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In this episode, we talk about the impact of escalating violence on journalists in Afghanistan, and digital surveillance in Southasia beyond India, which was the only country from the region to feature in recent investigative reports on the Pegasus spyware. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we look at the political situation in Myanmar six months after the military coup, a new prime minister in Nepal, debates on a controversial higher-education bill in Sri Lanka, among other stories. Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we look at the media coverage of Tokyo Olympics 2020, bring updates from the world of Southasian meme culture, and recommend a recent exhibition on Myanmar’s contemporary art.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha. Hi guys!
Shubhanga Pandey: Hi.
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi.
RW: So our big stories in this edition are the impact of escalating violence in Afghanistan on journalists and media outlets, and spyware and surveillance in Southasia after Pegasus. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’re talking about Myanmar 6 months after the military coup, a new Prime Minister to Nepal, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet, and a bill being debated in Sri Lanka that expands military creep into higher education.
Let’s begin with the situation in Afghanistan.
SS: Thanks Raisa. As the last US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the Taliban have captured strategic border crossings and entered several provincial capitals such as Kunduz, Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah. As of the 11th of August, the Taliban has captured 11 provincial capitals in less than a week across the country. Thousands of civilians have been killed or wounded. So far this year, around 330,000 Afghans have been displaced, and the number of people crossing the border illegally increased to around 40 percent compared to the time before troops began withdrawing in May. As the situation gets worse, one of the crucial concerns for Afghanistan is threats against the media – what will happen to the fragile gains in press freedom over the last 20 years?
RW: That’s right, Shwetha. So, Afghan journalists have been highlighting the escalating violence and the impact that it’s having on media freedom. They’ve been sharing updates – on certain groups for example that I’ve been a part of – on media outlets such as Helmand National radio and television being taken over by the Taliban, or more recently the closure of media outlets in Kunduz, Jawzjan and Sar-e Pol, with journalists fleeing to Kabul.
I think the killing of Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui gave some kind of indication of the threats that journalists were facing when covering the conflict, but when it comes to the coverage of the impact on media outlets within the country – that’s only just beginning to be reported by international publications. Whereas for example, upon the news of Danish’s death, there were a lot of stories and coverage, including in Sri Lanka as well – highlighting his contribution and the content that he’s produced covering the region, and I feel that these kinds of stories about the impact on media outlets within Afghanistan has been slower to come out.
SS: Yeah, and these recent attacks and Taliban’s closure of media outlets in areas under their control, has led press freedom organisations to raise the alarm about the safety of journalists. The Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture recently said that 51 media outlets have been closed in the country just over the last three months. The situation for women journalists in particular has worsened since March, when three female media workers were shot dead outside Kabul.
There are also restrictions imposed by the government. Recently, the government announced it was unlawful to broadcast news “against the national interest.” Government officials have also ordered the arrests of journalists reporting on civilian casualties from government operations.
In late July, four journalists were arrested by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, accusing them of spreading enemy propaganda after a reporting trip to a border area – one of many recent examples of threats and intimidation that reporters in Afghanistan have to face.
SP: It is also interesting to note the kind of writing and reporting we’re seeing about Afghanistan in the media organisations around Southasia. In some ways, Danish Siddiqui’s case was a bit of an exception, also because I guess he was a very well known photojournalist and did a lot of work covering the region, including India. But when it comes to other stories, I think most media organisations in the region have tended to source stories from news wire services, so those are not really that remarkable, but the editorial spaces are a bit more telling. Over the past month or two, we’ve basically seen a steady stream of op-eds and in some cases also editorials on the geopolitical fallout of all this and the impact on particular countries and their ‘national security’. Predictably, most of this is visible in Pakistani and Indian media. Just to give a few examples, a few headlines from Pakistan read “New blow for Pak-Afghan ties” – this was particularly important given the kidnapping of the daughter of the Afghan ambassador, so that took a lot of space in the media. Other stories included: “Prolonged strife in its neighbour will expose Pakistan to security threats”.
Similarly, quite a few op-eds and editorials in the Indian press as well, mostly looking at how India is positioned in all this, geopolitically. So headlines read for example: “Regional powers and the Afghanistan question”, “India right to wait till Taliban comes in full view. No need to rush into an ‘Afghan strategy’”. So those have been the general kind of tenor of the kind of questions being asked and the kind of writing that’s coming out.
