Authorities Censor Access to Information on Middle East and Chinese "Jasmine" Protests

March 22, 2011

In response to recent political unrest in the Middle East and an anonymous call for protests within China, dubbed the "Jasmine Revolution," Chinese officials in early 2011 reportedly stepped up both censorship of the Internet and control over media coverage of the events. In a February 2011 speech, President Hu Jintao called for strengthening controls over the Internet and improving the "guidance" of public opinion.

Restrictions on Accessing and Sharing Information on Middle East Protests, Jasmine Revolution

Anti-government protests in the Middle East began in Tunisia in December 2010, followed by large-scale protests in Egypt, Libya, and other countries in the region. (See New York Times' round-up here). In February 2011, an anonymous, apparently non-violent call for a "Jasmine Revolution" began circulating online in China. (See Deutsche Welle, 19 February 11; Mother Jones, 25 February 11; Boxun, 18 February 11). The original call asked citizens to gather at specific sites in 13 major cities in China and shout slogans calling for, among other things: food, housing, political reform, press freedom, and an end to one-Party rule. People in China reportedly faced heavy restrictions on accessing information about events in the Middle East and the call for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China. Western news media and non-governmental organizations reported the blocking of certain key words in Internet searches and restricted media coverage. In the midst of this period of censorship, President Hu Jintao addressed Party leaders at the Central Party School (Xinhua, 19 February 11). In his speech on improving "social management," President Hu called for "further strengthening and perfecting the management of information networks, raising the level of management of the virtual society, and strengthening the mechanisms for guiding online public opinion." Word Search Blocks in Late February and Early March

  • Chinese search engines and the Twitter-style microblog sites for Sina, Tencent, and Sohu reportedly blocked searches for the Chinese words for "Egypt," "Libya," "Tunisia," and "democracy" (PC World, 29 January 11; Reporters Without Borders, 23 February 11).
  • Also blocked were references to the Chinese "Jasmine Revolution" appeal and searches for "Jasmine" and related terms (Wall Street Journal, 22 February 11).
  • The Sina search engine reportedly blocked searches for Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China, after he was spotted at one of the proposed sites of the Jasmine gatherings in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district (Radio Free Asia, 25 February 11).
  • People in China reported having difficulty sending text messages that included words related to the Chinese Jasmine protests, including "Wangfujing" (Wall Street Journal, 22 February 11).
  • Internet users in China reported being unable to access the job networking site LinkedIn after messages about the Jasmine protests began appearing there (South China Morning Post, 26 February 11, subscription required).
  • A clip of President Hu Jintao singing a song containing the word "Jasmine" appeared to have been removed from Youku and Tudou, two popular video sites (South China Morning Post, 2 March 11, subscription required).
  • Censors also removed from microblog sites U.S. Embassy posts regarding U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's mid-February speech on Internet freedom (Wall Street Journal, 17 February 11). In her speech (via U.S. State Department), Secretary Clinton referred to China on several occasions and noted that Tunisia's online censorship was similar to China's but that Tunisia's attempt to control political content on the Internet while promoting online economic activity was unsustainable. Among the posts reportedly removed was a question posted by Ambassador Huntsman asking Chinese users whether they agreed with Secretary Clinton's statement that "freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace."

Leaked Propaganda Directives and Observed Restricted Media Coverage

China Digital Times, which compiles and translates leaked censorship instructions purportedly issued by Chinese officials, reported that on January 28, 2011, the State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Public Security issued a directive ordering media to use only Xinhua stories for coverage of the Egyptian unrest. Xinhua is the central government's news agency. The directive also ordered Web sites to increase monitoring of online posts relating to unrest in Egypt.

The existence of the directive appeared to be confirmed by Western media descriptions of Chinese media reports. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) observed Chinese media providing limited coverage of events in Egypt, sticking mostly to Xinhua stories and not issuing independent reports or commentary (31 January 11). Censors removed user comments from the few, mostly Xinhua reports, WSJ said. The New York Times said Chinese officials had sought "to get out ahead of the discussion, framing the Egyptian protests in a few editorials and articles in state-controlled news publications as a chaotic affair that embodies the pitfalls of trying to plant democracy in countries that are not quite ready for it . . ." (31 January 11). The Global Times, which operates under the official People's Daily, issued an editorial that sought to contrast the Middle East with the "West" and said democracy is "still far away for Tunisia and Egypt" (30 January 11).

In late February, China Digital Times reported on an alleged February 24 directive issued by the Central Propaganda Department that directed media coverage of the situation in the Middle East. Among the orders in the directive were bans on the word "revolution," reporting on demands for democracy, comparing China's political system to those of countries in the Middle East, and printing the names of Chinese leaders next to leaders of Middle East countries.

International Human Rights Standards

China's restrictions appear to violate international standards for freedom of expression. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed and expressed an intent to ratify, provides everyone with a right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek "information and ideas of all kinds" regardless of the medium. Governments may, under Article 19, impose limited restrictions on this right, but only if such restrictions are for the purpose of protecting the rights and reputations of others, national security or public order, or public health and morals. Thus, Article 19 does not allow Chinese officials to restrict expression for the purpose of preventing Chinese citizens from accessing information that the Chinese government or Communist Party deem to be politically sensitive for other reasons.

Chinese officials may argue that the restrictions on the Jasmine protests are intended to protect national security or public order. The UN Human Rights Council, however, has specifically noted in an October 2009 resolution that restrictions on "engaging in . . . peaceful demonstrations or political activities, including for peace or democracy" and "expression of opinion and dissent" are inconsistent with Article 19. The person or persons behind the "Jasmine Revolution" are not known, but publicly available statements issued by the purported organizers, including a February 22 statement translated by Human Rights in China, call for non-violent demonstrations in the form of periodic strolls at specific locations to express dissatisfaction with government corruption and income inequality and to advocate for such issues as judicial independence, freedom of expression, and citizen supervision of the government.

For more information on Chinese censorship of the Internet, see pp. 61-66 of the CECC 2010 Annual Report.