Censorship gone viral: The cross-fertilisation of repression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”85524″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]For around six decades after WWII ideas, laws and institutions supporting free expression spread across borders globally. Ever more people were liberated from stifling censorship and repression. But in the past decade that development has reversed.  

On April 12 Russian lawmakers in the State Duma completed the first reading of a new draft law on social media. Among other things the law requires social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk hefty fines. Sound familiar? If you think you’ve heard this story before it’s because the original draft was what Reporters Without Borders call a “copy-paste” version of the much criticized German Social Network law that went into effect earlier this year. But we can trace the origins back further.

In 2016 the EU-Commission and a number of big tech-firms including Facebook, Twitter and Google, agreed on a Code of Conduct under which these firms commit to removing illegal hate speech within 24 hours. In other words what happens in Brussels doesn’t stay in Brussels. It may spread to Berlin and end up in Moscow, transformed from a voluntary instrument aimed at defending Western democracies to a draconian law used to shore up a regime committed to disrupting Western democracies. 

US President Donald Trump’s crusade against “fake news” may also have had serious consequences for press freedom. Because of the First Amendment’s robust protection of free expression Trump is largely powerless to weaponise his war against the “fake news media” and “enemies of the people” that most others refer to as “independent media”.

Yet many other citizens of the world cannot rely on the same degree of legal protection from thin-skinned political leaders eager to filter news and information. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented the highest ever number of journalists imprisoned for false news worldwide. And while 21 such cases may not sound catastrophic the message these arrests and convictions send is alarming. And soon more may follow.  In April Malaysia criminalised the spread of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false”, with up to six years in prison. Already a Danish citizen has been convicted to one month’s imprisonment for a harmless YouTube video, and presidential candidate Mahathir Mohammed is also being investigated. Kenya is going down the same path with a draconian bill criminalising “false” or “fictitious” information.  And while Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump has been unduly influenced by Russian President Putin, it seems that Putin may well have been influenced by Trump. The above mentioned Russian draft social media law also includes an obligation to delete any “unverified publicly significant information presented as reliable information.” Taken into account the amount of pro-Kremlin propaganda espoused by Russian media such as RT and Sputnik, one can be certain that the definition of “unverified” will align closely with the interests of Putin and his cronies.

But even democracies have fallen for the temptation to define truth. France’s celebrated president Macron has promised to present a bill targeting false information by “to allow rapid blocking of the dissemination of fake news”. While the French initiative may be targeted at election periods it still does not accord well with a joint declaration issued by independent experts from international and regional organisations covering the UN, Europe, the Americans and Africa which stressed that “ general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression”.

However, illiberal measures also travel from East to West. In 2012 Russia adopted a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad and involved in “political activities” – a nebulous and all-encompassing term – to register as “foreign agents”. The law is a thinly veiled attempt to delegitimise civil society organisations that may shed critical light on the policies of Putin’s regime. It has affected everything from human rights groups, LGBT-activists and environmental organisations, who must choose between being branded as something akin to enemies of the state or abandon their work in Russia. As such it has strong appeal to other politicians who don’t appreciate a vibrant civil society with its inherent ecosystem of dissent and potential for social and political mobilisation.

One such politician is Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary’s increasingly illiberal government. In 2017 Orban’s government did its own copy paste job adopting a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register as “foreign supported”. A move which should be seen in the light of Orban’s obsession with eliminating the influence of anything or anyone remotely associated with the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros whose Open Society Foundation funds organisations promoting liberal and progressive values.

The cross-fertilisation of censorship between regime types and continents is part of the explanation why press freedom has been in retreat for more than a decade. In its recent 2018 World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders identified “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies”. This is something borne out by the litany of of media freedom violations reported to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom, which monitors 43 countries. In just the last four years, MMF has logged over 4,200 incidents — a staggering array of curbs on the press that range from physical assault to online threats and murders that have engulfed journalists.

