South Africa’s ICT pact with China “worrying”; civil society, opposition

June 23, 2015 7:34 pm

The government of South Africa recently signed a ‘Plan of Action’ with the People’s Republic of China on “areas of cooperation in Information and Communications Technology (ICT).” A press statement released by the South African government says “the agreement strengthens existing ties between the two countries in the area of Information and Communication Technologies.” The agreement will see the two nations cooperating in “cyber security, E-government, internet governance as well as broadband strategies for implementation and rural access.”

However, the pact is not without its opponents, who are concerned with China’s record of censorship. South Africa’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said China is not a “regime South Africa needs to align too closely with.” Marian Shinn, a member of the South African Parliament and the Shadow Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, said she had written to her compatriot in the South African government, Siyabonga Cwele, to provide details of the deal.

MyBroadband quotes Shinn: “China has earned a reputation for suppressing freedom of expression of its citizens by clamping down on social media sites, erecting firewalls to restrict citizens’ access to news and information from outside sources, and mounting cyber-attacks on Western corporations.”

The Right2Know Campaign – a coalition of South African organisations and individuals –that advocates for freedom of expression and media freedom, has also taken a stand against the agreement. It has released a statement calling on the South African government to make the agreement public, noting China’s reputation for suppressing freedom of expression.

From the statement:

China is one of the most repressive countries in the world for internet users. The country’s highly restrictive and often arbitrary internet regulations are overseen by several powerful and highly authoritarian bureaucracies, including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and are governed by an overriding concern with political stability and state security at the expense of internet freedom.

Censorship is the norm in China, where websites, including major news outlets and social media platforms like Facebook, are routinely blocked. The role of censoring content is often forced onto internet service providers and content providers, who comply for fear of falling foul of the state authorities.

The Chinese regime makes use of highly sophisticated surveillance systems as well as an army of online informers to crack down on political dissent. Ill-defined terms such as “jeopardizing the integrity of the nation’s unity” and “disrupting the solidarity of peoples” have been used to impose extremely harsh prison terms on online critics, making China “the world’s biggest prison for netizens,” according to a 2012 report by Reporters Without Borders.

Meanwhile the so-called Great Firewall of China – regulations and internet infrastructure designed to severely restrict the flow of information between the global internet and the internet in China – keeps Chinese internet users locked out from global conversations, thereby undermining the most valuable democratic aspects of a truly global medium.

It is extremely worrying that South Africa’s government is co-operating with China on internet-related matters. Our government has already given its citizens reason to be seriously concerned about internet freedom after the Film and Publications Board recently gazetted a draconian set of draft regulations for online content, large parts of which read as if they were lifted straight from a Chinese government textbook.

The press release can be read in full here.