One notable and somewhat differently positioned piece among these was an article in the Karachi-based Dawn by the physicist and public intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy, who’s also a Himal contributor; he had a colourfully titled piece called “Who messed up Pakistan”. And it went into not just the complicity of the United States and Soviet Union in Afghanistan’s political trajectory, but also the Pakistani state in Afghanistan’s recent history. So I found that slightly interesting. But with a few exceptions, very few writings that bring the experiences and voices of those currently in Afghanistan.
Now, moving on to our next story, where we look at digital surveillance by governments in Southasia in light of the revelations of the Pegasus Project, the investigative series which documented the use of an Israeli spyware by governments around the world, including India. Of course, as Pegasus is not the only spyware or surveillance tool around and since other countries in the region didn’t really show up in the reporting, we thought we would look at their records and see what the recent reporting on that issue suggested.
MA: Yeah Shubhanga. So, I am sure for everyone who has been following this story quite closely, it did not come as a great surprise but more of a confirmation that spyware was being widely used by governments in Southasia. Now, If we take Bangladesh, in terms of cyber security laws there is only the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, and the highly controversial Digital Security Act (DSA). When we look at the existing legal structure, it is not sufficient to cope with novel cyber threats. And according to these revelations, when the cyber threats come from the government, what can you do?
With regard to the Pegasus leaks, the Bangladeshi government vehemently denied purchasing any spyware, and The Post and Telecommunication Minister told The Daily Star, “It is an attempt to tarnish the image of Bangladesh…” Coming back to the earlier point, we knew this was happening – earlier this year the investigative unit of Al Jazeera in an exposé revealed that the Bangladeshi intelligence services bought Israeli-made spying tools from as far back as 2018. This was a startling revelation because Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and trade with Israel is prohibited. If you would like a brief overview we spoke about this in Southasiasphere back in February. There were also reports in 2017 of the Bangladeshi government installing Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) tech that allows them to monitor and analyse any online content.
SP: Yeah, and we should remember that Pegasus is not the only major surveillance software around, which is why it was not very surprising to not find other Southasian countries in that list in the Pegasus reporting. And also, like you mentioned, in this particular case the ability to buy and use Pegasus requires permission from the Israeli Defence Ministry, which a country like Pakistan might not have given its difficult relations with Israel.
But coming back to Pakistan, I think in some ways they’ve led the electronic surveillance, both in scale and intensity in the region, particularly following the global ‘war on terror’, in part supported by equipment, intelligence and funds from the US. A few years back, they also tried to incorporate biometric information from owners on all SIM cards, which caused some outcry. More recently in 2019, concerns about the public tender of a web monitoring system (WMS) for identifying and blocking access to any online content that could be classified as unlawful under a particular law – that report came out and it seems that Pakistan has managed to secure services of a Canadian company for that. Also, the same year the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) directed the telecom industry to basically deploy a “suitable technical solution” for monitoring, analysing transfer of data over Voice over Internet Protocol and Virtual Private Networks, which are often used to bypass restrictions on particular websites or content.
RW: Thanks, Shubhanga. So, Sri Lanka isn’t really new to the name Pegasus. In Sri Lanka there was this anonymous Twitter account that actually first posted that the defence ministry had activated Pegasus on all telecom networks in March 2021, and after that it was subsequently raised by opposition MP Harin Fernando in Parliament. Now one of the telecom operators, Dialog, actually issued an official denial, which is quite unusual because they’ve usually remained silent when these kinds of allegations have been made in the past. And then after news of Project Pegasus made headlines, government representatives once again said there was ‘no evidence’ to prove that the spyware was being used in Sri Lanka but added that the possibility could not be ruled out. To be fair, Sri Lanka has shown this disturbing willingness to use surveillance tools in the past…
MA: Yeah I remember, didn’t Maithripala Sirisena try to get China’s help on surveillance?
RW: Yeah that’s right, Marlon. In 2019, when Sirisena visited China after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, he actually asked China for help on online surveillance, and supposedly this was to combat terrorism and misinformation on social media. There were actually even reports of a grant being provided of over Rs. 5 billion for military support in terms of software and other surveillance equipment at the time. Since as far back as 2012, reports have also highlighted Sri Lanka’s contracts with Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei, which includes telecom infrastructure, and this is slightly concerning as a US congressional committee probe found that some products from these companies could be used to aid surveillance. But it’s also not just China. In July 2015, Wikileaks revealed that the Milan-based Hacking Team, which is a company which sells intrusion and surveillance capabilities to government and law enforcement agencies, had actually been contacted by Sri Lankan intelligence services, police and the CID for their products on multiple occasions, including for information on their remote control system, which basically allows for broad surveillance on PCs and smartphones.
