To mark this year’s World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, celebrated on March 12, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) unveiled its list of press freedom’s worst digital predators in 2020—companies and government agencies that use digital technology to spy on and harass journalists and thereby jeopardize their ability to get news and information.
Some digital predators operate in despotic countries whose leaders have already been included in RSF’s list of Press Freedom Predators. Others are private-sector companies specializing in targeted cyber-espionage that are based in western countries such as the US, UK, Germany and Israel.
The power of these enemies of press freedom takes many forms.
They locate, identify and spy on journalists who annoy people in positions of power and authority, intimidate them by orchestrating online harassment, reduce them to silence by censoring them in different ways.
Here are the leading predators in Asia according to the RSF
CYBERSPACE ADMINISTRATION OF CHINA
Methods used: Internet censorship and supervision of private-sector platforms such as Baidu, WeChat, Weibo and TikTok; blocking and deleting content and apps.
Known targets: The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has stepped up its fight against the spread of rumors ever since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The social media accounts of media outlets and bloggers have been suppressed and several media outlets have been censored, including Caijing, a Beijing based magazine that ran a story about unreported cases of infection.
Methods used: Social media insults, calls for rape and death threats.
Known targets: Rana Ayyub, a journalist who wrote the Gujarat Files, a book about PM Narendra Modi’s rise to power, is one of the favorite targets of the Yoddhas—the trolls who either volunteer their services or are paid employees of the ruling Hindu nationalist party. Swati Chaturvedi, a journalist and author of the investigation, I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, is also often targeted.
INDIAN MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS, INDIA
Methods used: Disconnecting the internet.
Known targets: It completely disconnected fixed-line and mobile internet communication in the Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5, 2019—an extreme measure preventing Kashmiri journalists from working freely and depriving all the state’s citizens of access to independently reported news and information.
After six months, the government partially restored broadband connections but access to many sites is largely uncertain. India is the country that most uses internet shutdowns—a total of 121 times in 2019.
CALL CENTER HUBS, PHILIPPINES
Methods used: Disseminating fake or maliciously edited content and fake memes, and conducting targeted harassment campaigns.
Known targets: President Duterte’s supporters have launched a campaign to smear and boycott the ABS-CBN radio and TV network with the aim of blocking the renewal of its licence. They have even gone so far as to denounce an imaginary conspiracy by various media outlets to overthrow the president.
Cyber-troll armies, which have become big business ever since Duterte’s 2016 election campaign, support and amplify the messages of members of the government with the aim of smearing the media and manipulating public opinion.
FORCE 47, VIETNAM
Methods used: “Reinformation” campaigns on social media
Known targets: Run by the Ministry of Public Security, this army of 10,000 cyber soldiers combats online “abuses” and “reactionary forces,” meaning those opposed to the government. After a deadly incident in Dong Tam on Jan. 9, in which police actions were widely criticized, Force 47 flooded social media with forced confessions in which individuals said they had made petrol bombs and other weapons in order to attack the police.