (the series could spread separatist ideas, apparently).
But this was the China of Hu Jintao. Everything felt freer then. Facebook was in its nascence and adopted with enthusiasm, foreign visas were easy to get, VPNs were rarely needed. There were taboo topics to be sure, “the Ts” for example – Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan. I read a copy of Wild Swans in a café, its front cover wrapped in a scarf, because the book was officially banned in China. Superficially, though, it felt open.
But superficiality is the enemy of nuance. Beneath the surface CCP China was always controlling, even under the more “benevolent” leadership of Hu. Shanghai was exhilarating – what I’d imagine New York must have felt like in the 1970s. All promise and enterprise. And yet injustice was everywhere: in the rickshaw drivers hauling goods in 30-degree heat next to those driving their air-conditioned Mercedes; the construction workers who slept in makeshift villages on the outskirts of the ever-expanding city. My friend wanted to send a parcel to someone in Xinjiang Province. She wrote the address in the Roman alphabet and at the post office was ordered to rewrite it in Chinese characters. She pushed back arguing that the language of the Uyghurs was a Turkic one, so numerals made more sense than characters. It got heated, she backed down. We met for lunch after and she was reeling, about the incident as well as the general ill-treatment of Uyghurs. Days later I read about a baby girl who had been left on a doorstep a few miles away from where I was living, a victim of the One-Child Policy. Not the first victim, nor the last. I started to write about these injustices, only by this stage I had wised up – it would have to be with foreign press.
A few years later, in 2011, I was living in Beijing. China’s capital was and is, by many measures, a harder city to live in than Shanghai and I knew that. Brutally cold winters, an urban sprawl that’s unsuited to walking. But the real challenge about Beijing then was how quickly the country’s politics had moved on in just a matter of years. If Facebook was my early barometer of openness, then its blocking in 2009 was a sign that China’s doors were closing. Gmail ran at a sluggish pace, if at all. Communicating with those outside China was seamless one day, impossible the next.
As for the attitude towards foreigners, which was once warm, this too was starting to change. One night I was locked inside a bar – police officers were outside demanding papers of foreigners. In a dispatch I wrote following the event long-time expats told me they’d never been treated with such hostility.
Most memorable of all was the Bo Xilai scandal in the spring of 2012. With the mysterious death of a UK national, a “love nest” traced to Bournemouth, a security officer seeking refuge in Chengdu’s US consulate, and a Chinese power couple and their Harvard-educated son at the centre, it was little wonder the news gripped people outside China. Inside China it was a different matter. Details were tightly controlled and spun. Bo was charged with corruption in a resoundingly clear message – a new era was starting and favouritism would no longer be tolerated. The charismatic figure’s dramatic fall from grace was, if anything, the first real taste of how Xi would treat his opponents – ruthlessly. Today Bo remains in prison, serving a life sentence.
I left China, this time for good, just after Xi Jinping took office. Despite some early warning signs, the mood was still somewhat hopeful as I departed. Maybe the creeping authoritarianism that had come to define the end of the Hu era would recede under Xi? Such hopes were quickly dashed. From the get-go Xi has put in a level of energy to crush dissent that is dizzying to say the least. Ten years on, the ways in which he has attacked civil society is substantial. Here are some headlines:
– In the treatment of Uyhgurs, of which over one million are currently in concentration camps, he has presided over arguably the largest genocide the world has seen since the 1940s. In fact, oppression of minorities is so intense under his leadership that people struggle to keep up. Tibet, once a hot topic for the rights-minded, has dropped off the list – people are too overwhelmed and distracted by the other things the CCP are doing.
– Scores of activists, lawyers, writers, publishers, scholars and employees of NGOs have been rounded up and imprisoned. Many of those detained have also appeared on state-run TV confessing to “crimes” ahead of their trial. The treatment of the “Feminist Five”, a group of women who were arrested in 2015 for simply speaking out against the country’s sexual harassment problem, is just one example in an exhaustive list.
– The number of independent journalists in China has been significantly wheedled down. Foreign reporters have been driven out, either because their visas weren’t renewed or because they couldn’t operate anymore in an environment in which access to information is tightly controlled. Foreign news sites have been blocked, while Chinese sites have been closed. In 2016, for example, news services run by some of China’s biggest online portals, such as Sina’s News Geek, Sohu’s Click Today, and NetEase’s Signpost, were all shut for publishing independent reports instead of official statements.