So, while all the focus right now is on the Israeli based NSO and the Pegasus Project, as Shubhanga said earlier, there are actually multiple companies which offer similar capabilities, and the agreements that they forge with governments are often veiled in secrecy – it takes massive leaks like this to reveal the extent of such surveillance. And it also highlights the need for better awareness of digital security and digital hygiene, especially for activists and journalists.
Moving on to our next segment, around Southasia in 5 minutes
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
MA: Now, starting from Sri Lanka, one of the main stories that broke in July was the proposed Kotelawala National Defence University Bill or the KNDU Bill. The issue is that this act would exclude Kotelawala University from the purview of the University Grants Commission (UGC), which is in charge of the administration of State universities in Sri Lanka and it also proposes to set up a parallel institutional structure outside the UGC that operates under the purview of a Board of Governors. This Board is appointed by the Ministry of Defence and it will consist of nine members out of which five would be from the military. This bill was opposed by academics, activists, and some political parties citing it as a definite move towards militarisation of education. A similar bill was proposed by the previous government as well in 2018, but it was withdrawn amidst widespread criticism. This bill was supposed to be presented last Friday on the 6th of August in the Parliament, but it was deferred by the government to a later date. Which means that the pressure that was put on the government has worked to a certain extent, I guess.
Also, parallel to the protests against the KNDU bill, there are also school teachers who are currently striking and protesting against salary anomalies.
SP: And meanwhile in Nepal, after several months of political and legal contestation, there’s a new government in power now. This basically comes after the Supreme Court overturned the former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve the parliament, and I think more significantly, the court also instructed the Office of President to appoint Sher Bahadur Deuba, the current prime minister, as the prime minister because the court basically recognised his claim to command the support of a majority of the members of the Parliament. So, the new government has been in power for almost a month and yet the cabinet seats remain largely unfilled – I think there are five ministers now – and given that this is a coalition government of five parties, including a faction of the former incumbent party, it doesn’t seem like this will be an easy term for the new Prime Minister.
RW: And moving to Tibet, on July 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unannounced visit to Tibet, and it’s the first official visit by a Chinese president in 30 years. Now, the International Campaign for Tibet linked Jinping’s visit to the 70th anniversary of the controversial 17 Point Agreement, which the Dalai Lama has renounced as an agreement made under duress. China has historically made attempts to erase Tibetan culture and language – most recently, ICT reported that new military camps for younger Tibetans have been established in Nyingtri, across the border from Arunachal Pradesh, in early 2021. ICT also reported increased surveillance in the days up to the visit.
SS: It has been six months since Myanmar’s military seized power in the February 1 coup which ended a decade of democratic reforms and triggered mass protests and a civil disobedience movement. So what’s happening in Myanmar 6 months later? In addition to the dire economic situation and COVID-19 spreading unchecked, thousands of civil servants and workers have been sacked for joining protests. More than 900 people have been killed and thousands arrested since.
The National Unity Government, composed of the NLD’s overthrown administration and other minor parties in exile or hiding, have made little progress in regaining control. Both sides are now gearing up for a critical decision from the United Nations where the Credentials Committee is scheduled to meet in September.
During a speech to mark 6 months since the coup, the military has renamed itself as a ‘caretaker government’, the leading general has also announced that the state of emergency imposed will continue until August 2023, pushing new elections to more than a year later than what was initially promised. So it remains to be seen if these promised elections will actually take place or just a way to stall for more time.
And now we’ll be moving on to our culture section, Bookmarked.
SS: Continuing on the same note, my recommendation for this month is an online group exhibition called Myanmar Voices: We Are Still Here, curated by the Hong Kong-based Karin Weber Gallery as a declaration of solidarity and support for 14 contemporary artists working on Myanmar. The artwork serves as a reminder of not only the importance of expression and courage in the face of political oppression and censorship, but also generations of creative voices in Myanmar who are pushing to represent what’s going on in the country. The exhibit will be up until the 15th of August, so do check it out through the link on the website.
