Australia is witnessing the first major redesign of the payphone booth since 1983. But Telstra’s new vision is meeting resistance from some councils, and the matter is in the courts.
In an effort to make payphones relevant to the needs of modern Australians, Telstra’s revamped payphones feature mobile charging, Wi-Fi access through Telstra Air (free or via a Telstra broadband plan, depending on the area), and large digital advertising displays.
Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore described the new booths as “a craven attempt” to profit from “already crowded CBD footpaths”, and a “Trojan horse for advertising”.
Under existing Universal Service Obligation (USO) agreements, Telstra has to provide payphones as part of its standard telephone service. The USO is a consumer protection measure that ensures everyone has access to landline telephones and payphones, regardless of where they live or work. Telstra is the sole provider of USO services in Australia.
The USO is funded through an industry levy administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. This means registered carriers with revenues over A$25 million per year contribute to the levy, including Telstra.
The face of the new Aussie payphone
In a blog post last March, a Telstra employee said the new “smart payphones” provided emergency alerts, multilingual services, and content services including public transport information, city maps, weather, tourist advice, and information on cultural attractions.
The booths are 2.64m tall, 1.09m wide, and are fitted with 75-inch LCD screens on one side. In 2016, 40 payphones were approved by City of Melbourne planners and installed over the following year, marking the start of Telstra’s plans for a nationwide rollout.
Telstra’s submission to the city claimed the booths were “low-impact” infrastructure and therefore planning approval was not required, in accordance with the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth).
In 2017, Telstra and outdoor advertising company JC Decaux announced a partnership to “bring the phone box into the 21st century”.
It would initially have 1,860 payphones upgraded in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. These five cities represent 64% of the country’s population and 77% of advertising spend.
Taking matters to court
Earlier this year, Telstra’s application for 81 new booths was blocked by the City of Melbourne, and the city commenced proceedings in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to have the booths redefined as not being low-impact.
Given the council allowed 40 booths to be installed in 2017, it’s unclear why its position has since changed.
In May, Telstra hit back by starting federal court proceedings against the council in an effort to overturn prior proceedings. In June, the Brisbane and Sydney city councils joined the City of Melbourne as co-respondents.
Melbourne Councillor and Chair of Planning Nicholas Reece said the new payphones would create congestion on busy footpaths, describing them as “monstrous electric billboards masquerading as payphones”.
He said the booths were “part of a revenue strategy for Telstra”.
But Telstra claims the new payphones are only 15cm wider than previous ones. A company spokesperson said the extra size was necessary to accommodate fibre connections and other equipment needed to operate the booth’s services.
Who pays for, and profits from, payphones?
In 2017, a Productivity Commission inquiry into the USO reported an average annual subsidy of A$2,600-50,000 per payphone, funded through the industry levy.
But the levy doesn’t cover the cost of installing and providing advertising on booths. Also, Telstra’s advertising-generated revenue doesn’t directly offset the cost of installing and operating the payphones.
Telstra has advertised on its payphones for the past 30 years. But display screens for advertising on new booths are 60% larger than previous ones.
The City of Melbourne is concerned because commissioned research by SGS Economics and Planning estimates a 10% reduction in pedestrian flow because of the new booths. This would happen as a result of people getting distracted by the payphone advertising, and would cost the city A$2.1 billion in lost productivity.
That said, federal legislation doesn’t prevent Telstra from placing advertising on payphones. So the existing court case could hinge on Melbourne city council’s argument that by increasing the size of digital displays, Telstra’s new payphones are no longer low-impact.
The outcome should be known early next year.
Do we still need payphones?
The number of payphones in operation today is sharply down compared with the payphone’s heyday in the early 1990s, when more than 80,000 could be found across Australia.
But there’s strong evidence they continue to supply a vital public service.
Currently, Telstra provides more than 16,000 public payphones. Last year, these were used to make about 13 million phone calls, of which about 200,000 were emergency calls to 000.
So regardless of the verdict on the Telstra case, the public payphone is and will continue to be an iconic and integral part of our telecommunications landscape.
