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February 21 2014

Xu Zhiyong and the Long Road for China's Human Rights Activists

Supporters demonstrate for Xu Zhiyong's release. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, released to public domain.

Supporters demonstrate for Xu Zhiyong's release. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, released to public domain.

The well-known blogger Xu Zhiyong, a pioneer of online human rights campaigns in China, was sentenced to four years in prison by the Beijing court on January 26, the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Some activists see his case as emblematic of the fate of the citizen movement that has taken place over the past decade — a human rights advocate who once sought to work towards reform in cooperation with government leaders, he now faces years behind bars because of his efforts to bring about change.

Xu Zhiyong was prosecuted for his work as an education advocate. Ten years ago, Xu launched his first online campaign, one that sought to raise awareness about the mysterious deaths of two individuals: Huang Jing, a 21-year-old teacher who was drugged and raped in her dormitory and Sun Zhigang, a recent university graduate who was beaten to death in a Guangzhou detention center for people caught without local residential registration cards. A doctoral student in law at the time, Xu Zhiyong and his classmates Yu Jiang and Teng Biao submitted a petition to advocate for the abolition of the custody and repatriation system, under which Sun had been detained. The then-new Communist Party leadership under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao accepted the suggestion, generating a positive interaction between civil society and the government. The moment brought significant hope for social reform.

Xu had campaigned for the rights of children living in rural areas to have equal access to education as their urban peers. In China, due to the household registration system, children who followed their parents to the cities could not enter local schools and many of them were deprived of education opportunities. The New Citizens’ Movement campaign for equal education began in 2009 with an online petition and demonstration aimed at education authorities in Beijing. The following year, authorities granted permission to Beijing schools to admit migrant students.

From this moment onward, citizens — particularly young people — began to use the Internet as a place for discussion, debate, and organizing. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the Internet became the only channel for university students to communicate with friends and get access to information, as school campuses shut down and forced students to remain confined to their living areas. Trapped in their dormitories, frustrated students connected through the school network to discuss the cause of the spread of epidemics, which many felt was the failure of local government to alert the public to the spread of the disease and promote prevention techniques. The deaths of Huang Jing and Sun Zhigang were also the most hot topics on the university networks. As human rights lawyer Teng Biao put it, all citizens’ rights campaigns during that period made use of the Internet as a platform. Over the next five years, the online public sphere developed at a rapid clip.

Many interpreted the various citizens’ rights campaigns that began in 2003 as a breakthrough moment in which free assembly and more open speech might take hold.

When the Twitter-like platform Fanfou emerged in 2007, netizens were suddenly able to post news to the web via mobile in a matter of seconds. Protests which previously had been restricted to the local level spread quickly to national networks. The live-casting of mass incidents demonstrated the power of micro-blog.

Though new communication technologies have generated new space for social groups and online deliberation in recent years, new regulations, controls and crackdowns have quickly followed, stifling these transformative forces.

Soon after the conclusion of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a joint signature campaign pushing for political reform based on international human rights standards known as the Charter 08 campaign began. The government responded with an attack on the digital public sphere under a pretext of “anti-vulgarity”. A large number of independent websites, blogs and social networks were either closed down or suspended soon thereafter.

Ethnic minority regions felt this increasing intolerance too. In the midst of riots in 2009, the Internet was temporary shut down — it remained shut down for nearly a year in Urumqi, the largest city in China's Uyghur region of Xinjiang. The independently-run Fanfou was shut down two days later after the riot and suspended until November 2010. During its suspension, Sina Weibo, which is controlled by the party-state, replaced Fanfou. Sina Weibo has since become the country's most influential social media platform.

Uprisings in Middle East and Northern African countries between 2010 and 2011 also hit a nerve for the Chinese government. More than a hundred activists, bloggers and netizens were arrested following online calls for China to stage its own “Jasmine Revolution”.

Still, the control of the Internet was mainly through keyword filtering and censorship, manipulation of online opinion and selective arrests. The majority of the netizens continued to use Weibo to webcast social incidents and coordinate grassroots election campaigns. Political satires and jokes were still visible and some netizens even reported corruption cases, allowing their real identities to be disclosed to the public. The real-name registration system, designed to enforce self-censorship, has now given rise to a group of influential online opinion leaders.

