Defiant Voices: Battling China's cyber assaults on uncensored Tibet reporting

The despotic, self-imposed communist regime in China constitutes a significant and unpredictable threat, with far-reaching consequences across the globe. Photo: TPI

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Since 2008, Tibet Post International (TPI) has faced recurring cyberattacks, orchestrated by the Chinese government or its affiliates, with the latest attack in July 2023 causing extensive malfunctions and unauthorised alterations, leaving the site inactive for months; subsequent attacks included malicious weblinks, prompting a complete overhaul; on March 7, 2024, Chinese government hackers targeted TPI's Chinese version, highlighting the persistent threat.

Yet TPI remains committed to providing uncensored coverage of Tibet and Tibetan diaspora issues, seeking support from partners and readers, as a trusted news source that amplifies Tibetan voices globally, despite China's information control and rights suppression, as documented by organisations demanding urgent global attention and action (Deng, 2018).

When it comes to international hitches, the authoritarian communist regime in China has consistently been at the forefront, engaging in disobliging activities such as setting up secret police stations in other countries, installing expansionist officials, promoting deceitful theories, employing threats, implementing unsustainable trade embargoes or debt traps, and bribing corrupt foreign politicians for social or political influence, thereby exerting a bulky global impact (U.S. Department of Defense, 2020).

Since its establishment in 2008, the news websites of TPI, a newspaper agency based in Dharamshala, India, have been targeted by the Chinese government or hacker groups associated with or sponsored by the Chinese government (Anderson, 2023). The most recent attack occurred in July 2023, during which the Mandarin version of TPI experienced malfunctions, exhibiting unusual behaviour when accessing its web administration. Subsequently, the admin users were altered without prior notification, resulting in the website being devoid of content for a few months.

This kind of attack on the TPI websites was not the first; attackers this time also managed to insert a weblink into the main page of the TPI English version, undermining safe and secure access for visitors and readers. Fortunately, the TPI team managed to remove the URL from the main page, and the website is currently running as normal. However, TPI had to replace both the Mandarin and English versions with a completely updated and newer version of the software and template due to the constant and malicious attacks by Chinese government attackers, compromising all published contents and all other data contained within the website (Johnson, 2023).

According to ESET, on March 7, 2024, Chinese government-sponsored hackers or Chinese government-associated attackers exploited the Tibetan news website of TPI's Chinese version to host payloads acquired through malicious downloads—payloads included two comprehensive backdoors designed for Windows systems as well as an unspecified number of payloads intended for macOS. By leveraging these websites as hosts for their malicious content, the attackers expanded their reach and distribution channels, potentially targeting a broader audience of users who visited these sites, thereby enhancing their ability to infiltrate and compromise systems across multiple platforms.

TPI has endeavoured to protect, develop, and provide user-friendly access for our readers and users across the world to present and publish Chinese political repression and uncensored contents of Tibet and the Tibetan diaspora (Human Rights Watch, 2021). We seek support from our partners, organisations, governments, and individuals around the world when facing such malicious and constant attacks on our news websites, particularly by hackers sponsored by or associated with the government of China, the worst and most dangerous country in the world in terms of press freedom and human rights (Anderson, 2023).

Over the past decade, TPI has emerged as a pivotal news source for its partners, experiencing a notable surge in its international audience, particularly among Tibet support groups worldwide, parliamentary support groups, and globally recognised human rights advocate organisations (Reporters Without Borders, 2023). Its reputation as a dependable outlet for Tibet-related issues and cases has solidified, making it a trusted resource for those seeking reliable information on matters concerning Tibet. This growth in audience and influence underscores TPI's significance as a platform that not only reports on but also amplifies the voices of Tibetan communities, shedding light on their struggles and advocating for their rights on an increasingly global scale.

Mass surveillance of journalists, peaceful dissenters, and advocates for human rights, coupled with draconian bans on their entry into Tibet, exemplifies the totalitarian grip of the Chinese one-party state or regime in Beijing, led by Xi Jinping, with centralization of power (Smith, 2019). The audacious threats levied against any newspapers and news channels daring to criticise the authoritarian Chinese government, particularly concerning topics about Tibet, underscore the regime's despotic tendencies (Lam, 2018). The Chinese authorities shamefully and brazenly censor access to such dissenting voices for the Chinese populace, especially those within Tibet deemed complicit with the regime's agenda and purpose—this egregious suppression persists unchecked and unchallenged by the international community, enabling the perpetuation of authoritarian control by the Chinese government and allowing it to continue (Freedom House, 2021).

ESET found another compromise of the TPI news website, which was used to host the malicious payloads, while the use of MgBot is what led to ESET attributing the campaign to Evasive Panda, which has used the malware in attacks on a religious organisation in Taiwan and elsewhere. Evasive Panda has been operating since 2012, conducting dozens of attacks aligning with China’s geopolitical interests on government entities in Myanmar, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and ESET said it has seen Evasive Panda repeatedly hijack the update processes of legitimate software as a way to deliver its malware since 2020.