Hype continues to surround the roll-out of 5G technology in Australia and across the world.
While there is promise of faster network speeds, and talk of exciting technologies like driverless cars, there’s also a growing movement to stop the implementation of 5G due to concerns about the effects it may have on our health.
But the scientific evidence we’ve got assures us there’s no reason to worry. The radio frequencies powering 5G will be well below the exposure limits known to cause harm.
What is 5G and how does it work?
5G is the 5th generation of mobile phone technology. All generations of mobile phones work using what’s called electromagnetic energy. The specific type of electromagnetic energy used by mobile phones is known as radiofrequency, sometimes called radio waves.
This type of radiation is non-ionising, so it doesn’t damage our DNA like ionising radiation can, such as that from the sun or x-rays. Ionising means there’s enough energy to remove electrons from the atoms they are attached to. This makes them unstable and is something non-ionising radiation, such as that used by mobile phones, lacks the power to do.
Initially, 5G will use the same type of radio waves as used in 4G. But in the future it will operate at higher frequencies. Higher frequencies allow for faster connections and response times, while also increasing capacity for more users to be connected.
The higher the frequency, the shorter the distance the radio waves travel. As the 5G frequencies will be higher than those used by previous mobile phone technologies, a lot more mobile phone base stations will be required.
Much of the public concern has centred around these two new elements – that the frequencies used will be higher, and that there will be more mobile phone base stations. While some people believe these two factors alone will lead to higher exposures, the reality is actually very different.
Can you be allergic to your Wi-Fi?
Higher frequencies don’t travel as far, meaning exposure is not as deep as previous generation technologies. This results in more superﬁcial exposures which are mostly absorbed by the skin rather than deeper in the body.
The idea that more base stations lead to higher exposures is also a common misconception. A larger number of base stations will actually provide a more efficient network. This means mobile phones can operate at a reduced power, which is likely to result in reduced overall personal exposure.
Research and regulation
Importantly, we have no evidence of any established health effects from the exposures related to mobile phones, despite extensive research. This consensus has been reiterated by independent international expert bodies.
We know a lot about how radiofrequency interacts with the human body. Health effects occur from exposure when there is a large rise in body temperature. But this will only be seen at power levels far higher than those used in telecommunications, like from a microwave oven.
Exposures from mobile phones and their base stations are tightly regulated. In Australia, safety standards are set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
These standards are based on the current scientific evidence. They also cover the new frequencies that will be used by 5G. Importantly, the safety limits are set well below levels known to cause harm. And although technology can legally run at the safety limit, in reality, exposures are typically hundreds of times below these safety limits.
There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding 5G, and the electromagnetic energy associated with telecommunications more generally. While there’s no evidence of harm from such electromagnetic energy, there is evidence fear and anxiety can be harmful to our health and overall well-being.
While anti-5G sentiment and campaigning might be well-intentioned, without the scientific evidence to back these sentiments, it’s likely doing more harm than good. The challenge we now face is counteracting the misinformation out there.
The United States and Australia are deliberately restricting the place of Chinese telco Huawei in their telecommunications landscapes.
We’re told these changes will be worth it from a security point of view.
But Huawei infrastructure is already ubiquitous in telecommunications networks, and we have other avenues available to us if we’re concerned about cybersecurity.
In the end, halting involvement of Huawei in Australia will be felt directly by customers. We will have to be satisfied with below-par 5G internet speeds and delayed service rollouts.
And we probably won’t be able to use Google Play on Huawei smart phones after 2020.
Huawei offers the best 5G
5G is a mobile phone network that promises top speeds, especially in highly populated areas. Australia has been expecting the network to be broadly up and running by around 2020 – there is limited availability in some central business districts right now.
Top 5G speeds can reach up to 10 gigabits per second, 20 times faster than 4G. This means movie downloads in a matter of seconds – as opposed to minutes with 4G. A mobile phone, gaming laptop or smart TV can communicate with a 5G network at a response speed of 1 millisecond, as opposed to 30 milliseconds with 4G.