Alarmingly Europe – the heartland of global democracy – has seen the worst regional setbacks in RSF’s index. This development shows that sacrificing free speech to guard against creeping authoritarianism is more likely to embolden than to defeat the enemies of the open society.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”100463″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” img_link_target=”_blank” link=”http://www.freespeechhistory.com”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]


A podcast on the history of free speech. 

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1526895517975-5ae07ad7-7137-1″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Prosecutors crack down on Russian NGOs

Russian non-governmental organisations are facing a wave of state inspections, which some believe are taking place as  revenge for united protests against a law classifying international NGOs as “foreign agents”.

The list of NGOs visited by prosecutors and other inspectors during last days, is impressive: Transparency International, Amnesty International, Memorial, Moscow Helsinki Group, Human Rights Watch, Agora, For Human Rights (Za prava cheloveka), GOLOS, and numerous regional NGOs.

Even regional organisation Shield and Sword of Chuvashiya, which actually appealed to the Ministry of Justice seeking “foreign agents” status, has received a notification of an inspection.

According to the law, an NGO that receives financing from abroad, has to register as “foreign agent” or face criminal charges. “Foreign agents” are obliged to mark the literature and online content they produce as “distributed by foreign agent”. The law stipulates that they have to report to inspection bodies far more often than organisations that do not receive financing from abroad. The frequency of “foreign agents” inspections is not limited by the law. Russian authorities have gained a legal tool for paralysing NGOs they don’t like simply by swamping them with inspections.

Several human rights NGOs unanimously concluded the law doesn’t comply with justice and the constitution and made a decision to boycott it by not registering as foreign agents.

Many of them came through planned inspections by the Ministry of Justice this winter – not as “foreign agents”, just as NGOs – to face extraordinary prosecutors’, tax, sanitary and other authorities’ inspections in March.

Russian veteran rights activist, head of “For Human Rights” organization Lev Ponomarev refused to provide prosecutors with the organisation’s documentation. He says, according to the law about, prosecutors had to provide him with information about violations of law by his organisation – such information being supposedly the only purpose for their sudden extraordinary inspections.

Prosecutors still haven’t provided NGOs with this information.

But the General prosecutor’s office representative Marina Gridneva has said the prosecutors “act in compliance with the law”.

President Vladimir Putin, replying to Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin concerns over the inspections, said these “are routine measures linked to the desire of the law enforcement agencies to bring the activities of organisations in line with the law.”

Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin told Index on Censorship that the authorities aim to emphatically close one of Russian human rights NGO “or make it hysterical” in order to chill others.

“The authorities think the problem will be solved, when someone shuts down in fear” said Oreshkin. “Lev Ponomarev has survived the Soviet era fighting for human rights, he knows the law better than law enforcement bodies, and he is not likely to be the one to fulfill the authorities’ expectations by fearing them.”

The authorities, according to Oreshkin, are demonstrating incompetence and incapability.

“The NGO boycott obviously enraged the Kremlin. Human rights activists, more than anyone else, now how crucially solidarity is.”

The state’s inconsistence, demonstrated during the ongoing NGOs inspections is based on a wrong perception of the word “law”, Oreshkin claims:

“The law concerns a citizen and an authority; the authorities have passed laws against citizens hoping they won’t have to keep within the law themselves”.

Index Index – International free speech round up 07/02/13

A woman in Timbuktu says she was lashed by Islamist militants for talking to a man who wasn’t her husband. Salaka Djicke was caught talking to her lover on 31 December last year and was then sentenced to 95 lashings by a Islamic tribunal on 3 January. Djicke fell in love with the married man after he accidentally called when dialling a wrong number more than a year ago, and their relationship quickly blossomed. When Islamic extremists occupied Northern Mali in April 2012, Shariah law was quickly implemented, forbidding women from communicating with men. Her punishment was captured on film by local residents. The man — who Dijcke didn’t name in fear of rebel fighters returning — remains in Mali’s capital after fleeing the night they were discovered. Prior to France’s intervention in Northern Mali earlier this year, Islamist militants introduced strict Shariah law, issuing punishments such as flogging and stoning for perpetrators.

