EU adopts new guidelines on freedom of expression

(Image: Håkan Dahström)

(Image: Håkan Dahlström)

A new set of guidelines laid out by the EU, and contributed to by Index on Censorship, will specifically look at freedom of expression both online and offline, and includes clauses, among others, on whistleblowers, citizens’ privacy and the promotion of laws that protect freedoms of expression.

According to the Council of the European Union press statement, freedom of opinion should apply to all persons equally, regardless of who they are and where they live, affirming this freedom “must be respected and protected equally online as well as offline”.

Significant consideration within the EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline, adopted on 12 May, is paid to whistleblowers with the council vowing to support any legislation adopted which provides protection for those who expose the misconduct of others, as well as reforming legal protections for journalists’ rights to not have to disclose their sources.

Reinforcing this, the new guidelines enable the Council to help those, journalists or others, who are arrested or imprisoned for expressing their opinions both online and offline, seeking for their immediate release and observing any subsequent trials.

Member states also have an obligation to protect their citizens’ right to privacy. In accordance with article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the guidelines claim “no one should be subject to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy“, with legal systems providing “adequate and effective guarantees” on the right to privacy. ­­­

The guidelines will provide guidance on the prevention of violations to freedom of opinion and expression and how officials and staff should react when these violations occur. The guidelines also outline the “strictly prescribed circumstances” that freedom of expressions may be limited; for example, operators may implement internet restrictions (blockages etc.) to conform with law enforcement provisions on child abuse. Laws under the new guidelines that do adequately and effectively guarantee the freedom of opinions to all, not just journalists and the media, must be properly enforced.

“Free, diverse and independent media are essential in any society to promote and protect freedom of opinion and expression and other human rights,” according to the Council press release. “By facilitating the free flow of information and ideas on matters of general interest, and by ensuring transparency and accountability, independent media constitute one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. Without freedom of expression and freedom of the media, an informed, active and engaged citizenry is impossible.”

Read the full set of guidelines here.

This article was posted on May 15, 2014 at

Russia’s attack on internet freedom: “There is a lot of room for making things worse”

A 2012 protest against internet censorship in St. Petersburg (Image: Mike Kireev/Demotix)

A 2012 protest against internet censorship in St. Petersburg (Image: Mike Kireev/Demotix)

It’s been a bad week for the internet in Russia. On Monday, the founder and CEO of VKontakte — “Russian Facebook” — claimed to have been pushed out and that Putin loyalists are now in charge of the site. On Tuesday, the Duma adopted controversial amendments to an information law, targeting bloggers. On top of that, on the same day, opposition figure Aleksei Navalny was found guilty of slander over a Twitter post.

Pavel Durov said in a statement on Monday that not only had he been fired from VKontakte, but he had learned about it from the press. He added that Kremlin loyalists Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov now had “complete control” over the social network, and that “Probably, in the Russian context, something like this was inevitable”. He revealed in an interview with TechCrunch that he’s left Russia, and has no plans to come back — labelling the country  “incompatible with internet business at the moment”. VK, as it is known, is not the go-to platform for political expression, its users are generally quite young. However, the site has recently found itself in the spotlight of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, both over groups and accounts connected to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and, Durov claims, over Navalny‘s page.

Meanwhile, claimed to be a counter-terrorism measure, the new law forces any site with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with authorities. It will then be considered a mass media outlet, with the potential of being subjected to blocking and fines for anything from failing to verify information posted, to using curse words. Bloggers could also be held responsible for comments posted by third parties on their site, while anonymous blogging may or may not be banned. If enforced, it would “curb freedom of expression and freedom of social media, as well as seriously inhibit the right of citizens to freely receive and disseminate alternative information and express critical views,” said the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic.

While the amendment has yet to be signed into law, it appears to have already made an impact. Russia’s biggest search engine Yandex has removed its ranking of the country’s most popular bloggers, saying it is because the blogsphere has peaked and is losing ground to social media as a discussion platform. Incidentally, their decision was announced only days before the Duma representatives made theirs.