Huawei, the world’s biggest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, is leading the 5G race. The Chinese company is around 12 months ahead of its competitors Nokia and Ericsson.
Huawei has been involved in providing 3G and 4G services in Australia since 2004 – reportedly working with Vodafone and Optus, but not Telstra or NBN Co. Huawei built a private 4G network for mining company Santos, and digital voice and data communication systems for rail services in Western Australia and New South Wales. This includes radio masts, base stations and handheld radios, but not the core network.
This stems from apparent Australian and US government concerns that Huawei infrastructure could allow the Chinese government to collect foreign intelligence and sensitive information, and sabotage economic interests.
Costs passed on to consumers
Australia’s telecommunications networks have already felt the impact of the Coalition’s Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms announced in August 2018.
These reforms “place obligations on telecommunications companies to protect Australian networks from unauthorised interference or access that might prejudice our national security”.
The guidance effectively put the companies on notice, implying that use of Huawei could violate cybersecurity laws. No company wants to be in such a position. Continuing with Huawei after being informed that the company may pose a national security risk could bring legal and reputational risks.
The result is companies such as Optus and Vodafone were left scrambling to re-negotiate 5G testing and rollout plans that had been in the works since 2016. Optus has already delayed its 5G roll out.
Most operators do use additional manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericsson for networks and testing. But it’s already clear from cases in Europe that such companies have been slow to release equipment that is as advanced as Huawei’s.
Costs incurred by such changes and the delays in rolling out high-quality services are absorbed by mobile phone companies in the first instance, and eventually passed on to the consumer.
Given existing frustrations with the NBN, customers will continue to wait longer and may have to pay more for top 5G services.
Customers who prefer to use Huawei-made phones could be hit with a double whammy. Recent actions by Google to suspend business operations with Huawei could prevent these customers from having access to Google Play (the equivalent of Apple’s app store on Android devices) in the future.
Huawei is already here
But it’s doubtful Huawei has assisted such efforts. Technical flaws detected in Italy are reported to be normal in the sector and not due to a backdoor.
Germany has decided to introduce a broad regulatory regime that requires suppliers of 5G networks to be trustworthy, and provide assured protection of information under local laws.
A similar approach in Australia would require telecommunications equipment to be tested before installation, and at regular intervals after installation for the lifetime of the network, under a security capability plan the supplier is required to submit.
More broadly speaking, the Coalition has pledged A$156 million to cybersecurity, aimed at developing skills to defend against cyber intrusions and to improve the capabilities of the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC). These plans could reasonably be timed with the expected launch of 5G at the end of 2020.
Added to this, the 2018 Assistance and Access Act – commonly referred to as the Encryption Bill – already requires all telecommunications manufacturers to protect their networks and assist national security and law enforcement agencies to share information. Huawei is subject to this legal obligation.
If there are security fears about 5G, those same fears would exist in respect of 4G that has been installed and is supported by Huawei in this country for more than a decade.
It’s not clear what we gain by blocking Huawei’s involvement in Australia’s 5G network.
The national broadband network (NBN) has been a major issue in federal election campaigns for close to a decade.
And the 2019 version of the NBN bears little resemblance to the futuristic, egalitarian earlier editions.
Despite years of controversy, cost over-runs, and delays, the coalition government says our $50 billion national network is finally nearing completion.
But Labor’s Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has set out some different priorities should her party achieve government in the coming election. One of these is a “digital inclusion drive”, aimed at improving access to the internet for older Australians and low-income households.
In addition, Labor is making no immediate commitment to replacing copper connections with fibre.
Instead, if elected, it will fund service and reliability fixes for those on the copper NBN, and impose service guarantees for small businesses and consumers. It will examine what has happened to the economics of the network, looking at its cash flow, pricing, capital structure, and future options for network upgrades.
Labor’s policy will disappoint those hoping for a fast-tracked return to that party’s original (2009) vision of high-speed fibre for (almost) everyone. But its 2019 plan is an important acknowledgement that network infrastructure is only one part of the NBN story.