– Indeed, getting information out of the country has become much harder, almost impossible. I used to report for Index from China. Then I worked at Index with reporters from China. Today I struggle to get anyone to write for us on the ground, let alone talk to us on the record.
– Under Xi’s term, one of the most vibrant and liberal cities in the world – Hong Kong – has been gutted of freedoms. Hundreds are in jail, including high-profile figures like Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong. Thousands more have fled.
– The tools of repression have spilled beyond China and Hong Kong’s borders. Across the globe, CCP spies harass and threaten dissidents, as highlighted in our Banned By Beijing reports. It’s not just dissidents in Beijing’s firing line. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, found himself in hot water in 2019 when he tweeted in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. Several Chinese businesses suspended ties with the basketball team, including China’s major sports networks who stopped broadcasting their matches. Basketball is big business in China, with hundreds of millions of fans watching NBA matches. Morey quickly deleted his original tweet and apologised.
As said, these are just the headlines.
In 2018 Xi took the unprecedented move of overturning the two-term limit for the presidency, in place since 1982. On 16 October the 20th Party Congress will be hosted in Beijing in which the leadership will be decided for the next five years. After rounds of purges to sweep up his political rivals, the assumption is Xi will retain the top job. Embarking on his third term in power will make him the longest serving leader in the CCP since Mao Zedong. Ever an optimist I hope that when I reflect on Xi Jinping’s next five years in power I can point to more positive things. Being realistic, the trend of the last 15 years under Hu and Xi would suggest that’s unlikely.
At this moment in time it’s not safe for me to return to China. I hope that changes. I’d love to visit the country again and I’d love my kids to go too. More than my own small hopes of returning are my hopes for those 1.4 billion people from there, alongside the seven million residents in Hong Kong. Living in a pluralistic society that tolerates dissent, that is free and transparent, should be a basic right not a geographical privilege.
It’s poignant thinking back to the fast-food article anecdote from the viewpoint of 2022. The city of Shanghai, which pulsated with life 15 years ago, has been brought to its knees over the last few years. Lockdown after lockdown after lockdown has shown that not only can the CCP control the nation’s waistlines if they want to, they can control just about anything. People have literally been locked in their homes and starved by their government – that is how much control the CCP has amassed under Xi Jinping. I wish we were ushering in a new leader and a better era this weekend. That day will come and until then myself, alongside my colleagues at Index, will continue fighting.
Athlete protest has been almost as common a feature of the Olympic Games as elite sporting achievement since its modern inception at the turn of the 20th century.
At the 1906 Games, Irish triple jumper Peter O’Connor protested his registration as a British athlete – Ireland did not have a national Olympic committee at the time – by scaling the flagpole during the award ceremony and waving an Irish flag.
The official recognition of the Games as a platform for protest happened in 1955 when then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Avery Brundage wrote guidelines into the Olympic bylaws. These stated that Olympic host cities had to ensure “no political demonstrations will be held in the stadium or other sport grounds, or in the Olympic Village, during the Games, and that it is not the intention to use the Games for any other purpose than for the advancement of the Olympic Movement”.
This did not stop perhaps the best known of all Olympic protests – the Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico Olympics when American 200-metre athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved hands in salute during the US national anthem.
Further changes to athletes’ rights to express themselves were codified in a 1975 update to the Olympic Charter in rule 55, which simply said, “Every kind of demonstration or propaganda, whether political, religious or racial, in the Olympic areas is forbidden”.
The IOC has since moved away from this total ban and now declares itself to be “fully supportive of freedom of expression”.
And yet the most recent version of the rule on athlete expression, now known as Rule 50, state that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. It does though allow for expressing views outside Olympic sites and venues or before and after the Games. Athletes are also permitted to express their views in press conferences, during interviews and through their own social media channels.
In 2020 IOC member Dick Pound wrote: “Everyone has the right to political opinion and the freedom to express such opinions. The IOC fully agrees with that principle and has made it absolutely clear that athletes remain free to express their opinions in press conferences, in media interviews and on social media. But, in a free society, rights may come with certain limitations. Rule 50 restricts the occasions and places for the exercise of such rights. It does not impinge on the rights themselves.”
Athletes recognised just how much of a platform the games give them to express themselves, particularly with the global, 24-hour coverage afforded to it in modern times. As a result, they’ve always pushed back against bans. For example, at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, many athletes and teams took the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement within Olympic venues.
So what can we expect from Beijing?