But these cases are merely the latest chapters in the ongoing saga of Russian internet censorship. While to some extent, the authorities have kept an eye on the internet since its inception, there was a time not long ago when their attention was firmly fixed on controlling the traditional media. But as TV news turned into little more than government propaganda machines (see the bizarre spectacle that is RT) Russians started looking for alternative platforms for real debate. Unsurprisingly, they found them on the internet, and it proved a relatively free space. The remarkable popularity of blogging site LiveJournal in Russia is one result of this; the rise of independent online news providers like another.

But even then, there were those who realised the regime would turn its attention to the internet as soon as it clocked onto its potential power. And sure enough — the wave of internet repression we’re seeing today is widely believed to have started with the protests surrounding the elections securing Putin’s third term in power. Like the Arab spring, here too the internet was an effective organising tool.

Since then, continuous blocking and takedowns have been supplemented by more large-scale crackdowns, like the 2012 blacklisting of websites, and the range of attacks on online news sites, such as,  TVRain and Ekho Moskvy, early this year. And while there are immediate and obvious effects of putting government loyalists in powerful media positions or simply shutting down outlets that show any sign of dissent from the official line, these actions also pose less overt threats to free expression.

“We should understand one thing — while technically these initiatives look not very sophisticated, in fact the entire strategy is very efficient because it provokes the rise of self-censorship among users, ISPs and even global platforms,” renowned Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov explained to Index. “Many are becoming more and more cautious facing government pressure on the internet, not very predictable, and thus extremely dangerous.”

There is little reason to believe that authorities will call it a day with their latest moves. “Every time we wonder, is it possible to have more propaganda and more pressure, but then it turns out it is possible,” Tonia Samsonova, a correspondent for Ekho Moskvy and TVRain told Index. She says people used to believe they lived in a free society, or one that was on its way to becoming free, but then the situation deteriorated. And every time they think they’ve hit rock bottom, “someone is knocking from the underground and we realise we can go lower and lower and lower in terms of freedom,” she says. “And I think there is a lot of room for making things worse for internet freedom in Russia.”

Soldatov believes a possible next step involves forcing the likes of Google and Twitter on to Russian soil: “It’s very probable, given that some prominent Russian MPs already started putting global platforms under pressure (using as pretext the protection of personal data of Russian citizens against NSA espionage). The very last initiative was to forbid Facebook in Russia until the company relocates its servers with Russian citizens data on Russian soil, notably in Siberia, because it might help develop this region.” This initiative has not yet been made into a draft bill, but Soldatov says “the trend is quite obvious”.

Indeed, on a related note, recently passed legislation orders websites — including foreign ones with Russian users — to keep six-month records of user activity, and for that to be made available to the authorities. Whether big internationals like Facebook will comply when challenged remains to be seen.

“Their ultimate goal is to have no oppositional thinkers posting,” says Samsonova. With few signs of widespread public opposition to the authorities’ previous repressive moves, further erosion of internet freedom on the path towards this goal seems likely.

This article was posted on 25 April 2014 at

Digital freedom in Bangladesh: Navigating in uncertain waters

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Bangladesh witnessed the internet take on an increasing role in its socio-political sphere in 2013. Usage trends swung more toward heart-warming positives, in contrast to the country’s regulatory precedents, which despite policymakers facilitating net use via cheaper connections and better infrastructure, have been mostly negative. Common people felt empowered using the internet.

Last February, tens of thousands of people were gathered, inspired by blog posts and social media to protest for the first time in the country’s history. At the same time, religious zealots started attacking online activists, and policymakers initiated the use of a draconian ICT (information and communication technology) act to clamp down on opposition, thus threatening digital freedom of expression overall.