The current deputy director of the State Council Information Office, Ren Xianliang wrote in the CCP think tank Red Flag Journal back in April 2013 that the government should lock up some Weibo opinion leaders to prevent the manipulation of public opinion. Four months later, on August 10 of last year, representatives of Weibo opinion leaders were forced to sign a pledge on a Central Television program to uphold “seven self-censorship guidelines“. A week later, citizens saw the mass arrest of hundreds of opinion leaders and the so-called Internet Water Armies who were accused of spreading rumors and defamatory speech.

Despite the claim of victory in eradicating critical comments against the authorities and reclaiming the ideological leadership in Weibo, the battlefield has expanded to the prosecution of moderate reformists marked by the arrest of Uyghur intellectual and the founder of the website “Uyghur online”, Ilham Tohti on January 15 and the announcement of 4-year jail sentence of Xu Zhiyong on January 26. After their initial victory, the campaign has continued on behalf of students who needed to return to their hometown for university entrance examination. Xu was accused of disrupting public disorder for organizing two small petitions regarding the examination arrangement.

Since his conviction, official propaganda about Xu’s trial has flooded Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like “grassroots” public sphere of China with headlines such as: “Xu Zhiyong has wrong judgment of the world”, “Western countries’ explicit conspiracy in the support of Chinese dissidents.” Xu Zhiyong's court statement, in which he defended his actions, is nowhere to be found.

Xu Zhiyong's New Citizens’ Movement was driven by a generation of independent subjects who developed their critical thinking skills in a relatively free online public sphere. It proved that virtual networks can lead to real-life mobilization once the consensus of a particular social agenda is built. The campaign for equal education rights for rural children is just an example.

The sentence of Xu Zhiyong, a symbolic figure who represents the “new citizen” whose awareness has been cultivated through online deliberation of public affairs and live-casting of protests and citizen action, is not an individual case but a symbol of the government’s systematic denial of people's desire freedom and dignity.

February 19 2014

Philippine Supreme Court Upholds Cyber Libel Law

cybercrimeFirst, the good news: The Philippine Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the “takedown clause” of a proposed anti-cybercrime law that would allow authorities to restrict or remove suspicious websites and other questionable Internet content. It also struck down a provision on real-time collection of traffic data, that would have empowered the government to conduct mass surveillance without judicial approval.

But there’s also bad news: The Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of online libel. The court clarified that “online libel only applies to the original author or producer of libelous material. Receiving, responding to, or sharing libelous material online would not be covered by online libel.”

Under the new law, crimes that are already addressed in the country's penal code receive higher penalties in electronic form. Libel is among them.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act or Republic Act No. 10175 was signed in 2012 but was immediately challenged by media groups and citizens concerned about various provisions that would have undermined human rights and media freedom in the country. The law was described by many netizens as ‘cyber martial law.’ In response to a civil society petition, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order which prevented the government from implementing the law.

Human rights lawyer Harry Roque asserted that the new law constitutes an infringement on free speech:

The high court should not abdicate its duty to protect freedom of expression. No less than the U.N. Human Rights Committee has already declared that Philippine Criminal Libel Law is contrary to Freedom of Expression. The Court’s decision failing to declare libel as unconstitutional is therefore contrary to Human Rights Law.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines described the court ruling as “a half-inch forward but a century backward” in terms of advancing media freedom in the country:

By extending the reach of the antediluvian libel law into cyberspace, the Supreme Court has suddenly made a once infinite venue for expression into an arena of fear, a hunting ground for the petty and vindictive, the criminal and autocratic…

Journalist Inday Espina-Varona warned about the dangers of online libel laws:

…the problem with libel as a criminal offense is, it encourages reprisals even when a post is true, fair and motivated by the best intentions. A criminal case is always a cause for concern. You think warlords care about the effort you took to be fair and truthful?

The Supreme Court decision on the Cybercrime Law only makes citizen watchdogs vulnerable to people in power with the resources to harass voices of dissent.

Noemi L Dado, one of the petitioners, urged netizens to continue the fight to protect Internet freedom:

I am so disappointed at the SC decision on online libel. I welcome though, their decision on the unconstitutionality of the provisions such as the Take Down clause and the decision to strike down the real time gathering of information. The fight to protect our internet freedom and hashtags #notocybercrimelaw continue in social media.