Affordability and digital inclusion
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) provides data on the affordability of internet services for Australians since 2014. It shows that recent, modest improvements seen by some households have been matched by declines in affordability for a number of Australia’s more digitally excluded groups.
The results for low-income households, single parents, people outside the labour force, Indigenous Australians, and people with a disability remain poor.
The good news for Australian consumers is that the pricing of mobile services has improved, reflecting competitive pressures and the reduced cost of delivery as a consequence of investment by network owners.
But when we look at fixed broadband services — the kinds of connections used by most households — recent price increases by NBN have led to a decline in the number of low-cost plans on the market. This change post-dates the most recent ADII report (2018), and the effects are beginning to work their way into the market.
Communications costs matter
Communications services have a knock-on effect in many other areas of life and work.
Access to high-speed broadband can reduce the costs of using other services considerably. This makes critical activities like banking, seeking government information, looking for work, or studying much easier.
But when we speak of the cost savings linked with online services, we need also to bear in mind the flip-side of those savings: the much higher costs borne by those, often less well-off, citizens who must access services offline.
If an individual on a low income lacks electronic access to banking or government information, the cost of commuting to do these things in person can be prohibitive — and especially so for Australians living in remote or regional areas.
For children at school and adults in education or training, a lack of access to the internet means many will fall behind their peers, as access to educational materials and online content becomes a core part of the modern education experience. This has implications for Australia’s ability to take advantage of the next wave of digital transformation.
Australia’s digital divide is not going away
Expensive for everyone
The costs of inequitable internet access are directly felt by many families, but the broader costs are borne by society.
And so digital exclusion now has the potential to be a drag on Australia’s economic growth and productive potential for decades to come.
For individuals, conducting activities offline may be time-consuming and expensive. But that’s also true for the government. It’s estimated that even taking half of government services online would save around A$20 billion.
Aside from the costs of lower productivity, economic growth and tax receipts, inequitable access means that the material savings from automated services may never be realised.
Affordable access to broadband also supports the cost effective delivery of core government and other services – such as health – to regional and remote locations.
Although addressing inequitable access will involve costs in the short term, effective policy measures to improve affordability are likely to generate considerable national benefits.
Infographic: Budget 2019 at a glance
How to improve affordability
At this stage Labor is not saying what it might do to improve internet affordability for low-income households.
The idea of writing down the NBN has been widely discussed. It does, however, have serious implications: it will be very costly to taxpayers.
It will also limit the ability of the NBN to invest in future network upgrades and threaten the economics of uniform national pricing, the NBN’s key promise of equity for regional and remote Australia.
That could mean a return to the pre-NBN communications landscape, with regional and remote Australia relying on increasingly obsolete communications infrastructure while metropolitan Australia moves ahead.
A direct increase in cash payments is likely to improve living standards materially for those in poverty, but more money for low income households doesn’t necessarily mean that broadband will be within their reach.
The creation of a concession at a retail level would make the telecommunications companies responsible for selling products at a cheaper rate, which in an era of reduced margins appears unlikely to occur.
Also, a series of retail concessions can lead to consumer confusion, as the scope of each scheme and the discounts on offer vary wildly. We’ve seen these problems in the energy sector.
Another option is to create a wholesale concession, a measure that has been promoted by consumer advocates. This would involve the government paying NBN to put a wholesale product into the market that retailers could purchase and retail to low income households.
A nationally uniform concessional service would allow retailers to compete in offering affordable services to low-income households, boost NBN take-up and consequently its revenue and financial viability.
Focus on inclusion
While the introduction of a concessional arrangement would involve government picking up a part of the tab for service delivery, it offers sizeable benefits.
By ensuring NBN access for low-income households, the government avoids forgoing a large proportion of the savings that should accrued from the digital transformation of government services (and the benefits to be gained from improving services).
