China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 89 | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 89

Freedom House’s biweekly update of press freedom and censorship news related to the People’s Republic of China

Issue No. 89: June 27, 2013

* Official media trumpet Xi’s party discipline campaign
* State media make hay of Snowden revelations
* Investigative journalist found dead, two others held on bribe charges
* Online corruption scandals countered with punishments, propaganda
* Chinese censors mute news of Taiwanese bookstore launch in Shanghai

Photo of the Week: The Communist Party's Got Talent

Credit: CCTV

* Netizens cheer Snowden as party seeks to control message
* New microblog censorship approach reported
* As Tibet surveillance grows tighter, party scholar urges policy change
* Tibetan singers sentenced to prison, blogger Woeser under house arrest
* Phones, internet cut after Xinjiang violence, Uighurs jailed for online ‘extremism’
* Cyberspying on Chen Guangcheng reported, NYU departure debated

Printable Version

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Announcement: On June 27, Freedom House research analyst Madeline Earp testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission about the status of press freedom in Hong Kong. Her testimony, including the newly released Hong Kong country report from Freedom of the Press 2013, is available here.



Official media trumpet Xi’s party discipline campaign

State media have amplified Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent revival of the “mass line,” a concept associated with the Mao Zedong era that calls for the Communist Party to remain close to the masses. At a high-level conference in Beijing on June 18, Xi launched a year-long Mass Line Education campaign that had been planned since at least April. The top-down ideological initiative to discipline officials will include study sessions, self-criticism, and propaganda. Xi urged the party to embrace the mass line and combat four evil trends—formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism, and waste—while telling cadres to “look in the mirror, tidy your attire, take a bath, and seek remedies.” Several observers noted that it had been almost a decade since such an internal “rectification” campaign had been mounted, with some speculating that part of its aim was to purge political opponents within the party’s ranks. As with previous rollouts of Xi’s signature slogans (see CMB No. 84), state-run news outlets echoed his remarks in a series of articles and features, while state broadcaster China Central Television repeatedly aired footage of Xi’s speech. The Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily published a commentary on June 18, arguing that “the mass line, or furthering ties with the people, is the lifeline of the Party.” Also that day, a website on the concept of the mass line was launched, including versions in minority languages such as Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uighur. On June 20, the official Xinhua news agency announced the publication of two books on the mass line by the Party History Research Center. According to Xinhua, the books include remarks on the concept by communist figures ranging from Karl Marx and Mao to present-day Chinese leaders. In another sign that the leadership was attempting to enforce ideological discipline (see CMB No. 88), the State Council Information Office issued a directive on June 19 that ordered website administrators to remove content that either criticizes Mao or praises him excessively, for example by glorifying the radicalism of his Cultural Revolution. Xi has argued against rejecting Mao, but he also appears to oppose the more zealous Maoist revivalism associated with former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was purged in 2012 and is currently facing criminal charges (see CMB No. 79). Nevertheless, the new emphasis on the mass line is in keeping with Xi’s related efforts to combat the party’s reputation for corruption and arrogance and to prepare the regime for potentially disruptive economic reforms in the coming months.

* Xinhua 6/18/2013: Xi: Upcoming CPC campaign a ‘thorough cleanup’ of undesirable practices
* Wall Street Journal 6/21/2013: What to make of Xi Jinping’s Maoist turn
* People’s Daily 6/18/2013 (in Chinese): The mass line is the ruling life line
* Time 6/21/2013: Party like it’s the 1960s: China resurrects Mao-era slogans and autos
* Financial Times 6/20/2013: China’s Communist party takes page from Mao’s playbook
* China Digital Times 6/20/2013: Ministry of Truth: Snowden, Mao, scandal, pageants (correction)
* Xinhua 6/20/2013: Books on ‘mass line,’ thrift published