SP: And my recommendation is a book that was recently published and is available freely on the public domain, it’s authored by Father Stan Swamy who’s the activist who died in early July, and whose death has also been termed ‘judicial murder’ because he had been under detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for a long time, and he actually contracted COVID-19 during his detention. And despite calls of his release and bail, the judiciary and the Indian state’s complicity in this was seen as particularly problematic. The book is essentially a collection of his writings, several of which were written while he was in detention. It’s titled ‘I am not a silent spectator’ and I think it has about 10-15 short articles – some ideological essays, but also some on his experiences after being detained for the Bhima Koregaon case, and also has a few prison diaries and poems.
MA: Well, I don’t really have a recommendation, but I have more news. Hopefully, not boring news. So, I think you guys have seen these memes coming from Pakistan, one is the ‘disappointed fan’ which went viral during the ICC World Cup, so that has been inducted into the meme museum in Hong Kong. Did you guys know that there was a meme museum?
It’s been a good month for memes coming from Pakistan. There’s another one of the iconic memes that came from Pakistan which is the ‘Friendship ended with Mudasir’ meme, and it has been auctioned for over $51,000.
Which one is your favourite, out of the two?
SP: The friendship one, obviously. Nothing can beat that.
RW: I was gonna say – it’s hard, I like them both, I think the ‘disappointed fan’ covers a lot more different situations.
MA: Exactly, more versatile.
RW: Yeah, more versatile. But the ‘Friendship Ended’ is also good too.
MA: Yeah, it’s very specific, you need to have a jilted friend.
RW: Yeah, in the groupchat, just to let somebody know that you’re annoyed.
MA: You know what, when I was looking up this story I found out – these three are actually good friends now, they have put their differences apart and now they’re all good friends.
SP: And the disappointed fan is still by himself.
MA: Yeah, I think he’s still disappointed.
SP: And these are all what they call non-fungible tokens. It seems to be gaining ground elsewhere in the region also, and it’s a way of establishing authorship and copyright over digital art and digital objects in general.
RW: And on my part, I’m actually going to talk about the Olympics, particularly because in Sri Lanka there was this unexpected turn where people started commenting on coverage of the Olympics with social media raising questions about the headlines which were critiquing the Sri Lankan delegation’s performance. Some people were saying that if you’re not an Olympic athlete, you shouldn’t comment or criticise. What do you guys think about this?
SP: That’s a high bar
RW: Yeah, do you think that that’s wrong?
MA: It’s a good question, I think. Because if it’s only the Olympians who can criticise Olympians, that leaves a very small sample size.
SP: My sense is also, in this particular case it was also the tone of criticism – that it wasn’t really about performance, but other things.
RW: Yeah, exactly.
MA: Yeah, it was very brutal.
RW: Yeah, it was particularly brutal, and I think that was a distinction that needed to be made. I think criticising athletes based on their performance is fair enough if they don’t achieve their personal best, for example, it’s fine to say that. But, in particular, the headline that generated a lot of criticism was that from the Sunday Observer, which actually spoke about one of the athletes and called him pathetic in the headline, and that seems more like a personal criticism rather than talking about their performances, which I think was what the issue was.
MA: I think it’s the same reporter, right? Because I saw something like ‘Tehani shoots a sorry picture’, so I think that was the same reporter. So yeah, interesting choice of words I think.
SP: Yeah, we can also probably talk about the case of an Indian athlete whose family faced casteist abuse back in India. But I just wanted to get back on the Sri Lankan episode, just wondering if it’s also linked to that recent sanction or injunction against cricketers I think who broke the travel bubble in the UK during some tour and if there was kind of a general mode of being slightly harsh on athletes.
RW: I think you might have a point there, because anyway- something that’s been historically true is that the Olympics delegations have been subject to a lot of criticism, just because the officials usually outnumber the athletes. And there’s been some talk about how people who usually don’t need to be there, manage to get a spot on the delegation. Incidentally, that includes the sports editor of the Sunday Observer himself.
MA: Oh, was he there?
RW: So, apparently in the earlier games, he actually managed to get himself a spot on the delegation by pretending to be a coach and many people were pointing that out saying, what’s pathetic is that you’re booking a seat on this flight to fly to the Olympics as a coach. So, I think people are maybe remembering that.
MA: Was he sent back like halfway through, that’s probably why he’s so mad.