It would also prevent a lower take-up of NBN services and revenues. Without such an arrangement, questions will continue to be raised about the financial viability of NBN, its repayment of outstanding debt to government and whether there needs to be a write-down.
The take up of broadband has historically seen improvements in average household income, productivity, and the creation of new kinds of work and services.
In order to maximise the benefits of the current wave of digital change, we’ll need a broader public debate, that goes beyond the relative merits of fibre and 5G.
Policy will need to address the challenge of affordability, invest in digital literacy, and ensure that all Australians can access the services that they need.
While there are many improvements that can and should be made to our national network infrastructure, a focus on the larger problem of digital inclusion is both welcome, and overdue.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, encryption already impacts 90% of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO) priority cases, and 90% of data intercepted by the Australian Federal Police. The measures aim to counteract estimates that communications among terrorists and organised crime groups are expected to be entirely encrypted by 2020.
The Department of Home Affairs and ASIO can already access encrypted data with specialist decryption techniques – or at points where data are not encrypted. But this takes time. The new bill aims to speed up this process, but these broad and ill-defined new powers have significant scope for abuse.
The Department of Home Affairs argues this new framework will not compel communications providers to build systemic weaknesses or vulnerabilities into their systems. In other words, it is not a backdoor.
But it will require providers to offer up details about technical characteristics of their systems that could help agencies exploit weaknesses that have not been patched. It also includes installing software, and designing and building new systems.
Compelling assistance and access
The draft Assistance and Access Bill introduces three main reforms.
First, it increases the obligations of both domestic and offshore organisations to assist law enforcement and security agencies to access information. Second, it introduces new computer access warrants that enable law enforcement to covertly obtain evidence directly from a device (this occurs at the endpoints when information is not encrypted). Finally, it increases existing powers that law enforcement have to access data through search and seizure warrants.
The bill is modelled on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, which introduced mandatory decryption obligations. Under the UK Act, the UK government can order telecommunication providers to remove any form of electronic protection that is applied by, or on behalf of, an operator. Whether or not this is technically possible is another question.
Similar to the UK laws, the Australian bill puts the onus on telecommunication providers to give security agencies access to communications. That might mean providing access to information at points where it is not encrypted, but it’s not immediately clear what other requirements can or will be imposed.
For example, the bill allows the Director-General of Security or the chief officer of an interception agency to compel a provider to do an unlimited range of acts or things. That could mean anything from removing security measures to deleting messages or collecting extra data. Providers will also be required to conceal any action taken covertly by law enforcement.
Further, the Attorney-General may issue a “technical capability notice” directed towards ensuring that the provider is capable of giving certain types of help to ASIO or an interception agency.
This means providers will be required to develop new ways for law enforcement to collect information. As in the UK, it’s not clear whether a provider will be able to offer true end-to-end encryption and still be able to comply with the notices. Providers that breach the law risk facing $10 million fines.
Cause for concern
The bill puts few limits or constraints on the assistance that telecommunication providers may be ordered to offer. There are also concerns about transparency. The bill would make it an offence to disclose information about government agency activities without authorisation. Anyone leaking information about data collection by the government – as Edward Snowden did in the US – could go to jail for five years.
There are limited oversight and accountability structures and processes in place. The Director-General of Security, the chief officer of an interception agency and the Attorney-General can issue notices without judicial oversight. This differs from how it works in the UK, where a specific judicial oversight regime was established, in addition to the introduction of an Investigatory Powers Commissioner.
Notices can be issued to enforce domestic laws and assist the enforcement of the criminal laws of foreign countries. They can also be issued in the broader interests of national security, or to protect the public revenue. These are vague and unclear limits on these exceptional powers.
The range of services providers is also extremely broad. It might include telecommunication companies, internet service providers, email providers, social media platforms and a range of other “over-the-top” services. It also covers those who develop, supply or update software, and manufacture, supply, install or maintain data processing devices.
The enforcement of criminal laws in other countries may mean international requests for data will be funnelled through Australia as the “weakest-link” of our Five Eyes allies. This is because Australia has no enforceable human rights protections at the federal level.