State media make hay of Snowden revelations

After an initial period of silence, Chinese state media since June 12 have reported widely about former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information on U.S. electronic surveillance programs and sought refuge in Hong Kong for almost two weeks before departing on a flight for Russia on June 23. Amid growing tensions between Washington and Beijing over China’s alleged cyberespionage and theft of industrial secrets, Snowden’s revelations of large-scale American surveillance and hacking of servers in China and Hong Kong have reinforced Chinese officials’ claims that their country is a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of cyberattacks. According to David Bandurski at the China Media Project, only one story on the Snowden affair—which broke on June 5—had appeared in a search of Chinese newspapers and newswires as of June 10. However, by June 13, Chinese news outlets had swung into action, producing dozens of reports. The surge coincided with the publication of an exclusive Snowden interview by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, in which the former contractor charged that computers in China and Hong Kong had been among the targets of NSA monitoring. An editorial run by China Daily said it was not the first time the United States aroused public concern with its “wrongdoings.” The Communist Party–controlled Global Times on June 13 demanded an apology from Washington, adding that its online surveillance program aimed at foreign users, known as Prism, had turned millions of Chinese netizens into victims. Bandurski noted that state-run and commercial media outlets in China made liberal use of reporting by foreign sources, including the Wall Street Journal, Cable News Network (CNN), and Voice of America. The practice highlighted the selective enforcement of regulations issued in April to limit Chinese media’s use of foreign sources (see CMB No. 85). State media launched another round of praise for Snowden and criticism of the United States after the American left for Russia with an apparent green light from Beijing, which drew vocal condemnation from Washington, and in the wake of two additional reports from the South China Morning Post on alleged U.S. hacking of computers at the prestigious Tsinghua University and Chinese mobile-telephone records. A June 25 front-page editorial in the overseas version of the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily declared, “It was [Snowden’s] fearlessness that tore off Washington’s sanctimonious image.”

* China Media Project 6/13/2013: NSA case means open season on foreign news use
* Global Times 6/13/2013 (in Chinese): Editorial: Washington owes an explanation to netizens worldwide
* Time 6/13/2013: Beijing reacts to Snowden claims U.S. hacked ‘hundreds’ of Chinese targets
* NPR 6/18/2013: ‘It’s Christmas in June’: China revels in NSA leaks story
* South China Morning Post 6/13/2013: Whistle-blower Edward Snowden talks to South China Morning Post
* South China Morning Post 6/14/2013: Edward Snowden: US government has been hacking Hong Kong and China for years
* Los Angeles Times 6/25/2013: China defends its handling of Edward Snowden case
* New Yorker 6/24/2013: Why China let Snowden go
* Reuters 6/25/2013: China and U.S. war over Snowden, but no lasting damage seen


Investigative journalist found dead, two others held on bribe charges

Liu Qi, a reporter at Chengdu-based Commercial Times, was found dead outside a hotel in Wusheng County, Sichuan Province, on June 23, a day after he submitted an investigative article about a toxic waste spill. People’s Daily Online reported that police were not treating Liu’s apparent fall from the hotel building as a suspicious death, adding that Liu had been staying in a room on the second floor. Netizens called for a full investigation, expressing skepticism about the police assessment. One wrote, “He died [after falling] from the second floor?!” Users on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo said Liu’s pollution exposé had likely angered the authorities, and many linked the incident to other controversial cases, such as that of labor rights activist Li Wangyang, in which individuals were deemed to have committed suicide, often while in police custody (see CMB No. 65). In an effort to prevent false suicide claims in the event of their own deaths, many activists have vowed online that they would never commit suicide. Separately, two journalists with the Nanfang Media Group in Guangdong Province were ensnared in a bribery case that also raised suspicions of retaliation for investigative reporting. On June 22, local prosecutors in Shaoguan announced that the reporters, Liu Wei’an and Hu Yazhu, had confessed to taking bribes. Liu was arrested on June 5, and Hu was taken into custody on June 21. Both had written stories related to a land-seizure case and the illegal exploitation of rare-earth minerals, potentially angering local authorities. An open statement written by Hu, citing pressure from his employer and the Shaoguan government, was widely circulated on Weibo, fueling speculation that the two journalists were being punished for their work.

