2021 in retrospective: Authoritarian practices threatened journalists and restricted media freedom in South Asia

In several South Asian countries, press and internet freedom were challenged in the year 2021. According to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Bangladesh at 152 has slipped down one position in the annual ranking of 180 countries, while Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka remained at 145th, 142nd and 127th positions respectively. Countries like Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives, however, moved up in the ranking.

While the controversial Digital Security Act (2018) in Bangladesh and the 2021 Information Technology Rules of the Indian IT Act (2000) continue to make headlines in both countries, a newly proposed media regulatory authority in Pakistan and a draft data protection law in Bangladesh have also raised concerns.

In this retrospective, we will discuss issues of internet and press freedom, freedom of speech, censorship, the safety of journalists and digital rights in this region — some of which we covered during the year. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, as there were delays in the trials and internet shutdowns disrupted business and education.

Screenshot from the website Internetshutdowns.in by Software Freedom Law Center. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The number of internet shutdowns in India by year. Screenshot from the website internetshutdowns.in by Software Freedom Law Center. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Internet shutdown, blocking apps and users

In India, internet shutdowns continued to be deployed for a myriad of reasons, from stopping alleged terrorist threats and as a “precautionary” measure in response to public protests, to stopping potential cheating in examinations. The website internetshutdowns.in, a project of the New-Delhi based Software Freedom Law Center reports that there were 44 instances of internet shutdowns in the country in 2021. As per reports, in 2020, the internet was shut down in different parts of India for 8,927 hours, which cost the country over USD 2.8 billion.

In March 2021, Facebook and Facebook messenger were restricted for three days and mobile 3G and 4G services were down in places in Bangladesh in response to violent protests against visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Pakistan blocked and unblocked the Chinese app TikTok multiple times in 2021, complaining that it was uploading and disseminating immoral content. The fourth such ban was imposed in July 2021, which was lifted in November 2021. TikTok was banned in India in June 2020, and remained banned in 2021.

At the request of the Indian government, on February 1, 2021, Twitter temporarily blocked over 250 Twitter accounts from India, some of which actively supported the ongoing farmers’ protests. After protests on social media, Twitter restored them after six hours, concluding that the content was “speech and newsworthy,” but faced backlash from the authorities.

The Freedom on the Net 2021 report on Sri Lanka revealed that the state-owned Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) introduced internet data packages in this year that blocked virtual private networks (VPNs) and the messaging app Telegram among others.

According to the Freedom on the Net 2021 report on Pakistan, mobile data services were suspended in Islamabad and Rawalpindi citing security reasons during the Pakistan Day parade on March 25, 2021. Internet and social media services were suspended in parts of Lahore in April 2021 during clashes between police and opposition party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP).

Arrest, threat and death in custody

In February 2021, the death of Bangladeshi writer Mushtaq Ahmed in prison during judicial custody sparked fresh protests against the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA). Ahmed was arrested in May 2020 and was later charged with “tarnishing the image of the nation” and “creating hostility, hatred, and adversity,” all offences under the DSA.

Disha Ravi in a protest. Screenshot from YouTube Video by Mojo Story. Fair use.

Disha Ravi in a protest. Screenshot from YouTube Video by Mojo Story.

Also in February 2021, Disha Ravi, a student and the founder of the Indian branch of climate movement Fridays For Future was arrested in Delhi over her alleged involvement with a “protest toolkit.” The alleged toolkit was a viral online document that listed resources for activists and sympathizers looking to support the months-long farmers’ protests in India.

Sri Lankan journalist Tharindu Jayawardhana faced repeated online and offline intimidation following his reporting on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings at the online news portal MediaLK, which he founded.

Use of new and existing laws to tighten the noose

This year India introduced broad new regulations on social media, online news websites, and streaming platforms, which came into effect in May. These rules contain some controversial requirements. For example, those platforms that offer end-to-end encryption messaging must be able to identify the originator of a piece of content if required by a court order or a competent authority.

In violation of these rules, intermediaries such as social media platforms Twitter and Facebook can lose their immunity (as stipulated in section 79 of the Information Technology Act of 2000) and be prosecuted for content posted by the users of these platforms.

In an interview, veteran journalist Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the daily newspaper Kashmir Times, described how a new media policy formulated in Kashmir to counter the spread of misinformation or fake news is being misused.

Snooping on journalists, businesspeople, activists and politicians

In July this year, a collaboration of 17 media organisations ran a collaborative investigation called the Pegasus Project, which revealed that over 1,000 phone numbers of human rights defenders, activists, journalists, politicians, high-ranking public officials and business people from India were targeted for potential state-sponsored hacking and illegal surveillance. The leaked list of Pegasus targets included Rahul Gandhi, a member of the Indian Parliament and the former President of the opposition party Indian National Congress (INC), former election commissioner Ashok Lavasa, two recently sworn-in ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel, and many more.

As per the Freedom on the Net 2021 report, a collaborative investigation between Al-Jazeera and Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed in March 2021 that the Bangladesh government had procured phone-hacking software and equipment made by the Israeli company Cellebrite. The technology can unlock and extract data from mobile phones, including encrypted data and, allegedly, the concerned Bangladeshi authorities were also trained to use it.

Journalists in London protest against the proposed PMDA. Screenshot via YouTube by Murtaza Ali Shah. Fair use.

Journalists in London protest against the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). Screenshot via YouTube by Murtaza Ali Shah. Fair use.

Upcoming laws

In mid 2021, the government of Pakistan proposed the creation of a new media regulatory authority called the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). Activists believe that it will allow authorities to tighten control over journalists and limit the independence of the media. The PMDA would empower the Pakistan government to set up special tribunals to impose fines on violations and for publishing so-called fake news.

Analysts in Bangladesh have pointed out that a draft data protection law contains loopholes, including the indemnification of government agencies. The loopholes could allow the government to use it to suppress the rights of citizens and government critics in a way similar to the use of the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018.

That's it from this year's coverage. Wishing you all happy holidays and a happy new year!

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