Saturday, July 17, 2021

How facebook helps the Authoritarian Regime in Vietnam

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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How facebook helps the Authoritarian Regime in Vietnam


Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 17, 2021


Representative Image, Facebook and Surveillance

Representative Image, Facebook and Surveillance | Source: Glen Carrie via Unsplash

The ability of coercing American tech giants like Facebook into compliance is definitely a talking point to brag for the Vietnamese leaders. In October 2019, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that “Facebook stands for free expression. In a democracy, a private company shouldn’t have the power to censor politicians or the news.” However, Facebook’s double standard is no novelty. In August 2019, the Minister of Information and Communications, Nguyen Manh Hung took the parliamentary floor and stated that Facebook was restricting access to “increasing amounts” of content in Vietnam. Further, Hung stated that Facebook was complying with 70-75% of the Vietnamese government’s requests for post restrictions. In October 2020, this number went up to 95% for Facebook. Facebook acknowledged that the amount of content on which restrictions were imposed jumped by over 500% in the second half of 2018 alone.

Unlike China, Vietnam has adopted a relatively open attitude to western social media. Vietnamese politicians consider social media beneficial, perhaps it helps the promotion of their missions, personal agendas and even propagandas. In fact, Vietnam happens to have a military unit—called Force 47—with the purpose to correct “wrong views” on the internet. Whereas, there is no set set definition of the “wrong views,” people—if found guilty—can be jailed upto 20 years.

Furthermore, blocking western social media might not be in the self-interest of Vietnam, as doing so can hamper relations with the U.S.—with whom Vietnam desires to strengthen ties. The top communist strata of Vietnam for decades, have been single-minded on what they identify as “toxic information”. The definition of “toxic information” has only broadened over the years and has enabled the authorities to bend the term as per their whims. Vietnamese leaders have misused the threat of “toxic information” by branding content unfavorable to their regime with the term.

Facebook removed over 620 supposed fake accounts, over 2,200 links and several thousand posts which are deemed to be ‘anti-state’ from Vietnam in 2020. In a country without independent media, Vietnamese people are reliant on platforms like Facebook to read and discuss vital and controversial issues such as the dispute in Dong Tam. Dong tam is a village outside Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, where residents were fighting the authorities’ plans to seize their farmlands in order to build a factory. 40-year-old Bui Van Thuan, a chemistry teacher and blogger, showed his solidarity to the fight and condemned the country’s leaders in one of his Facebook posts which stated “Your crimes will be engraved on my mind. I know you, the land robbers, will do everything, however cruel it is, to grab the people’s land.” On government’s insistence, Facebook blocked his account the very next day preventing over 60-million Vietnamese users from seeing his posts. A day later, Dong tam village was stormed by police with grenades and tear gas. A village leader and three officers were killed just as Thuan had anticipated. Thuan’s account remained suspended for three months after which Facebook informed him that the ban would be permanent. “We have confirmed that you are not eligible to use Facebook,” the message read in Vietnamese. Towards the end of murder trial held over the clash, a Facebook spokesperson said Thuan’s account was blocked due to an error and the timing of the lifting of restrictions was coincidental. The spokesperson denied censoring profiles as per the demands of the government. Thuan’s blacklisting illustrates how willingly Facebook submits to the authoritarian government’s censorship demands.

In April 2018, 16 activist groups and media organizations and 34 well-known Facebook users wrote an open letter to the CEO Mark Zuckerberg, accusing Facebook of assisting Vietnam to suppress dissenting voices. Force 47 or E47, a 10,000-member cyber unit was singled out in the letter. The letter called the unit “state-sponsored trolls” that spread misinformation about the Vietnamese pro-democracy activists.

Force 47 was deployed in 2016 by the state to maintain a “healthy” internet environment. The cyber unit took advantage of the very apparent loophole in Facebook’s community guidelines which automatically removes content if enough people lodge a complaint or report the post/account. The letter alleged that the government used Force 47 to target and suspend accounts or content.

According to a report by The Intercept, the modus operandi of E47 is that a member shares a target who is often a pro-democratic political dissident writer or activist. The information of the target who is nominated for censorship is accompanied with an image of the target with a red “X” marked over it. Anyone interested in victimizing the target needs to just report the account or post for violating Facebook’s pliant community standards regardless of whether the rules were actually broken. The E47 users are asked to rate the targeted page one out of five stars, falsely flag the post and report the page itself.  

Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, a singer and a pro-democracy activist, popularly known as “the Lady Gaga of Vietnam” has been tirelessly trying for over two years to get Facebook to care about the censorship in Vietnam. She has tried to get Facebook’s attention to the fact that groups like Force 47, a pro-government Facebook group of police, military, and other Communist party loyalists have actively been collaborating to suppress the voice of dissidents both offline and online. Her evidence has been substantial and her arguments carry ample clarity. Despite several interactions with Alex Warofka, a Facebook product policy manager for human rights, Mai khoi’s efforts have not been sincerely addressed. Instead, what they claimed was more infuriating. They said “We were not able to identify a sufficient level of community standards violations in order to remove that particular group (E47) or those particular actors.” Since E47 actors are under real names, photos and authentic identities, Facebook dismissed Mai Khoi’s evidence. “At a high level, we require both widespread coordination, as well as the use of inauthentic accounts and identity,” Warofka told Khoi.

Dipayan Ghosh, a former public policy advisor at Facebook and the co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School stated:

“I think for Zuckerberg the calculus with Vietnam is clear: It’s to maintain service in a country that has a huge population and in which Facebook dominates the consumer internet market, or else a competitor may step in. The thought process for the company is not about maintaining service for free speech. It’s about maintaining service for the revenue.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to note that the inconsistency of Facebook’s ostensible community guidelines and policies extend beyond Vietnam. In 2016, during the time of political unrest in Turkey, access to Facebook and other social media were repeatedly restricted and further complied to the Turkish government’s request to restrict 1,823 pieces of content which the government deemed unlawful. In 2018, Facebook owned Instagram complied with demands of the Russian government to remove content related to opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption investigation therefore making it inaccessible for over 5 million users who watched and followed Navalny’s investigation. Facebook also routinely restricts posts that governments deem sensitive or off-limits in countries including Cuba, India, Israel, Morocco and Pakistan.

While the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, claims that the platform protects free expression, Facebook has been an active facilitator and flag-bearer of autocratic regimes. The social media giant’s apparent indifference and ignorance has failed its users terribly.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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