* Central News Agency 6/23/2013 (in Chinese): Chengdu ‘Commercial Times’ reporter mysteriously dies after falling off a building
* Radio Free Asia 6/24/2013: Calls for probe into Chinese journalist’s death
* Global Times 6/25/2013: Nanfang group reporters took bribes, claim prosecutors
* Boxun 6/23/2013 (in Chinese): Nanfang Daily reporter Hu Yazhu, Liu Wei'an charged for bribery



Netizens cheer Snowden as party seeks to control message

Discussion on the popular Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo of former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and his revelations of extensive electronic surveillance by the U.S. government was initially limited to technology enthusiasts and close followers of political affairs. However, after Chinese state media and news websites began covering the story in mid-June (see above), the internet lit up with debate over Snowden’s role and the spying practices he exposed. Over one million comments had been posted by June 24, according to the Wall Street Journal. Netizens expressed diverse opinions, ranging from acknowledgment of their own government’s surveillance to concerns over the wisdom of Peng Liyuan, the wife of President Xi Jinping, using an iPhone given the allegations that its U.S. manufacturer, Apple, was part of the American online surveillance program. A majority of netizens favored Snowden. A survey conducted on Sina Weibo indicated that 78 percent of participants viewed him as a “freedom fighter.” One netizen defended Snowden’s actions, writing, “Doing this proves he genuinely cares about this country and about his country’s citizens.” Others expressed disappointment in the U.S. government’s violation of civil liberties, with one joking, “It looks like Obama has been assimilated by a certain political party,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party. Another microblogger questioned what would have happened if Snowden had tried to do something similar in China. “I’m guessing he would have been killed in a car accident, or died of carbon monoxide poisoning, or something along those lines.” As the story gained momentum, the propaganda authorities tried to control its spread. According to China Digital Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department issued a directive on June 19 that banned major web portals from running independent reports or placing the story on their homepages. They were told to remove existing articles and guide public opinion in a direction of “strengthening confidence in the socialist path.” They were also instructed to use the official Xinhua news agency’s articles and to republish a People’s Daily commentary as a headline story, highlighted in red and boldfaced.

* Tea Leaf Nation 6/11/2013: Chinese web users react to PRISM: The end of the affair with Google and Apple?
* ABC News 6/14/2013: NSA leaker Snowden is ‘handsome’ hero in China
* CNN 6/11/2013: Chinese internet users back Snowden, call on government to ‘protect’ him
* Wall Street Journal 6/10/2013: A hero’s welcome for Snowden on Chinese internet
* China Digital Times 6/20/2013: Ministry of Truth: Snowden, Mao, scandal, pageants
* Wall Street Journal 6/24/2013: On Chinese social media, ambivalence over Snowden


New microblog censorship approach reported

A June 21 article from online magazine Tea Leaf Nation added to growing evidence that the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo is experimenting with new censorship methods (see CMB No. 88). The article describes an apparent change in which searches for politically sensitive keywords—including “June 4,” a reference to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—now yield sanitized results, rather than simply being blocked as before or being intermittently unblocked. The shift essentially makes censorship less obvious and increases the difficulty of monitoring the constantly changing “red lines” enforced by the authorities. Meanwhile, users who are based overseas, or who employ circumvention tools to evade blocks on foreign sites, receive a “reset connection error” message and a two-minute timeout when they search for sensitive keywords. Other forms of online censorship have continued in recent weeks. Sina Weibo administrators removed posts that mocked a June 7–8 summit between U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping, including one that paired a photograph of the two leaders with an oddly similar image of cartoon characters Tigger and Winnie the Pooh. Separately, propaganda officials allegedly issued media directives ordering the restriction of online information on topics including a controversial fraud case and a rumored merger between the unpopular party-backed search engines Jike and Panguso.