The College Editors Guild accused the government of supporting the law in order to stifle citizen dissent:

Such laws are passed not in the interests of public safety or national security, but to defend the status quo’s own interests against public dissent. Defence and security become convenient justifications to chip away at democratic rights, bit by bit, when in reality a political system like our own ought to be defending the public – against itself.

The Department of Justice welcomed the ruling but also noted that numerous cybercrimes were committed in the past year and a half when the restraining order was in effect:

In the intervening period when the [restraining order] was in place, cybercrime in its many forms were continuing and even escalating. A clear legal framework is necessary to protect citizens and balance state duties. We will continue to recommend best practices to improve the law.

Netizens are using the Twitter hashtag #NonLibelousTweets to mock the court's ruling on the law.

February 18 2014

Collecting Data About Possible Web Censorship in Venezuela

Marianne Díaz, lawyer, digital activist and Global Voices Advocacy author, has been making constant appeals from her Twitter account asking users to collaborate on collecting data related to access to some websites and online platforms from Internet service providers in Venezuela, due to growing reports of partial or total blockage of online content and services.

Do you have some free time? Help me test if the websites on this list are accessible where you are located.

She urges users in Venezuela, and those able to test sites via proxy, to report their findings with Herdict, an online project that collects and shows real-time, crowdsourced information about online censorship.

Marianne believes that putting together this kind of information is very important in the current climate in Venezuela. After three people died in protests on February 12, demonstrations and clashes between protesters and security forces have continued across the country. Marianne states that “data is evidence, and evidence is more resistant than opinion.”

February 13 2014

Web We Want Contest: Cartoonists Fight Back!

Anti-surveillance comic by Francisco

Anti-surveillance comic by Francisco “Fankiniano” Cardozo via Flickr (CC BY 4.0)

This post originally appeared on the World Wide Web Foundation blog.

A week ago, the Web We Want initiative challenged artists everywhere to produce cartoons on the topic of NSA surveillance, in support of #TheDayWeFightBack. We received more than 70 submissions from all over the world, and today we’re announcing the winners, as judged by the Web We Want team.  All submissions can be viewed on our Flickr photo stream here.

In first place, receiving a $1000 prize, is Francisco Javier “Frankiano” Cardozo Baudry. He is just 17 years old, a true digital native from Asunción, Paraguay. His contribution “Do Not Fear, I care about you” (above) shows how surveillance is invading each and every moment in the daily life of a young person these days. The PDF of this multi-frame cartoon can be downloaded here. We will ask him to make editable versions available so activists all over the world can easily translate, adapt and use his amazing material.

Anti-surveillance cartoon by Carlos Latuff via Flickr (CC BY 4.0)

Anti-surveillance cartoon by Carlos Latuff via Flickr (CC BY 4.0)

Second place goes to cartoonist Carlos Latuff from Brazil, who produced a piece (right) representing a single national leader monitoring the communications of the entire world. Third place goes to American cartoonist Jimmy Margulies, whose work highlighted wiretapping of foreign leaders.

A video (below) submitted by digital rights group Red PaTodos in Colombia deserves an honorary mention and we encourage them to upload it in a collaborative platform such as DotSub, including its script, so others can translate and add subtitles to it. It neatly explains current threats and challenges to online privacy.

The cartoons produced by activists and artists from different countries and contexts show a common pattern: They acknowledge the invasion of their private space, private life and daily activities by those in power. Intelligence agencies are pictured as dark forces by many of the authors and US President Obama is the main character in several submissions. The computer was not shown as the sole method of surveillance – there were also submissions related to telephone surveillance and CCTV cameras, parents spying on children, the military spying on users, physical surveillance and also the role of private corporations that use data collection and consumers habits as business models. One explained in simple terms what the NSA is currently doing, while others show how we interact and watch via our devices.

All the cartoons are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0 License which will allow each and every activist, journalist, school teacher and creative around the world to use them, adapt them, modify them and remix them, keeping the content open.

The Web We Want promotes and defends the protection of personal user information and the right to communicate in private. Expect more soon!

 

Renata Avila is the campaign manager for the Web We Want.

February 11 2014

February 11: Activists Say No to “Cyber Martial Law”, Digital Surveillance in Philippines

“Our fight against Cybercrime Law is not yet over. The Supreme Court still has not decided on its constitutionality or unconstitutionality and while we are waiting for a decision, we will continue fighting for our right to privacy and right to freedom of expression.”