When China last hosted the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, it was a dramatically different country. One continuity was the human rights situation and there were protests organised by activists about human rights abuses in Tibet during those Games. Athletes however kept quiet.
A huge amount has changed in the 14 years since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Athletes may feel very tempted to speak out. The wider world has been made aware of the Uyghur genocide, involving sterilisation, forced education in detention centres, the disappearance of activists and threats around the world against those who do speak out on the atrocities.
China has also cracked down in Hong Kong, effectively ending the one country, two systems policy. It has introduced the national security law, closed down independent media outlets and jailed political opponents.
Meanwhile, its other abuses – such as those in Tibet – have not gone away. Nor has concern over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared late last year after she accused a top official of sexual misconduct.
At the Australian Open in January, athletes did use their platform to speak out about Peng Shuai. It would stand to reason the same would happen in Beijing. And yet China is not Australia.
While the rules governing freedom of expression at the Games have been loosened in the wake of athlete protests, Chinese officials have done little to ease concerns over athletes expressing themselves in Beijing. In mid-January, the deputy director of the Beijing organising committee Yang Shu said that “Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected.” She then added, “Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
Basically, speak out and risk prison. It’s a high price to pay.
Then there’s the question of technology. Unlike 2008 when social media was in its infancy, China will be very worried about the potential for protest to reach a much wider audience than before. Anyone making comments on social media from inside the country will be required to communicate with the world through Chinese telecoms companies.
In December, VOA News reported that China has committed to switch off its Great Firewall for athletes and accredited media in the Olympic Village, competition and noncompetition venues, and contracted media hotels.
Just because the Firewall is being relaxed does not mean what athletes say over social media is not being monitored.
One particular concern for athletes at the Games is the requirement to download an app called MY2022 before arriving in China. The app is ostensibly there to maintain a closed loop system relating to Covid measures. However, researchers at Canada’s Citizen Lab says the app is not secure, leading a number of national Olympic committees, including the USA, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK, to advise their athletes to leave their personal devices at home.
In a statement shared with athletes, Canada’s national committee wrote, “We’ve reminded all Team Canada members that the Olympic Games present a unique opportunity for cybercrime and recommended that they be extra diligent at Games, including considering leaving personal devices at home, limiting personal information stored on devices brought to the Games, and to practice good cyber-hygiene at all times.”
The app also has a number of other features beyond health, such as AI-powered translation and weather, and real-time messaging and audio. Citizen Lab says it also includes features that allow users to report “politically sensitive” content while the Android version includes a censorship keyword list.
The organisation said, “We discovered a file named illegalwords.txt which contains a list of 2,442 keywords generally considered politically sensitive in China. However, despite its inclusion in the app, we were unable to find any functionality where these keywords were used to perform censorship. It is unclear whether this keyword list is entirely inactive, and, if so, whether the list is inactive intentionally.”
The list includes terms such as Xi Jinping, Tiananmen riot, Dalai Lama, Xinjiang and forced demolition. Citizen Lab says that many of the terms are in Uyghur or Tibetan scripts, something that is “not common” in other censored apps such as WeChat and YY.
It is highly likely that one or more principled athletes will use the Beijing Games to make a stand over Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong. The question is whether, with the world watching, China will dare to take them to task.
CCP censorship extends well beyond the Olympic Games, including the targeting of Chinese minorities overseas. Index has investigated the extent to which the Chinese government is using its technological and economic leverage, combined with cultural and diplomatic networks, to intimidate, silence, and discredit Uyghurs in Europe. The report – China’s Long Arm: How Uyghurs are being Silenced in Europe – will be published on 10 February 2022.
Get a free ticket to the launch event here, titled Banned By Beijing: How can Europe stand up for Uyghurs? After the event, check out our website’s Banned By Beijing page to read the report.”
One of South Asia’s most influential news magazines, Himal Southasian, is to close next month after 29 years of publishing as part of a clampdown on freedom of expression across the region. The magazine has a specific goal: to unify the divided countries in South Asia by informing and educating readers on issues that stretch throughout the region, not just one community.
Index got a chance to speak with Himal Southasian’s editor, Aunohita Mojumdar, on the vital role of independent media in South Asia, the Nepali government’s complicated way of silencing activists and what the future holds for journalism in the region.
“The means used to silence us are not straightforward but nor are they unique,” Mojumdar said. “Throughout the region one sees increasing use of regulatory means to clamp down on freedom of expression, whether it relates to civil society activists, media houses, journalists or human rights campaigners.”