* Tea Leaf Nation 6/21/2013: Weibo keyword un-blocking is not a victory against censorship
* Telegraph 6/14/2013: Chinese censors target Winnie the Pooh and Tigger
* China Media Project 6/13/2013: Rest assured, Mr. Xi
* China Digital Times 6/24/2013: Ministry of Truth: Real estate fraud cover-up
* China Digital Times 6/19/2013: Ministry of Truth: search engines, sex scandals


Online corruption scandals countered with punishments, propaganda

The Chinese authorities have taken various measures in response to three cases of official corruption, abuse of power, and criminality that were the focus of online outcries in recent weeks (see CMB No. 87). On June 19, state media reported that a former Communist Party official in Henan Province had been executed for raping 11 underage girls, one of several child-abuse scandals involving government officials that have sparked outrage among internet users. Separately, the official Xinhua news agency announced on June 16 that a 34-year-old party official in Hunan Province had been removed from her post after suspicions emerged on social-media sites that her promotion at an unusually young age was a result of the clout of her father, a prominent retired official in the area. Meanwhile, according to the overseas website Duowei, a directive from the party’s Central Propaganda Department instructed top Chinese internet companies to censor any discussions about a scandal involving a former deputy director at the State Archives. The incident erupted on June 14, when the man’s 25-year-old mistress posted explicit photographs and video recordings of their four-year relationship, claiming he spent $1.5 million on her, a sum far beyond what his government salary could provide. According to the New York Times, one by-product of such internet-fueled scandals is an increasingly lucrative industry of blackmail and extortion targeting officials for their real or fabricated misdeeds. In March, officials in Hunan Province launched a banner and billboard campaign calling for a “people’s war against blackmail crimes using Photoshopped obscene pictures.” Separately, state media have produced a series of news stories and television programs aimed at improving the image of Communist Party officials. On June 13, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) premiered a reality show called Search for the Most Beautiful Village Cadre, in which the 10 best Communist Party workers will be selected from a group of 320. According to the Epoch Times, contestants will be judged on five criteria: “meeting the common standard of morality, not being corrupt, improving the environment, being innovative, and finally, following the current communist social-economic ideology.”

* Reuters 6/19/2013: China executes party official for child rapes after online uproar
* Xinhua 6/16/2013: Central China official removed after public outcry
* Xinhua 6/1/2013: Female official’s ‘rocketing promotions’ under probe
* South China Morning Post 6/18/2013: Party accused of covering up official’s lavish lifestyle
* Want Daily 6/19/2013: Party orders censorship of China’s latest sex scandal
* China Digital Times 6/21/2013: Sensitive Words: Fang Yue’s affair with Ji Yingnan
* New York Times 6/18/2013: True or faked, dirt on Chinese fuels blackmail
* Epoch Times 6/17/2013: Reality TV and compliments to cadres is party’s reply to scandals



As Tibet surveillance grows tighter, party scholar urges policy change

The state-run Xinhua news agency reported on June 19 that authorities had completed the real-name registration of all telecommunications users in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), including more than 2.76 million landline and mobile-telephone users and 1.47 million internet users as of the end of 2012. Officials claimed that the requirement, enacted for the TAR in 2011, prevents the spread of “detrimental information,” including online rumors, pornography, and spam messages. However, it also facilitates the suppression of dissent. In a further effort to crack down on “subversive” Tibetans, at least 5,000 work teams comprising a total of more than 20,000 personnel are in the midst of a three-year political education campaign in rural Tibet, according to a June 19 report by Human Rights Watch. Under the “Solidify the Foundations, Benefit the Masses” campaign—which reportedly costs 1.48 billion yuan ($240 million) per year, more than one-fourth of the TAR’s annual budget—the authorities visit households and categorize villagers based on their political opinions. Interviewees cited in the report indicated that up to 500 villagers from one area, Nagchu Prefecture, were detained for “reeducation” in March this year. The campaign appears to work in tandem with a new “grid” system of neighborhood surveillance in more urban areas (see CMB No. 84). Even as Beijing’s policies in Tibet grow ever more repressive, a prominent Chinese scholar has called for a “creative” new approach that would make a clearer distinction between religious practice and expressions of Tibetan culture on the one hand, and political subversion on the other. Jin Wei, the director of ethnic and religious studies at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School, made her argument in a June 9 interview with Hong Kong–based Asia Weekly magazine, and urged Beijing to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader. The fact that Jin felt comfortable publicizing her views suggested that there was some high-level support for such policies within the party.