Netizens and activist groups in the Philippines put out the statement of  on February 11 as part of the global action against mass surveillance. They added that the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 or Republic Act 10175, whose constitutionality is being questioned in the Supreme Court, can be used as a tool to justify mass surveillance in society:

The Cybercrime Law, once declared to be implemented, will become a tool for the Philippine government’s mass surveillance. As defenders of Internet freedom, we will be one with the world in the global protest.

The law was questioned a month after its signing in 2012 by media groups and citizens alarmed by provisions in the bill that would seriously undermine human rights and media freedom in the country. They questioned the insertion of provisions on libel and the delegation of power to the government to take down websites and restrict access to computer data systems suspected of violating the law. The bill's restrictions on freedom of expression inspired netizens to give the bill the nickname “cyber martial law.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order which prevented the government from implementing the law. But the high court is expected to finally deliberate and decide on the petition before the end of February. This has emboldened netizen groups to launch a series of activities aimed at pressuring the court to junk the “draconian” law.

Below are some photos of the February 11 protest in front of the Supreme Court:

But supporters of the controversial law are urging the lifting of the restraining order so that it can be used to combat serious cybercrimes, especially child pornography.

A flurry of news stories about the proliferation of child pornography in the Philippines suddenly appeared in the face of the controversy. It is unclear whether or not this is by coincidence.

Police claimed that they can nab cyber child porn syndicates if the restraining order on the law is lifted. The president’s spokesman and some senators supported this position.

But the anti-cybercrime law is in fact not needed to arrest child pornography site operators — ample existing legislation can do the job. Authorities can invoke the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, and most importantly the Anti-Child Pornography Act to swiftly act against suspected criminals.

Apart from reminding Philippine officials that they can maximize the provisions of the anti-child porn law to combat online sexual content involving children, journalist Raïssa Robles warned against the dangers of the anti-cybercrime law

I cannot stress enough the dangers of the Cybercrime Law. Its atrocious lack of safeguards can easily enable rogue cops and government officials to commit crimes of extortion and blackmail using the digital highway.

Poverty eradication is the best solution to child pornography, according to the Manila Times:

…online child pornography is a byproduct of poverty. It is a problem that needs a total government approach. Our officials should find ways of helping the families that have been caught in the web of child pornography get out and rebuild their lives.

Instead of pushing for the implementation of a notorious law, the Philippine government should consider asking Congress to draft a new bill that would address growing cyber security threats without violating the human rights of individuals.

Brazilian Activists Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance

As the world comes together to take a stand against mass surveillance on February 11, 2014, Brazilian citizens, organizations and collectives are bringing momentum to #TheDayWeFightBack campaign.

Anti-surveillance collective Antivigilancia.tk (@antivigilancia on Twitter), one of the 15 Brazilian signatories of the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, has a website with complete information in Portuguese on how to participate in #TheDayWeFightBack, as well as several resources for the day of action, such as banners and memes.

Cartoon by Latuff with D'Incao (2013). Shared by WebWe Want on Flickr (BY SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Latuff with D'Incao (2013). Shared by WebWe Want on Flickr (BY SA 2.0)

Well-known Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff took on the challenge launched by Web We Want early in February to create original visual works on digital surveillance and the right to privacy.

Cartoon by Latuff with Operamundi (2013). Shared by WebWe Want on Flickr (BY SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Latuff with Operamundi (2013). Shared by WebWe Want on Flickr (BY SA 2.0)

On Twitter, many Brazilians are linking the day of action with the country's pioneer bill of rights for Internet users, the “Marco Civil da Internet” (Civil Framework for the Internet), which will be brought to the floor in a plenary session [pt] in the House of Representatives today. A group of civil society organizations is expected to meet the Minister of Justice [pt] to voice “serious concerns” regarding the latest modifications to the bill, especially with respect to “the right to the inviolability and secrecy of the flow and content of private communications, the right to privacy and freedom of expression.”

Cartoon by Latuff with Operamundi (2013). Shared by WebWe Want on Flickr (BY SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Latuff with Operamundi (2013). Shared by WebWe Want on Flickr (BY SA 2.0)

 All submissions to the Web We Want contest are available on Flickr.

