#IMWeekly: August 8, 2014

by mayukh sen

China intensified its restrictions on instant messaging this week when authorities announced they would be enforcing real-name registration policies on the country's many instant messaging tools, ranging from the immensely popular WeChat to Tencent's QQ. Accounts that are not approved by instant messaging service providers are barred from publishing or republishing political news; only accounts that are verified have this privilege. Similarly, after users register with their real names, they’re required to sign an agreement to “uphold the socialist system” through their activity on these applications. The restrictions come shortly after Chinese authorities blocked two popular messaging applications from neighboring South Korea and Japan under the guise of fighting terrorism. Over the past few years, Chinese authorities have increasingly redirected attention to the power of microblogs to function as spaces of dissent, imposing similar restrictions on microblogging platforms.

Famous Cuban writer-blogger Angel Santiesteban-Prats disappeared from Cuba's San Miguel del Padron Prison late last month. Authorities claimed he escaped, but his daughter, who spoke to him at a police station just days after his July 21 “disappearance,” thinks otherwise. His blog, “Los hijos que nadie quiso,” is one of the most vocally critical blogs of its kind in the country, with Santiesteban-Prats often crafting incriminating posts against the regime. The government has taken dramatic steps to build a case against him, including forcing his teenage son to give false testimony against him in court. Santiesteban-Prats first went to trial in late 2012, when he was arrested on allegedly phony charges of “home invasion” and “injuries.” His detention since April 2013 has reportedly been brutal, as he’s been subjected to torture and other acts of violence while in prison.

IFEX reports that Madagascar's National Assembly recently passed a cybercrime law that promises a hearty prison sentence of up to five years for anyone who defames a state representative online. Reporters Without Borders assistant research director Virginie Dangles notes that the law’s definition of “defamation” is alarmingly vague. This potential for flexible interpretation could have, IFEX writes, disastrous effects on journalists, bloggers, and netizens at large. Prime Minister Roger Kolo, responding to these concerns, called for a meeting late last month to discuss the law; in a typo, the result of this meeting determined that the issue would be debated "during the May 1995 regular session," calling into question whether the law’s respect for freedom of expression will be discussed at all.

Referring to Internet's complicity in "undermining public morality," Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, just backtracked on his original stance against Internet censorship. In a blog post he penned on August 1, he cited many reasons for wanting to censor the Internet on the national level, stating that the Internet “has played a major role in undermining public morality.” His calls are at odds with what he pledged in the 1990s when he conceived of the Multimedia Super Corridor project to aid the country's economic development through participation in the global tech boom. Dr. Mahathir, as he’s affectionately referred to in the country, holds intense sway within the Malaysian public imagination; the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Mahathir was in office from 1981 to 2003. A. Asohan of Digital News Asia suspects that Dr. Mahathir is simply going back on his promises because he seeks to silence the views he doesn't like. Fahmi Fadzil, Communications director of the People’s Justice Party, also commented that the nation, one of the first to pledge a censorship-free climate for the Internet, would be regressing if it were to censor the Internet.

Concerns about media freedom for online journalists in Somalia’s autonomous Somaliland region arose with the arrest of Ahmed Adan Robleh, editor of independent news portal Baligubadle Online Media. On July 27, Robleh was detained by the Hargeisa Criminal Investigations Department under the accusation that he was spreading false information about Somaliland's President, whose nickname is “Silanyo.” Robleh claimed, perhaps erroneously, that the President was in London because he sought medical treatment; his government refuted this, claiming Robleh was there because he was visiting family. The Secretary General of the National Union of Somali Journalists feels that Robleh's arrest is part of a worrying trend in the autonomous region, where authorities are trying in earnest to muffle dissenting voices and public discourse on political issues.