Himal Southasian, which claims to be the only analytical and regional news magazine for South Asia, faced months of bureaucratic roadblocks before the funding for the magazine’s publisher, the Southasia Trust, was cut off due to non-cooperation by regulatory state agencies in Nepal, said the editor. This is a common tactic among the neighbouring countries as governments are wary of using “direct attacks or outright censorship” for fear of public backlash.
But for Nepal it wasn’t always this way. “Nepal earlier stood as the country where independent media and civil society not accepted by their own countries could function fearlessly,” Mojumdar said.
In a statement announcing its suspension of publication as of November 2016, Himal Southasian explained that without warning, grants were cut off, work permits for editorial staff became difficult to obtain and it started to experience “unreasonable delays” when processing payments for international contributors. “We persevered through the repercussions of the political attack on Himal in Parliament in April 2014, as well as the escalating targeting of Kanak Mani Dixit, Himal’s founding editor and Trust chairman over the past year,” it added.
Index on Censorship: Why is an independent media outlet like Himal Southasian essential in South Asia?
Aunohita Mojumdar: While the region has robust media, much of it is confined in its coverage to the boundaries of the nation-states or takes a nationalistic approach while reporting on cross-border issues. Himal’s coverage is based on the understanding that the enmeshed lives of almost a quarter of the world’s population makes it imperative to deal with both challenges and opportunities in a collaborative manner.
The drum-beating jingoism currently on exhibit in the mainstream media of India and Pakistan underline how urgent it is for a different form of journalism that is fact-based and underpinned by rigorous research. Himal’s reportage and analysis generate awareness about issues and areas that are underreported. It’s long-form narrative journalism also attempts to ensure that the power of good writing generates interest in these issues. Based on a recognition of the need for social justice for the people rather than temporary pyrrhic victories for the political leaderships, Himal Southasian brings journalism back to its creed of being a public service good.
Index: Did the arrest of Kanak Mani Dixit, the founding editor for Himal Southasian, contribute to the suspension of Himal Southasian or the treatment the magazine received from regulatory agencies?
Mojumdar: In the case of Himal or its publisher the non-profit Southasia Trust, neither entity is even under investigation. We can only surmise that the tenuous link is that the chairman of the trust, Kanak Mani Dixit, is under investigation since we have received no formal information. Informally we have indeed been told that there is political pressure related to the “investigation” which prevents the regulatory bodies from providing their approval.
The lengthy process of this denial – we had applied in January 2016 for the permission to use a secured grant and in December 2015 for the work permit, effectively diminished our ability to function as an organisation until the point of paralysis. While the case against Dixit is itself contentious and currently sub judice, Himal has not been intimated by any authority that it is under any kind of scrutiny. On the contrary, regulatory officials inform us informally that we have fulfilled every requirement of law and procedure, but cite political pressure for their inability to process our requests. Our finances are audited independently and the audit report, financial statements, bank statements and financial reporting are submitted to the Nepal government’s regulatory bodies as well as to the donors.
Index: Why is Nepal utilising bureaucracy to indirectly shut down independent media? Why are they choosing indirect methods rather than direct censorship?
Mojumdar: The means used to silence us are not straightforward but nor are they unique. Throughout the region one sees increasing use of regulatory means to clamp down on freedom of expression, whether it relates to civil society activists, media houses, journalists or human rights campaigners. Direct attacks or outright censorship are becoming rarer as governments have begun to fear the backlash of public protests.
Index: With the use of bureaucratic force to shut down civil society activists and media growing in Nepal, how does the future look for independent media in South Asia?
Mojumdar: This is actually a regional trend. However, while Nepal earlier stood as the country where independent media and civil society not accepted by their own countries could function fearlessly, the closing down of this space in Nepal is a great loss. As a journalist I myself was supported by the existence of the Himal Southasian platform. When the media of my home country, India, were not interested in publishing independent reporting from Afghanistan, Himal reached out to me and published my article for the eight years that I was based in Kabul as a freelancer. We are constantly approached by journalists wishing to write the articles that they cannot publish in their own national media.
The fact that regulatory means to silence media and civil society is meeting with such success here and that an independent platform is getting scarce support within Nepal’s civil society will also be a signal for others in power wishing to use the same means against voices of dissent.
It is a struggle for the media to be independent and survive. In an era where corporate interests increasingly drive the media’s agenda, it is important for all of us to reflect on what we can all do to ensure the survival of small independent organisations, many of which, like us, face severe challenges.