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

February 10 2014

The Day We Fight Back, à la Française

banner-2b-fr

The Day We Fight Back banner, French translation. Graphic by Alec Perkins via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-4.0)

Since 2004, February 11 has been the worldwide “Day for a Safer Internet”, mainly focusing on safe web browsing for children and young people. A French website was set up for the occasion. But for online activists all over the world, the meaning of the day is about to change. This February 11, digital activists around the world will commemorate the life of Aaron Swartz and come together in a campaign against mass surveillance. This February 11 is “The Day We Fight Back“.

France is among those countries that have been more closely and overtly affected by mass Internet surveillance. After Edward Snowden's leaks became public, France's own practices of Internet surveillance soon appeared in plain sight. And in December 2013, the vote of the French Military Planning Act began to sound very much like a French version of the NSA – comprehensive description here [fr] – ringing alarms among activists in France and the world over [fr]. As explained by online NTIC magazine Numerama.com [fr]:

Depuis que la surveillance globale mise en œuvre par la NSA a été révélée par Edward Snowden, de multiples initiatives ont vu le jour pour s'y opposer. Cependant, aucune d'entre elles n'a eu pour l'instant un impact décisif. Certes, la bronca mondiale contre l'espionnage des communications a poussé Washington à initier une timide réforme de leurs pratiques, mais celles-ci n'ont pas été fondamentalement remises en cause.

Qu'à cela ne tienne. Puisque les précédentes approches n'ont pas abouti à un encadrement plus strict des activités des agences de renseignement, autant en essayer de nouvelles. C'est ainsi qu'est né le mouvement “The Day We Fight Back” (“le jour où nous contre-attaquons”), dont Presse-Citron vient de s'en faire l'écho. Il s'agit en fait de reproduire la même stratégie que celle qui a permis de faire reculer PIPA et SOPA.

Since the NSA-enforced global surveillance was disclosed by Edward Snowden, numerous initiatives emerged to confront it. However, none of them have had a significant impact thus far. Indeed, the global outcry against communications surveillance drove the US to initiate a feeble change of their practices, without wholly reconsidering them.

But never mind. As former approaches could not result in a more stringent control over intelligence agencies, let's try new ones. This is how the campaign “The Day We Fight Back” was launched, as echoed by Presse-Citron. The idea is to copy the same strategy as the one that helped defeat PIPA and SOPA.

La Quadrature du Net (@laquadrature on Twitter), the organization spearheading the fight for online freedoms in France, is leading the campaign. On January 31, 2014, they launched a crowdfunding campaign “to support the making of the upcoming animation movie about privacy, mass surveillance, and the urgency to rethink our relationship with technology.” The movie, entitled “Reclaim our privacy!” seeks donations [fr] via the crowdfunding website Ulule. La Quadrature du Net has also set up a NSA observer page, describing 71 programs, 35 “attack vectors” and 6 departments of the sprawling, opaque agency.

Change your profile photo, Share a photo on Facebook. Source: Presse-Citron

Change your profile photo, Share a photo on Facebook. Source: Presse-Citron

Framablog explains the actions [fr] planned on Feb. 11:

Le jour J, le collectif et les activistes qu’ils représentent téléphoneront et enverront des mails aux députés. Les propriétaires de sites web mettront en place des bannières pour encourager leurs visiteurs à combattre la surveillance et les employés d’entreprises technologiques demanderont que leur organisation fasse de même. Il sera demandé aux usagers d’Internet de créer des ”mèmes’’ et de changer leurs avatars sur les médias sociaux pour refléter leur demande.

On D-Day, the group and their activists will send phone calls and e-mails to MPs. The owners of websites will set up banners to encourage visitors to fight against surveillance, and the employees of tech businesses will ask their entity to do the same. Users will be invited to create memes and change their avatars on social medias to make their demand visible.

The call was passed on by activist Mohamed Sangare on his Mediapart blog.

Any individual concerned about mass government surveillance will be encouraged to call and email MPs and to sign the Thirteen Principles on Communications Surveillance, a set of principles for a privacy-protective digital world, developed by a coalition of activists and civil society experts on human rights law. A French translation of the principles can be found here.

February 11: The Internet Says No to Mass Surveillance

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl via Flickr, Web We Want (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl via Flickr, Web We Want (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nigeria's new cyber crime law may fight financial fraud — but it could also gag critics. Authorities in Argentina are collecting data that maps citizens' DNA, their iris information, and the way they walk. Activists in Tunisia fear that the country's new Technical Telecommunication Agency may ring in a new era of mass surveillance.

