Internet freedom suffers under Russian, Chinese governments, report finds

RFA and BenarNews staff
2022.10.18
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Internet freedom suffers under Russian, Chinese governments, report finds A man walks past a China Unicom booth at an exhibition during the China Internet Conference in Beijing, July 13, 2021.
Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Russia saw the sharpest drop in internet freedom while digital users in China faced the world’s worst conditions for unfettered online access and speech for an eighth consecutive year, a U.S. watchdog group said Tuesday in its latest global report on the issue.

Russia’s annual rating dropped seven points to an all-time low because of its invasion of Ukraine, Washington-based Freedom House said in its report, “Freedom on the Net 2022.”

“The Kremlin blocked websites as well as major social media platforms to eliminate other accounts of its ‘special military operation,’” the report said.

China, which had a score of 10 out of 100, meanwhile remained “the worst environment for internet freedom,” the report said. Beijing continued to tighten its control over the country’s technology sector and set up new rules that require platforms to use algorithmic systems to promote the Communist Party’s ideology.

This year’s report by Freedom House covered developments between June 2021 and May 2022 in 70 countries, which account for 89 percent of the world’s internet users.

Of those countries, only 17 were deemed free after scoring at least 70 on a scale of zero to 100. Countries deemed as “not free” scored 39 or less while “partially free” countries scored 40 to 69.

“Authoritarian regimes are building digital walls that hamper the free exchange of information and make it easier to silence dissent, promote dangerous disinformation and access personal data,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Singapore were rated partially free while Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam were deemed not free.

After reaching an all-time low the previous year, the South Asian nation of Bangladesh improved by three points to 43 in the 2022 report.

China stayed at the bottom of the list with the report noting that content related to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the COVID-19 pandemic were heavily censored. Other censorship dealt with content related to women’s rights against sexual assault and harassment.

“Journalists, human rights activists, members of religious and ethnic minority groups and ordinary users were detained for sharing online content, with some facing harsh prison sentences,” the study said, naming China as “the world’s most repressive online environment.”

Beijing created new policies and rules to strengthen the government’s control over Chinese tech firms. Companies that defy the government’s authority, such as by enabling internet users to bypass the state firewall, face heavy fines or even stronger penalties.

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A man works on a computer network in a Bangkok company, Oct. 8, 2015. [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Philippines score unchanged

Among the Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines performed best, maintaining its score of 65. Still, internet freedom remained threatened with disinformation, especially before and during the May 2022 general election, which saw Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, win in a landslide, the report said.

It noted that “red-tagging,” a form of harassment by authorities accusing individuals or groups of being communist rebels or sympathizers, continued in the Philippines.

Indonesia and Malaysia each improved one point, scoring 49 and 59, respectively.

The report said online freedom remained under threat in Indonesia, particularly in Papua, where internet access was disrupted. Also, government critics, journalists and ordinary users continued to face criminal charges and harassment in retaliation for their online activities.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, internet freedom remained restricted as the government blocked websites and ordered content to be removed over political or religious sensitivities. Criminal prosecutions and investigations for social media posts and other forms of online expression have continued to pose threats to internet freedom.

Elsewhere, Thailand saw its score improve by three points to 39, even as the report said the internet throughout the kingdom remained “severely restricted.”

A wide-ranging crackdown was to blame for Thailand remaining not free. This included state-sponsored attacks, intimidation and harassment targeting individuals for their online activities, especially after the youth-led pro-democracy protests started in July 2020, Freedom House said.

Even as Bangladesh’s score improved to 43, authorities kept arresting online critics of the government, ministers and political leaders under the Digital Security Act (DSA), fueling self-censorship online.

In 2021, the United Nations human rights chief said “the ill-defined, overly broad provisions of the Digital Security Act … have been used to punish criticism of the government.”

Violence and discrimination against religious minorities are significant problems, the report said, noting that the ruling Awami League had doubled down on harassment of opposition party members and critics, including media and civil society.

The report called Myanmar one of the worst offenders when it comes to internet restriction, noting the ruling junta has created a domestic intranet to silence opposition and consolidate power following its February 2021 coup. 

The internet has often been shut down or restricted when the military campaigns against pro-democracy groups and ethnic militias.

The study found that Myanmar citizens can access only an estimated 1,200 websites and platforms through mobile connections. Popular platforms Facebook and Twitter remain inaccessible for most people.

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An iPhone screen shows a Telegram account of a prominent Russian legal aid group which tracks political arrests but whose website was blocked by the government in Moscow, Dec. 25, 2021. [Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP]

Internet freedom in Russia

The report dedicated a main section to Russia which saw the largest decline – falling seven points to 23.

Within weeks of the invasion of Ukraine, “the Kremlin blocked Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, depriving Russians of access to reliable information about the war and limiting their ability to connect with users in other countries,” the report said.

More than 5,000 websites were blocked and a law was introduced to require prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who spread “false information” about the Ukrainian war.

By the end of February 2022, the Russian government had blocked news sites including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a sister broadcaster of Radio Free Asia, along with the Voice of America (VOA) and the BBC.

Moscow also blocked civil society websites such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The report said authoritarian leaders have sought to contain online dissent by preventing residents from reaching information sources based in countries with a greater level of media freedom.

“Greater focus should be placed on developing political and societal resilience. … Democratic leaders should recommit to preserving the benefits of a free and open internet,” it said.

“True resilience requires new regulations that enshrine protections for human rights in the digital age, stronger multilateral coordination on cybercrime and corporate accountability, and deeper investment in civil society,” Freedom House said.

Founded in 1941, Freedom House is a non-profit, non-partisan organization mostly funded with grants from the U.S. government.

It “works as an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world,” according to the Freedom House website.

This story was reported by Radio Free Asia, an online news affiliate of BenarNews, and Subel Rai Bhandari for BenarNews in Bangkok.

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