Internet usage, mobile telephony penetration, and other ICT-enabled applications have been enjoying steady growth in both Bangladesh’s private and public sectors for over a decade. The present political leadership came to power with a mandate to “digitise” the country by implementing its Digital Bangladesh by 2021 vision. This policy rolled out net enabled ICT centers to ensure easier access of information for its citizens all over Bangladesh. At present, the national teledensity is at over 70%. Around 20% of the population use the internet, of which 90% go online using mobile phone services. There are around 200,000 local bloggers based in Bangladesh, who alongside millions of Bangladeshi Facebook users were until recently enjoying near-uninhibited freedom to express their thoughts online.

The true power of social media to mobilise massive groups of people on a political issue was first observed in Bangladesh during the Shahbag movement in February 2013. Like the 2011 uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, protesters gathered for several weeks in the Shahbag intersection of Dhaka University campus, demanding justice against known war criminals of its liberation war in 1971. This movement was initiated by local bloggers and social network users, and flourished with their help. People were using online media freely to organise in the real world and to create spaces for net based dialogue on critical issues.  However, along with such freedom came confrontation. Shahbag made public the conflict between the ultra religious, anti-establishment elements and the moderate, mainstream and secular netizens. One pro-Shahbag blogger was killed, many other online activists were threatened with physically harm by the zealots. Suddenly an online inspired mass protest, which was enjoying complete freedom of expression in the digital space, turned out to be the root cause of a messy and prolonged offline affair.

The Shahbag movement exposed the major weaknesses of the local legal system, responsible for guaranteeing its citizens’ freedom of expression. The government turned out to be confused in their decision making process and tried to appease both sides. It first banned several ultra-religious sites. Then the law enforcement agency arrested four secular Shahbag bloggers and organisers, charging them with “harming religious sentiments”. Such actions sent out confusing signals to the general population and posed serious questions on the existence of any tangible legal safety net for online communication in Bangladesh.

In fact, the government’s performance in the digital space has been consistently disappointing between 2012 and 2013. In addition to its self-conflicting stance on Shahbag, it applied a heavy-handed approach in dealing with other web services throughout the year. YouTube was banned for months (September 2012 to May 2013) due to The Innocence of Muslims, which ignited major protests in Bangladesh. Additionally, Facebook was blocked on several occasions, from periods of a few hours to days at a stretch. Freedom House included Bangladesh for the first time in its yearly Freedom On the Net report in 2013. Based on its performance in 2012 and first half of 2013, the internet in Bangladesh was found to be partially free, enjoying a relatively better online environment in comparison with its South Asian peers, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Nevertheless the situation is getting worse. Indiscriminate applications of the ICT Act 2006, a rise of online hate speech and related crimes have left net users in Bangladesh insecure.

In 2013, the government started using the ICT Act of 2006 more frequently, mainly to address issues related to online space and freedom of expression. This act was formulated in early 2000 and according to many legal experts, it was due to be amended to become more user-friendly and inclusive. The Bangladeshi government did amend it in August 2013, but unfortunately made it more repressive and inflexible. The newly amended act provisions a maximum 10 years in prison and fines up to £74,555 for any offensive religious, social, or political expression made online. It moreover made arrests under this act non-bailable and the police were given the power to arrest people without a warrant. Instead of strengthening the legal system to protect peoples’ right to communicate freely online, this act tightened its grip on peoples’ freedom of communication. A series of arrests took place and several court cases were filed under the act in 2013. Besides the bloggers, editors and journalists of two newspapers, two NGO officials, and several other people were arrested, some of whom are close to opposition party politics. One university teacher was sentenced to seven years in prison under the act for threatening to kill the prime minister through a Facebook status.

Overall, the present state of affair of net freedom in Bangladesh is very uncertain. There has been no independent regulatory or legal body put in place to protect the rights of the people online. Civil society needs to be more active to thwart any digital policing that compromises public freedom. As the challenges related to ICT access in Bangladesh are being solved fast, it is now high time to make sure that its citizens enjoy true freedom while using such digital infrastructure.

This article was posted on 10 April 2014 at