* Radio Free Asia 6/19/2013: Chinese rural campaign out to ‘gather intelligence’ on Tibetans
* Reuters 6/19/2013: China completes internet, phone monitoring scheme for Tibet
* Xinhua 6/19/2013: Tibet accomplishes real-name registration of web, phone users
* Human Rights Watch 6/19/2013: China: ‘Benefit the masses’ campaign surveilling Tibetans
* Economist 6/22/2013: Grid locked 
* Economist 6/22/2013: Bold new proposals
* Asia Weekly 6/9/2013 (in Chinese): Central party school ethnic and religious studies director Jin Wei urges rethinking of Tibet issue
* Radio Free Asia 6/24/2013 (in Chinese): Hu Ping: Analysis on talks by Professor Jin Wei


Tibetan singers sentenced to prison, blogger Woeser under house arrest

Two Tibetan singers have been sentenced to two years in prison after releasing recordings of songs about ongoing self-immolation protests, the Dali Lama, and Chinese policies in Tibet, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, which initially reported the story on June 13. The two singers, Pema Trinley and Chakdor, from Ngaba (Aba) County, Sichuan Province, were detained in July 2012, a few days after their album, The Agony of Unhealed Wounds, was released. They were sentenced in secret in February 2013, and their current location is unknown. Two other musicians who collaborated on the album have also disappeared. At least 120 Tibetans have self-immolated to protest Chinese rule since 2009, including a nun who self herself on fire on June 11 during a large religious gathering in Sichuan Province, reportedly prompting the authorities to cut off all telephone and internet connections to the area. In a separate incident, Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser announced on her blog on June 20 that she and her husband had been detained and placed under house arrest in Beijing the previous day. She said the move was intended to prevent her from speaking to foreign journalists before they depart on a state-sponsored junket to Tibet scheduled for early July. Woeser and her husband, writer Wang Lixiong, have repeatedly faced restrictions on their freedom of movement in recent years (see, inter alia, CMB Nos. 49, 82).

* Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy 6/13/2013: Two Tibetan singers secretly sentenced but whereabouts unknown
* Phayul 6/13/2013: China sentences two Tibetan singers
* RTT News 6/20/2013: Tibetan singers jailed after releasing songs about self-immolation, Dalai Lama
* Radio Free Asia 6/11/2013: Tibetan nun sets herself ablaze in new self-immolation protest
* Phayul 6/21/2013: China again puts Tibetan writer Woeser under house arrest
* Radio Free Asia 6/20/2013: Tibetan writer Woeser again placed under house arrest


Phones, internet cut after Xinjiang violence, Uighurs jailed for online ‘extremism’

With the fourth anniversary of the July 5, 2009, ethnic riots in Xinjiang approaching, tensions in the region have been increasing dramatically. An outbreak of violence in Turpan Prefecture on June 26 killed a reported 35 people as police clashed with protesters, apparently prompting authorities to cut off internet and telephone lines to the area. The unrest came amid a crackdown on alleged extremism ahead of the anniversary, with many individuals punished based on their internet activity and media consumption (see CMB No. 84). The official newspaper of China’s Ministry of Justice, Legal Daily, published two articles on June 20 that reported the convictions of a total of 25 Uighur defendants. Several of them were found guilty of engaging in various ideological crimes via the internet, including visiting illicit websites and using electronic media to promote “ethnic hatred and discrimination” and “terrorism.” Defendant Alim Memet received the harshest sentence, 13 years of incarceration, for duplicating and sharing by mobile telephone, as well as uploading onto a microblog, audio files that reportedly encouraged jihad and extremist religious views. Restrictions on human rights monitors and journalists in Xinjiang make independent verification of such accusations difficult. However, the Chinese government’s track record of conflating nonviolent political and religious expression with promotion of terrorism raises concerns that at least some of those sentenced are being punished for peaceful expression of their views.

