Jan 27, 2020 - World

UN aviation agency blocks critics of Taiwan policy on Twitter

China Airlines staff wear respirator masks in Taipei airport on Jan 22, 2020

Staff members of China Airlines wear respirator masks at Songshan International Airport in Taipei, Jan. 22. Photo: Walid Berrazeg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has blocked numerous Twitter accounts — including ones belonging to Capitol Hill staffers and D.C.-based analysts — after facing online criticism for excluding Taiwan from membership.

Why it matters: Taipei is an international transit hub, and Taiwan's exclusion means it can't take part in information sharing and logistical planning as the coronavirus spreads.

Context: China views Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory, and it has systematically pushed the self-governing island out of most international and intergovernmental organizations, including ICAO, which is led by Fang Liu, a Chinese national.

  • Taiwan has not participated in ICAO assemblies since 2013.
  • Exclusion from ICAO means Taiwan faces obstacles in communicating about international standards and practices.
  • That's particularly problematic during an international crisis, such as an epidemic.

Details: Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Taiwan-focused Project 2049 Institute criticized ICAO in a Jan. 22 tweet:

  • Drun noticed on Jan. 25 that ICAO had blocked her on Twitter.
  • Qining Guang, a Chinese national who previously worked for the Civil Aviation Administration of China, is responsible for ICAO's social media accounts, according to her LinkedIn profile.
  • Guang "has no managerial responsibilities in the ICAO Communications Unit, and undertakes only supervised social media efforts for us relating to the repackaging of pre-vetted English language ICAO content for Chinese language audiences," said Anthony Philbin, communications chief at ICAO.

Numerous other Twitter accounts were blocked around the same time, Axios has learned, including the accounts of several Hill staffers, analysts and an English teacher in Guangzhou. The accounts had posted similar criticisms.

Julian Ku, a professor at Hofstra University, told Axios there is likely no legal recourse for people who ICAO has blocked. "International organizations have immunity from domestic courts and can't be sued. Nor are there any international tribunals that have jurisdiction over this."

Even so, experts told Axios it goes against the spirit of an intergovernmental organization to prevent people from accessing the information it provides.

  • ICAO's blocking of critics on social media "raises serious questions about the role of intergovernmental organizations and their supposed impartiality and objectivity," said Anthony Arend, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, in a message to Axios.
  • "In keeping with the ICAO's goal to meet the needs of 'peoples of the world,'" said Arend, "it seems logical that the organization should not be able to prevent any person from accessing its official Twitter account ... And such action would be contrary to the concept that staff of personnel of intergovernmental organizations are to be independent and impartial."
  • Ku told Axios, "It is worth asking international organizations why they are blocking followers, and whether they are following free speech values in how they operate."

What they're saying: Amid the spate of social media blocks, the official ICAO Twitter account posted a link to its social media policy, adding that "Irrelevant, compromising and offensive material will be removed and the publisher precluded. Join us in improving advocacy for sustainable #aviation development through fact-based discourse."

  • "We have had to block some advocates who were active on our social media accounts in recent days, and who were deemed to be purposefully and publicly misrepresenting our organization in order to draw attention to their own campaign objectives," wrote Philbin. "We felt we were completely warranted in taking the steps we did to defend the integrity of the information and discussions our followers should reasonably expect from our feeds."

This isn't the first time that ICAO has blocked critics.

  • In March 2019, ICAO attracted criticism after it blocked academics and activists who criticized the organization's environmental policies, including a behavioral scientist who had tweeted a comment from climate activist Greta Thunberg.
  • The ICAO also tweeted a poem saying it was fighting "fake news" and "abuse."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with more information about the ICAO Twitter account.

Go deeper