It’s not clear how the government would enforce these laws on transnational technology companies. For example, if Facebook was issued a fine under the laws, it could simply withdraw operations or refuse to pay. Also, $10 million is a drop in the ocean for companies such as Facebook whose total revenue last year exceeded US$40 billion.
Australia is a surveillance state
As I have argued elsewhere, the broad powers outlined in the bill are neither necessary nor proportionate. Police already have existing broad powers, which are further strengthened by this bill, such as their ability to covertly hack devices at the endpoints when information is not encrypted.
Australia has limited human rights and privacy protections. This has enabled a constant and steady expansion of the powers and capabilities of the surveillance state. If we want to protect the privacy of our communications we must demand it.
The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 (Cth) is still in a draft stage and the Department of Home Affairs invites public comment up until 10th of September 2018. Submit any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The federal government today announced its proposed legislation to give law enforcement agencies yet more avenues to reach into our private lives through access to our personal communications and data. This never-ending story of parliamentary bills defies logic, and is not offering the necessary oversight and protections.
The trend has been led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with help from an ever-growing number of security ministers and senior officials. Could it be that the proliferation of government security roles is a self-perpetuating industry leading to ever more government powers for privacy encroachment?
That definitely appears to be the case.
Striking the right balance between data access and privacy is a tricky problem, but the government’s current approach is doing little to solve it. We need better oversight of law enforcement access to our data to ensure it complies with privacy principles and actually results in convictions. That might require setting up an independent judicial review mechanism to report outcomes on an annual basis.
Where is the accountability?
The succession of data access legislation in the Australian parliament is fast becoming a Mad Hatter’s tea party – a characterisation justified by the increasingly unproductive public conversations between the government on one hand, and legal specialists and rights advocates on the other.
If the government says it needs new laws to tackle “terrorism and paedophilia”, then the rule seems to be that other side will be criticised for bringing up “privacy protection”. The federal opposition has surrendered any meaningful resistance to this parade of legislation.
Rights advocates have been backed into a corner by being forced to repeat their concerns over each new piece of legislation while neither they nor the government, nor our Privacy Commissioner, and all the other “commissioners”, are called to account on fundamental matters of principle.
The post has three purposes:
- to promote greater use of data,
- to drive economic benefits and innovation from greater use of data, and
- to build trust with the Australian community about the government’s use of data.
The problem with this logic is that purposes one and two can only be distinguished by the seemingly catch-all character of the first: that if data exists it must be used.
Leaving aside that minor point, the notion that the government needs to build trust with the Australian community on data policy speaks for itself.
National Privacy Principles fall short
There is near universal agreement that the government is managing this issue badly, from the census data management issue to the “My Health Record” debacle. The growing commissioner class has not been much help.
Australia does have personal data protection principles, you may be surprised to learn. They are called “Privacy Principles”. You may be even more surprised to learn that the rights offered in these principles exist only up to the point where any enforcement arm of government wants the data.
So it seems that Australians have to rely on the leadership of the Productivity Commission (for economic policy) to guarantee our rights in cyber space, at least when it comes to our personal data.
Better oversight is required
There is another approach to reconciling citizens’ interests in privacy protection with legitimate and important enforcement needs against terrorists and paedophiles: that is judicial review.
The government argues, unconvincingly according to police sources, that this process adequately protects citizens by requiring law enforcement to obtain court-ordered warrants to access information. The record in some other countries suggests otherwise, with judges almost always waving through any application from enforcement authorities, according to official US data.
There is a second level of judicial review open to the government. This is to set up an independent judicial review mechanism that is obliged to annually review all instances of government access to personal data under warrant, and to report on the virtues or shortcomings of that access against enforcement outcomes and privacy principles.
There are two essential features of this proposal. First, the reviewing officer is a judge and not a public servant (the “commissioner class”). Second, the scope of the function is review of the daily operation of the intrusive laws, not just the post-facto examination of notorious cases of data breaches.