There's no question about it: Mass government surveillance is a global problem.

On February 11, individuals, civil society organizations, and thousands of websites will come together to take a stand against mass surveillance. Anyone, anywhere can participate — whether you're taking to the streets, or to the Web.

Mass surveillance programs violate our right to privacy and infringe on our rights to freedom of expression and association. They harm the freedom and openness of the global internet, and go against democratic values. The documents leaked by Edward Snowden last June exposed dozens of wide-ranging intelligence collection programs and sent shock waves around the globe. But while the Snowden leaks brought to light some of the most egregious violations of privacy by the US government, they also brought new energy to debates about surveillance and privacy happening all over the world, like the ones mentioned above.

Want to get involved? Here are some ways to do it:

JOIN THE ACTION

Groups in countries all over the world are staging protests, hosting hackathons, and pushing online campaigns. Find out what's happening near you:

Argentina • Australia • Austria • Brasil • Canada • Colombia • Deutschland • France

India • Mexico • Nederland • Peru • Polska • Србија • ประเทศไทย • Uganda

United Kingdom • United States

Don't see your country here? Use materials here and on partner sites to source your own campaign! Read Global Voices’ community posts about surveillance around the world on our surveillance page.

 

SHOW YOUR SUPPORT

Show solidarity with the February 11 campaign! Post a banner on your website. Share the message — or a super cool cartoon (like the ones seen here) — on social media.

The Day We Fight Back banner, by Alec Perkins via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-4.0)

The Day We Fight Back banner, by Alec Perkins via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-4.0)

Screen shot 2014-02-09 at 10.05.22 PM

Cartoon by Xpectro & Web We Want via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Xpectro via Flickr, Web We Want (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl & Web We Want via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl & Web We Want via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

SAY “YES” TO THE GLOBAL PRINCIPLES ON COMMUNICATIONS SURVEILLANCE

Sign on to the Thirteen Principles on International Communications Surveillance, developed by human rights experts from around the world. These Principles are the backbone of global civil society efforts to protect privacy rights for the digital citizen: A clear set of guidelines that establish the human rights obligations of governments when it comes to surveillance.

Read and sign the principles in any of the following languages:

Русский • Español • Hrvatski • Македонски • Shqip • Polski • Čeština • Svenska • Nederlands

Français • हिन्दी •  العربية • Italiano • Ελληνικά • Română • Slovenčina • Eesti • Slovenščina • Dansk

Magyar • Suomi • Deutsch • فارسی • Български • Latviešu • Lietuvių • Português • Quechua

繁體中文 • Tiếng Việt • 한국어 • Українська • ภาษาไทย • اردو

Show your support for the principles with a banner or badge.

January 28 2014

Arab Bloggers Demand Release of Rights Activists in Syria

The 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting participants support the release of Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and the co-founder of Syria's Violations Documentation Center (SVDC) — a non-violent civil group documenting human rights abuses in Syria since March 2011. Ms. Zaitouneh, 36, who is a co-awardee of the European Union's Sakharov Prize for her human rights work was kidnapped on December 9, 2013 in the outskirts of Damascus along with Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada and Nazim al-Hamadi, also members of SVDC.

In the 33 months since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Razan Zaitouneh's work with her colleagues at SVDC became a vital source of information for the international community on the violations of human rights in the country. Now that the UN has made the unfortunate decision not to track the death toll in Syria, the work of SVDC has become more crucial than ever.

Razan and her colleagues worked in extremely difficult conditions, taking great risks in order to fulfill a vital task enriching our understanding of the plight of the Syrian people. So were many others, like our colleague blogger  Bassel Safadi – in detention since March 2012 – who worked on promoting freely available and open-source technology, and who is highly missed at the 4th Arab Bloggers Summit, which took place from January 20-23 in Amman, Jordan.

As a community, we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with activists promoting freedom and exposing human rights violations in service of our shared humanity.

We at AB14 demand that the UN and all countries involved in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference establish verifiable mechanisms to protect and secure the release of opinion detainees and kidnappees in Syria.