* BBC 6/26/2013 (in Chinese): Xinjiang Turpan riots kill 27 people
* Xinhua 6/27/2013: Rioters kill 24 in Xinjiang
* Guardian 6/20/2013: China jails Uighurs for online ‘extremism’
* Legal Daily 6/20/2013 (in Chinese): Xinjiang authorities process criminal cases related to internet and illegal religious activities
* Legal Daily 6/20/2013 (in Chinese): Xinjiang authorities process multiple cases involving mobile devices
* Uyghur Human Rights Project 6/20/2013: Harsh sentencing of Uyghurs sends message of fear before fourth anniversary of July 5, 2009 unrest



Chinese censors mute news of Taiwanese bookstore launch in Shanghai

After the popular Taiwan-based bookstore chain Eslite announced on June 19 that it planned to open a branch in Shanghai, Chinese authorities sent out a media directive the next day that banned reporting on the news. The order from the Shanghai Municipal Propaganda Department was sent as a mobile-telephone text message to senior editors at several major news outlets in the city. There was some speculation that the Chinese government was concerned about the political background of certain executives at the Taiwanese company, or the types of books it might sell in Shanghai, but an Eslite representative stressed that publications banned by the authorities would not be available at its mainland locations. News of the media directive surfaced on the same day that the Taiwanese government signed a new trade pact with China. Under the latest cross-strait agreement, investors from each country would be reportedly able to hold minority stakes as part of joint ventures in the other’s printing industry. Taiwanese negotiators did not move further in lifting trade barriers in the publishing sector due to concerns among Taiwanese companies that Chinese investors would eventually have free rein in Taiwan—with all the potential influence on content that entails—whereas Taiwanese firms would continue to face government restrictions in China.

* South China Morning Post 6/21/2013: Taiwan bookstore chain Eslite’s Shanghai plans in doubt after censors order blackout
* CNN 6/21/2013: China closes book on Taiwan’s top bookstore
* Taipei Times 6/23/2013: Service pact: Ministry seeking to mollify publishers
* Ministry of Economic Affairs 6/21/2013 (in Chinese): Clarification on policy advisor Rex How’s concerns regarding ECFA


Cyberspying on Chen Guangcheng reported, NYU departure debated

Amid news of the departure of blind, self-taught lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng from New York University (NYU), which had offered him a one-year fellowship in May 2012 after he fled extralegal house arrest in China, Reuters reported that Chen’s communications devices, including his tablet computer and smartphone, were found to have spyware installed. In a June 21 article, Jerome Cohen, an NYU law professor who had been Chen’s mentor, confirmed with Reuters that NYU technicians had discovered the suspicious software soon after Chen arrived in New York. The devices were given to Chen by the wife of Bob Fu, a well-known activist who runs the Texas-based religious rights group ChinaAid and had arranged Chen’s escape from China along with Cohen. The programs found on the computer and smartphone allegedly allowed surreptitious observers to track the devices’ physical movements and back up their data to a remote server. Fu said the machines contained no spyware when they left ChinaAid, and Reuters cited a source who said at least three separate devices given to Chen and his wife by other people were also found to have suspicious software, suggesting that the technology could have been hacked by a third party. It remained unclear whether the Chinese authorities were responsible, but cases of exiled dissidents being monitored by Beijing are not unusual. The revelations about the spyware came as observers continued to argue over Chen’s June 16 assertion that his departure from NYU was partly due to Beijing’s “unrelenting pressure” on the school. University officials denied the claim, and a number of experts came to NYU’s defense, though in many cases they acknowledged that the Chinese government was exerting a broader and more subtle influence on scholars and universities in the United States, encouraging self-censorship through various partnerships. Separately, on June 23, Chen arrived in Taiwan for an 18-day tour hosted by the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights. Censors at the popular Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo removed posts of media coverage of his trip, during which he contrasted Taiwan’s democracy and relatively free press with ongoing repression in China (see CMB No. 79).

* Reuters 6/21/2013: Exclusive: Spyware claims emerge in row over Chinese dissident at NYU
* China Media Project 6/24/2013: Post deleted on Chen Guangcheng visit to Taiwan
* Time 6/25/2013: Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng on freedom, surveillance and speaking out
* China Digital Times 6/21/2013: Chen Guangcheng case widens political rift
* China Digital Times 6/18/2013: Chen Guangcheng, NYU and academic freedom