It would take a lengthy academic volume to make the case for judicial review of this kind. But it can be defended simply on economic grounds: such a review process would shine light on the efficiency of police investigations.
According to data released by the UK government, the overwhelming share of arrests for terrorist offences in the UK (many based on court-approved warrants for access to private data) do not result in convictions. There were 37 convictions out of 441 arrests for terrorist-related offences in the 12 months up to March 2018.
The Turnbull government deserves credit for its recognition of the values of legal review. Its continuing commitment to posts such as the National Security Legislation Monitor – and the appointment of a high-profile barrister to such a post – is evidence of that.
But somewhere along the way, the administration of data privacy is falling foul of a growing bureaucratic mess.
The only way to bring order to the chaos is through robust accountability; and the only people with the authority or legitimacy in our political system to do that are probably judges who are independent of the government.
ChinaAid (www.chinaaid.org ) reports that after blind human rights defender Chen Guangcheng was recently interviewed by a Chinese radio reporter, media lost direct contact with him and his wife, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.
However, says ChinaAid, one of their friends, Zeng Jinyan, mentioned in her blog that she had contacted Chen and his wife on September 23. Since that date, there has been no word from them.
Radio Free Asia reporter Zhang Min interviewed Chen on September 13 and provided the information to ChinaAid.
Since then, ChinaAid reports, family friend Zeng Jinyan wrote in her blog, “Chen Guangcheng’s mother-in-law recently visited Chen in his home. When she arrived, she was physically searched by government-paid guards keeping Chen’s family under house arrest. A few days before, on the September 20, the local communist leader of the town invaded Chen’s home with at least 4 policemen and over 20 guards. They stayed there for six hours.”
ChinaAid says the guards on watch currently have free rein of Chen’s house, intruding any time they wish. Not only have they invaded the family’s privacy — they also threatened them, saying, “Don’t you really know who holds your little life in their hands?”
ChinaAid went on to add that the local government forced Chen to cut off all external communications. The guards do not allow Chen or his wife out of their house. The family relies on Chen’s 78-year-old mother, the only one who is allowed to go out, to buy their food. The guards have even forbidden Chen’s 5-year-old daughter from going to school.
ChianAid explained that Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng, both Christian human rights defenders who continue to suffer for their work, were nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The award was made on October 8, 2010, to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was honored for "Struggle for Fundamental Human Rights." He was given the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights" — a prize that enraged the Chinese government, which had warned the Nobel committee not to honor him. China officially denounced the award as "Blasphemy."
In a year with a record 237 nominations for the peace prize, Liu had been considered a favorite, with open support from winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and others.
In the case of Guangcheng, ChinaAid "insists that the local authorities cease their invasive control of Chen and his family," and asks concerned Christians to join them in praying for their freedom and safety.
ChinaAid had also prayed the Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to Chen Guangcheng or Gao Zhisheng, who have both suffered under the hands of Chinese authorities.
ChianAid had earlier said: "Such an award would be an incredible encouragement and source of hope to every human rights lawyer in China."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Assailants, still at large, abduct and threaten blind volunteer, associate and pregnant wife.
NEW DELHI, September 6 (CDN) — A visually impaired Christian and his friend accused drunken Buddhists of abducting and assaulting them last week after the blind volunteer distributed relief material in a Buddhist-majority town in a region of India devastated by recent floods.
The attackers are still at large after the assault on Wednesday (Sept .1) in the town of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir state’s Ladakh region, where flooding and landslides destroyed hundreds of houses and killed around 200 people on Aug. 6.
The attackers, identified as members of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), one of the region’s largest and most influential Non-Governmental Organizations, abducted Ram Kumar Thapa, Stanzin Chosphel and his pregnant wife Putali Sherpa because of their Christian faith and beat the men, the victims said.
Thapa, a blind music teacher in his 30s, was abducted from Mahabodhi Gate in Choglamsar area in Leh, where he was distributing relief material, at around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the complaint he filed on Thursday (Sept. 2) with the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission.
