China and Vietnam are among the world’s worst abusers of Internet freedom, a new report said Thursday, as the two communist nations introduced tough new policies aimed at curbing freedom of expression within the online community.
U.S.-based Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom on the Net report, which scores 65 countries from zero (best) to 100 (worst), said that the two countries were the worst jailers of netizens and heavily targeted social media to crush dissent during the year-long reporting period ending in May.
China, which was given the status “not free,” dropped to a score of 87 in 2014 from 86 a year earlier, emerging third worst among abusers of Internet freedom after Iran and Syria, the report said.
It cited the intimidation and arrest of Chinese Internet users amid a crackdown on online “rumors” launched in May 2013 under State Internet Information Office chief Lu Wei, who later proposed more licensing for online platforms, more real name registration, and tighter controls on undesirable content.
President Xi Jinping in August last year proclaimed the Internet “the main battlefield for public opinion struggle,” which Freedom House said “provided the ideological underpinning” for the decline in online freedom during the reporting period.
The report said Chinese police detained hundreds of Weibo microblog users, and indicted some of the most prominent, after top legal authorities established 5,000 views or 500 reposts as a new threshold for prosecuting false, defamatory, or “harmful” comments online.
It said that the new justification gave China, which has imprisoned more Internet users than any other nation, “an additional tool to punish dissidents, while also serving as a warning to celebrity bloggers with millions of followers.”
Freedom House cited media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which documented a total of 74 netizens in Chinese jails as of August 2014—the most of any nation.
Among those in jail is Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, serving an 11-year sentence on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” for publishing online articles, including the prodemocracy manifesto Charter 08.
The report also noted the September 2014 sentencing of prominent ethnic Uyghur academic and webmaster Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment, which it called “the harshest punishment for online dissent in years.”
“Though these represent a tiny percentage of the overall user population, the harsh sentences have a chilling effect on the close-knit activist and blogging community and encourage self-censorship in the broader public,” it said.
In addition to widespread Internet censorship at the local and national level, the report cited nationwide blocking, filtering, and monitoring systems as hampering access to international websites within China.
It said authorities also routinely shut down access to entire communications systems in response to specific events, including in the wake of clashes between police and locals in the restive Xinjiang region, which is home to ethnic Uyghurs who chafe under Chinese rule.
Vietnam, which was also designated “not free,” dropped to 76 in 2014 from 75 a year earlier, ranking it seventh worst abuser of Internet freedom after Uzbekistan, the report said.
Freedom House said Internet freedom “showed no improvement during the coverage period of this report,” even as Vietnam joined the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in December 2013.
It said authorities had doubled the number of netizens behind bars within the last three years and by 2014 had imprisoned more bloggers than any country in the world except China.
The report cited the case of lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for tax evasion, a charge that is frequently used by authorities to silence dissidents. He had been arrested in 2012, shortly after publishing an article online.
The report said that Vietnam also tightened its legal framework for restricting online dissent, with Decrees 72 and 174, which intensify content limits for domestic internet users and punish anti-state comments with hefty fines.
Article 258 of the penal code, which punishes “abuse of freedoms to infringe on state interests,” was increasingly used to arrest bloggers during the reporting period, it said.
It said that Vietnamese activists and their supporters around the world were targeted with sophisticated malware by a pro-government squad of hackers amid a campaign of increased website blocking and blogger arrests.
Myanmar and Cambodia
Freedom House also examined Internet freedom in Myanmar and Cambodia—two Southeast Asian nations that were designated “partly free” in this year’s report.
Myanmar, which emerged from decades of military rule in 2011 and launched democratic reforms under President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration, made moderate gains in 2014, improving to a score of 60 from 62 a year ago.
The government ended media censorship in 2012, and Internet freedom improved in 2013, the report said, while mobile penetration increased slightly under a program to distribute affordable SIM cards.
But Freedom House said that the “practices of the old regime … endure,” citing legal, administrative, and other sanctions to influence content, adding that some clauses in the country’s Telecommunications Law may allow censorship and surveillance.
The report also noted that the government amended, but failed to nullify, a 2004 Electronic Transaction Law which the former junta used to criminalize political activism online.
Cambodia maintained its score of 47 from a year earlier, and Freedom House applauded the widespread use of digital tools to exchange views, debate, and organize during the country’s July 2013 National Assembly (parliament) elections.
But the report noted that draft provisions of an anti-cybercrime law which leaked in April 2014 penalized “poorly-defined” categories of online expression, adding that even without such a law, internet freedom had begun to erode in Cambodia.
Blogs hosted overseas have been blocked for perceived anti-government content, Facebook users have been threatened with defamation charges for posts alleging corruption, and other cases of intimidation helped encourage self-censorship online in the past year, it said.