Hubert - Shutterstock

  — Is this how you remember Michelangelo’s David? A town in Japan want to preserve the statue’s modesty

On 6 February, a radio station owner was murdered in Paraguay. Marcelino Vázquez was shot by unknown assailants as he left work at Sin Fronteras 98.5 FM in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero. He was on his way from the radio station to a local night club he also owned, but was stopped by two men on a motorcycle and shot several times. While Sin Fronteras is predominately music-focused, it features a regular news show covering a variety of issues. A parliamentary coup in June 2012 and the subsequent removal of President Fernando Lugo has had a negative impact on freedom of information and expression in Paraguay.

Lawyers for three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot are appealing their convictions at the European Court of Human Rights. Representatives for Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Natalia Tolokonnikova are in Strasbourg today (7 February), after they filed a complaint on 6 February against their two year prison sentences. They said the convictions violated four articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to free speech, fair trial, liberty and security and the prohibition of torture.The trio was first sentenced following their “punk-prayer” performed at Moscow’s main cathedral in February 2012 protesting Vladimir Putin’s return to power.

A radio journalist was shot on his way to work in Peru on 6 February. At the time of the attack, Juan Carlos Yaya Salcedo was driving to the Radio Max station where he worked, in the town of Imperial. He was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant and is expected to make a full recovery and return to work soon. Yaya, who hosts radio show Sin Escape (Without Escape), has never faced threats in the past but police said the attack was likely the result of his journalistic work, as the perpetrators didn’t attempt to steal anything. Yaya said the attack could have resulted from his reporting on the poor construction of a community building in the nearby town of Nuevo Imperial.

Residents of a town in Japan have complained about the erection of replica statues of Michelangelo’s David, requesting that he wear underpants. Okuizumo citizens told town officials that the 16-foot renaissance sculpture’s exposed penis could frighten their children, as some of the replicas, funded by a local business man, were installed in a local park where children often play. Most of the town’s 15,000 residents approved the Renaissance art tributes, and no plans have been made to clothe the statue. Japan has stringent laws regarding nudity. While watching and distributing porn is legal in the country, the country’s authorities request that genitalia be pixelated.

Court dismisses appeal for Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhina

A Russian court yesterday dismissed the appeal of Maria Alekhina, one of the three members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot. Alekhina, 24, appealed to the local court asking to defer the remaining 13 months of her two year sentence until her six-year-old son, Filipp, turns 14.

Demotix | Anna Volkova

Judge Galina Yefremova said that the initial ruling had taken Alekhina’s young son into account, and added that her “felony” is the reason for her son’s suffering, rather than separation from his mother. Alekhina is currently serving her sentence labouring as a seamstress in a prison colony in the Ural mountain city of Berezniki.

Alekhina has six penalties against her in the colony, but she has rejected them, as two of the offences against her were for failing to wake up at 5:30 AM. Alekhina said that she did not hear the call of the reveille, signaling the start of a day working in the colony. Staff from the prison camp testified against Alekhina during yesterday’s hearing. She was also penalised after she attempted to provide her lawyer with documents for the European Court of Human Rights in person rather than by post.

The activist was sentenced to two years in prison along with two other members Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevich on charges of hooliganism in August 2012

The trio performed a “punk prayer” against Vladimir Putin on 21 February, and charges were brought against them only days after, along with a call from the Russian Orthodox Church for more stringent punishment for blasphemy.

While Samutsevich was released on bail on 10 October, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were sent to serve their two year sentences in prison colonies. Tolokonnikova is also a mother to a young child and has also appealed for deferment. However, a date has not yet been set for a hearing.

The charges brought against the trio drew criticism and outrage across the globe, with leading human rights organisations condemning the case for being politically motivated.

Alekhina plans to appeal the court’s ruling, but Russian courts rarely change verdicts in politically motivated cases. While unwavering in appealing her case, Alekhina refuses to plead guilty, and said yesterday “no one will ever force me into admitting guilt — not for the sake of deferment or conditional early discharge.”