Reporters Without Borders ranks China as one of the 10 worst countries for press freedom, while also being recognised as the world's 'biggest jailer of journalists' for many decades since 2008. The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and other globally reputed organisations, including Freedom House, also highlight China's distinction as one of the world's worst abusers of personal freedom, with China being ranked as the worst country in the world for safety from the state and the right to assembly, and among the worst violators of religious freedom (Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 2022). Extensive research and data analysis underscore these assessments, depicting a concerning landscape where China deeply entrenches its suppression of freedom of speech and human rights violations. This makes global attention and action imperative. China's constant attacks on TPI websites, orchestrated with meticulous planning and sophisticated cyber tools, represent grave attempts to silence uncensored news reports of press freedom and human rights violations. These relentless assaults aim to stifle dissenting voices and perpetuate a climate of fear and censorship, maintaining a facade of control over information dissemination (Tismaneanu, 2019).

In the face of relentless cyberattacks orchestrated by the Chinese government, TPI will never give up and stands resolute in its commitment to uphold the principles of freedom of speech and press, enduring malicious assaults aimed at silencing our voices. We refuse to succumb to intimidation or censorship, despite the recent attack on TPI's websites in July 2023, followed by subsequent breaches, including the insertion of malicious weblinks, which underscores the gravity of the threats we face (Lam, 2018).

However, we refuse to be deterred, collaborating with organisations like Reporters Without Borders and leveraging our platform as a trusted news source to continue providing uncensored coverage of Tibet and Tibetan diaspora issues, amplifying the voices of those whose stories deserve to be heard. Our resilience in the face of adversity serves as a beacon of hope, bravery, and courage for press freedom worldwide, inspiring other freedom-loving individuals across the world to join us in our unwavering pursuit of truth and justice against enemies of all freedoms.

The persistent attacks on TPI's websites exemplify the authoritarian grip of the Chinese government, which seeks to suppress dissenting voices and maintain its stranglehold on information despite these challenges. TPI remains steadfast in its mission to protect, develop, and provide user-friendly access to uncensored content, with recognition and support garnered from global audiences, Tibet support groups, and human rights organisations underscoring the vital role we play in amplifying the voices of Tibetan communities.

As we continue to navigate the treacherous landscape of online censorship and surveillance, we call upon the international community to stand in solidarity with us against these egregious violations of press freedom and human rights, together emerging stronger in our collective fight for truth, transparency, and the fundamental right to freedom of expression (United Nations, 1948; United Nations Human Rights Council, 2012).

In the context of the communist totalitarian or authoritarian regime in China, the government's deliberate attack on a digital news website belonging to an independent news agency critical of its policies reflects a concerning pattern of suppression and control, often prioritising maintaining their grip on power over upholding human rights principles or respecting freedom of the press and information (United Nations, 1948; United Nations Human Rights Council, 2012). By resorting to and sponsoring modern hacking groups or associating with hacker groups to silence dissenting voices, these governments demonstrate a blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law.

In such authoritarian systems as China, the government's actions are not only reprehensible but also indicative of a broader pattern of censorship and oppression (Smith & Jones, 2022). By targeting independent media outlets, the regime seeks to stifle any form of opposition or criticism, effectively monopolising the flow of information to serve its own agenda. This manipulation of the digital landscape not only deprives citizens of access to diverse perspectives but also perpetuates a culture of fear and self-censorship in modern China (Tismaneanu, 2019).

Furthermore, sponsoring or collaborating with hacker groups to carry out these attacks underscores the government's willingness to engage in illegal and unethical behaviour to shamelessly suppress dissent (Anderson, 2023). Such actions not only violate international norms but also undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the regime on the global stage. Faced with such authoritarian overreach, it is imperative for the international community to condemn these actions and stand in solidarity with journalists and media outlets facing persecution and constant attacks on their agencies, such as TPI (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

Attacking a digital news website affiliated with an independent news agency solely because of its critical stance towards the government constitutes a flagrant assault not only on freedom of the press and democratic principles but also undermines the very fabric of a democratic society (Carey, 2017). Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue or addressing the concerns raised by the independent news agency, the government's decision to resort to cyberattacks demonstrates a concerning lack of respect for differing viewpoints and a disregard for the fundamental right to freedom of expression—setting a dangerous precedent, instilling fear among journalists and media outlets, ultimately stifling dissent and hindering the free flow of information essential for a functioning democracy (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2018).

Furthermore, sponsoring or affiliating with hacker groups to target digital news platforms also reflects poorly on the government's commitment to upholding the rule of law, and these actions serve to erode trust in international institutions and sow seeds of more censorship and authoritarianism (United Nations, 1948; United Nations Human Rights Council, 2012). Such underhanded tactics should be condemned unequivocally for their assault on democratic values and journalistic integrity; therefore, in the digital age, protecting press freedom and ensuring the integrity of online information sources are paramount to safeguarding freedom of information and promoting transparency, not the Chinese government's current resorting to more transparency and less corruption.

In conclusion, the persistent cyberattacks orchestrated by the Chinese government against TPI news websites underscore the authoritarian regime's relentless efforts to suppress dissenting voices and control information flow, despite facing numerous breaches and malicious alterations. TPI remains steadfast in its commitment to providing uncensored coverage of Tibet and Tibetan diaspora issues, rallying support from global partners, supporters, and readers such as Reporters Without Borders and other organisations around the world, as the attacks not only violate fundamental principles of press freedom and human rights but also reveal a broader pattern of censorship and oppression within China's authoritarian system.