RW: Yeah, maybe that’s why he’s just angry about the composition [of the delegation], but it is a little ironic. But apart from that, the composition of the delegations has always been a subject of a lot of critical coverage. And this year as well, for example the Sunday Times talked about how- it alluded to the fact that athletes having their coaches with them during the games was a luxury, which to me doesn’t make much sense, considering that there were a whole lot of ministers who flew there as well, who are not necessarily needed, and then they hastily said that it was privately funded by the companies that sponsored them. To me, having your coach there during a major sporting event, I don’t think that is a luxury.
MA: That’s the norm, or should be norm.
RW: It should be the norm. So, that was some of the controversy around it.
MA: I was just thinking of what Shubhanga said about how the cricketers received a lot of flak over the last three, four years. I’m just trying to think whether in the previous- I can’t remember, honestly, this type of criticism coming out of newspapers against Olympians in the previous Olympics. I don’t know, maybe my memory is quite short, but I can’t remember this kind of brutal headlines coming out in the past. Of course, like you said, there’s always been criticism about the delegation, how big it is – that I remember, but this kind of brutal, very personal language being used to describe Olympians, that I can’t remember happening before.
RW: That’s true, I guess. I think most of the critical coverage has been on things like the delegations and of course, Susanthika got a lot of hate as well when she came forward with sexual harassment claims against a minister. So a lot of it has been about things incidental, not connected to their performance, but yeah, I don’t really recall this kind of angry criticism about their performance.
SP: This is reminding me also of some reporting on some more successful performances by athletes in the region; India and Pakistan javelin throwers. But I think what was pointed out in their case was the fact that they came from backgrounds where getting into athletics wasn’t all that easy and straightforward, but also the fact that the funding facilities and training facilities for what they did was not adequate, and this happened despite a system of support back home.
RW: Yeah, I think in Pakistan there was some criticism. I did see some criticism on Twitter, talking about Arshad Nadeem’s parents who commented that he hadn’t gotten any state support in order to advance. Some of the discussions I saw were kind of similar to what’s happening in Sri Lanka as well.
SP: Yeah. To be fair, my sense is that a lot of sports except the headline grabbing big sporting events around cricket and a few other things, there isn’t a lot of state support for a lot of athletic activity, which is unfortunately true.
We should also probably mention the case of a hockey player from India’s female Hockey team, Vandana Katariya, whose family faced casteist abuse after her team came fourth and lost the bronze medal, but I think the fact that a bunch of goons came outside the residence of this particular player’s family and then abuse them was quite indicative also of how these kind of discriminatory things can actually transcend social things, and also be quite apparent in sports.
RW: Yeah, that was a really unfortunate case and it just shows how pervasive caste discrimination is, that even when it comes to a matter like the Olympics and sports that the player who happens to be Dalit is blamed for the loss, which is very unfortunate.
And looking at that made me think about another topic that’s really been in the news in the context of the Olympics, which is their stance on protests. It’s seen quite a bit of controversy because, whilst the US Olympics and Paralympic committee has relaxed their stance on protests, the IOC technically at first didn’t really allow for acts of protest. However, despite that there were several acts of protest that took place during the Olympics. Several teams took the knee to acknowledge systemic racism. I think one of the most public acts was definitely from shot putter Raven Saunders, who when she stood on the podium, she made an ‘x’ over her head and she was basically saying that it symbolised people oppressed everywhere and intersectionality. That act in particular got a lot of coverage because the IOC specifically barred protests on the podium when you’re taking a medal, but she was kind of defiant and said ‘let them try to take this from me’. So that was her response.
There were also very wholesome protests. Well, not really acts of protest, but just demonstrations such as the Olympic diver Tom Daley, who was knitting by the side of the pool for most of the events, and he actually was selling those clothes that he knitted in aid of the brain tumour charity and he’s gotten a lot of followers, and his creations seemed quite beautiful. So I think that was one of my favourite acts of raising awareness.
SP: I was wondering, and I’m trying to think of Southasian athletes who in recent years have made shows of solidarity or even protests. I mean, protests, I think is much more difficult Southasian athletes to do, also given how polarised things can get domestically.
RW: Yeah, I was talking about Susanthika earlier. When she raced in 2000, she actually wore a yellow ribbon, which was in support of a movement against election fixing, and she got a lot of hate back home for that as well. Sometimes in our region, these acts of protest are more difficult. That’s definitely true.
SP: They could get rid of the Coca-Cola bottles like Ronaldo did. They can begin with that, maybe.
RW: Yeah, that would be a good start!
On that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see more of Himal’s work, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support us.
Thanks everyone. Bye!