LBA members were upset that Thapa was preaching Christianity to displaced residents, according to his complaint. The Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, a Christian relief agency, is rebuilding homes for the displaced people, mostly Buddhists, in the area.
“I was attacked physically by several unknown assailants before other witnesses nearby,” Thapa stated in the complaint. “Then these men forced me into a vehicle and continued beating me all over my body as they spoke in Ladakhi to each other.”
Thapa, from the eastern state of West Bengal, also stated that the Buddhists contemplated killing him. “They discussed whether to take my life or return to the ‘office,’” he said.
The assailants took Thapa to the office of the LBA in Soma Monastery, where a Buddhist monk was also present, and beat him again, he stated. He was then moved to a room where he could hear the voice of his friend, Chosphel, with his pregnant wife.
Chosphel, a convert from Buddhism, is from Ladakh and his wife is from Nepal. The Buddhist assailants had taken them from their house in the Skalzaling area in Leh after Thapa, under pressure from the LBA members, identified them as his associates, according to the Christian victims.
The attackers showed Thapa’s bruised and bleeding face to Chosphel to warn him against continuing as a Christian, Thapa stated. He was then taken back to the vehicle.
“They placed a gunny sack with a rope onto my lap and explained that this would be my last bed … [after] they throw me into the Indus River and see if a blind man can swim and save himself,” Thapa stated. “I became terribly afraid, since I could smell alcohol on their breath as we sat in the vehicle.”
Thapa begged that his life be spared “so I could see my wife, who must be worried since it was late now.” The kidnappers replied, “Your wife will see you when she finds your body by the river bank,” he stated.
Thapa and his wife, also visually impaired, teach and live at Mahabodhi Residential School for handicapped children.
Thapa stated that when he asked what they wanted from him, “they said I had to leave Ladakh with my family within two days or else they would kill me and my family. It was around 1 a.m. when they dropped me back to my house, bruised and trembling.”
Thapa went to the Housing Colony Police Station on Thursday (Sept. 2) and found out that Chosphel also was there to file his complaint.
Chosphel confirmed that the “office” they were taken to belonged to the LBA. In his complaint to the commission, Chosphel said that around 15 “heavily drunken” men came to abduct him and his wife in their black Bolero, a mid-size SUV.
In the courtyard of the LBA facility, the Buddhists beat Chosphel before his wife, who pleaded for them to stop and asked why they were being assaulted.
“They threatened to beat her as well if she did not keep silent,” Chosphel stated. “Then they dragged me into a room and gagged my mouth so I could not cry out as they beat me with rubber pipes and rods and fists continuously. All along they kept telling me to leave my wife and also renounce my faith in Christianity and return to Buddhism.”
The men released the couple at around 12:30 a.m. after giving them two days to leave Leh or convert to Buddhism, Chosphel stated, “or else they will chop my wife into pieces and kill me and also kill my family … who are still practicing Buddhists.”
The attackers also confiscated their mobile phones.
The victims told Compass that they were still facing a threat on their lives even after filing complaints with police.
Additional Superintendent of Police Stanzin Nurboo told Compass that no one had been arrested because the victims could not name the accused.
Chosphel and his wife, however, told Compass that they would be able to identify the attackers if they saw their faces; at press time, however, they said police had not contacted any of them to do so.
Religious conversion is a sensitive issue in Leh, which borders Pakistan and Tibet, as it is seen as an attack on its distinct religious and cultural identity.
Citing religious and cultural differences with the otherwise Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, some residents of Ladakh have been asking for union territory status for the region.
As a concession, the Ladakh region was bifurcated into Muslim-majority Kargil district and Buddhist-majority Leh district in 1979, and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was also created in 1995 to grant some autonomy to Leh and Kargil districts.
The government of Jammu and Kashmir continues to have responsibility for maintaining law and order and is in charge of the judicial system, communications and higher education.
Of the population of 117,232, over 80 percent of the people in Leh are Buddhist. Muslims make up around 15 percent of the population, Hindus 3 percent and Christians 0.2 percent.
Report from Compass Direct News