National Day triggers censorship, cyber attacks in China

New York, September 22, 2009—The Chinese government should stop censoring Web sites and protect Internet users from cyber attacks in advance of upcoming National Day celebrations, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. October 1 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. 

Internet users have reported that several social networking sites, including forums and micro-blogging sites, have been shut down in recent weeks. Freegate software used to circumvent online censorship was apparently being blocked from September 1, according to Radio Free Asia. Government-backed Internet café associations in several major Chinese cities earlier this month announced new measures to “clean up the industry” in line with existing national Internet laws, international news reports said. “The recent controls are probably the most severe ever,” Internet commentator Zhou Shuguang told RFA.

Foreign news outlets based in China reported receiving a string of e-mails disguised as internal correspondence but carrying malware in attachments, according to news reports. The origin and purpose of the malware—which, once installed on a computer can be used remotely to observe, copy, or destroy data—is not known. Foreign news outlets are frequently perceived as anti-government in China, though no link between official information authorities and the malware attacks has been reported. A similar anonymous attack came in the months before the August 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, targeting human rights and media freedom groups like CPJ.

Patriotic, pro-government events are politically sensitive in China as officials frequently attempt to stifle dissent.

 “Signs of escalating media control at this politically sensitive moment in China are not surprising, but they are disappointing,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “The legacy of last year’s Beijing Olympics was not more media freedom, only the rise of an even more sophisticated Internet security apparatus.”

Chinese news assistants working for foreign media outlets in Beijing and Shanghai received duplicate e-mails on Monday purporting to be from a colleague arriving from overseas, according to international news reports. The e-mails carried malware in attachments, the reports said. Reuters said an employee received an otherwise credible message from a fictional economics editor named Pam Bouron. The Straits Times, Dow Jones, Agence France-Presse, and the Italian ANSA news agency received versions of the same e-mail tailored to internal e-mail specifications, also from Pam Bouron, Reuters reported. Foreign journalists reported receiving more suspicious messages on Tuesday, news reports said.

International and online media fill gaps left by local outlets restricted to patriotic topics during sensitive periods for fear of political reprisal. “Signs point so far to extremely tight press controls around the [National Day] event,” analysts Qian Gang and David Bandurski wrote on Hong Kong University’s China Media Project Web site on September 17. “Media in China will likely be less capable of pushing the envelope this year than they were even during the last major anniversary ten years ago,” they wrote.