Saudi Arabia Jails Palestinian Poet for ‘Atheism and Long Hair’

Saudi Artist Ahmed Mater shared this photograph on Twitter in support of Fayadh

Saudi Artist Ahmed Mater shared this photograph on Twitter in support of Fayadh

Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh is in a Saudi prison, allegedly for spreading atheism – and having long hair. The poet, raised in Saudi Arabia, was arrested five months ago, when a reader submitted a complaint against him saying that his poems contain atheist ideas. The accusations were not proven and he was released, only to be arrested again on the 1 January 2014.

Fayadh's case is making the rounds in media and on social networks, with condemnations coming from Arab writers from across the region. Some of his friends wrote online that the real reason behind his arrest might be due to the video he filmed five months ago of Abha's religious police lashing a young man in public.

Currently, the poet is still in jail with no evidence to the accusation or details of a coming trial. The following reactions clarify his case and express condemnations from Saudi writers, artists, and others standing in solidarity.

#أشرف_فياض التحرش بالذات الإلهية وتطويل الشَعر…فقط عندما تتوقف هذه التهم المضحكة/المبكية يمكننا أن نبدأ الحديث عن الحقوق والحريات ووو

@reem_tayeb: Ashraf Fayadh is accused of ‘harrasing the Godly self and letting his hair grow long.. when these laughable-sad accusations stop, we can start talking about rights and freedoms.

#أشرف_فياض اعتقاله ليس الا اعلان اننا وصلنا الى ما وصلت اليه اوروبا في العصور المظلمة !!

@MohammdaLahamdl: Ashraf Fayadh's arrest is an announcement that we have reached what Europe faced in the Dark Ages.

هل تعتقد أن إيمانك حقيقي وأنت تعتقد أن الله كائن قابل للتحرش به ؟! #أشرف_فياض

@WhiteTulip01: Do you think your faith is real when you think God can be harassed!!

أشرف_فياض معتقل بتهمة الالحاد!!وهل الكفر تهمة!! وهل الايمان إجبار!! هذا اذا افترضنا صحة التهمة أصلا

@MusabUK: Ashraf Fayadh is detained for atheism. Is atheism a charge? Is faith enforceable? That's if we assume the charge is true.

إن وجود #أشرف_فياض في السجن، مع المجرمين، والقتلة، لأنه شاعرٌ فحسب، لا يعنى سوى أن العدالة مسألة ترفيّة لدينا، سلطة وشعبا

@b_khlil: The fact that Ashraf Fayadh is now detained with criminals and killers just because he is a poet, tells us that justice is only a privilege to us, both as people and the regime.

15 تهمة ملفقة للشاعر والفنان #أشرف_فياض تبدأ بالإلحاد وتنتهي بإطالة الشعر، لماذا ؟ لأنه قبل 5 أشهر صور هيئة أبها وهي تجلد شاب أمام الناس

@turkiaz: The poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh is imprisoned for 15 charges, including atheism and long hair. Why? Because he filmed the religious police as they were lashing a young man in public.

#أشرف_فياض الى اعلامنا ، هل ننتظر ، القليل من المهنية ستفي بالغرض. قضية اشرف فياض علي وشك ان تكون في صفحات كل المحطات العالمية قريبا

@AhmedMater: To our media: should we wait? Some professionalism would do. Ashraf Fayadh's case is going to be on the front pages of international media soon.

تحولت التحقيقات مع الشاعر أشرف فياض بعد عجز المحقق أن يثبت شيئا من الاتهامات إلى أسئلة حول لماذا تدخن ؟ ولماذا شعرك طويل قليلاً ؟

@mohkheder: When the interrogator couldn't prove any accusations against Ashraf Fayadh, he started asking him why he smokes and why his hair is long

January 21 2014

China: Free Ilham Tohti — Support Ethnic Reconciliation

Free Ilham Tohti! by Twitter user @HisOvalness

Free Ilham Tohti! by Twitter user @HisOvalness

Ilham Tohti, founder of Uyghur Online and a moderate advocate for ethnic autonomy policy in China was arrested by police on January 15. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece labelled him as separatist. Many public intellectuals are arguing that his prosecution could result in an irreparable situation on ethnic reconciliation in China.

But current Chinese leaders seem to think otherwise. The CCP propaganda machine represented by Global Times claimed in a January 18 editorial that Ilham Tohti had a close connection with the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas group which has been labelled by the CCP as an extreme separatist group. The report also accused Ilham Tohti of inciting students in his class and spreading rumors and dissent through Uyghur Online, a website founded in 2006 to address ethnic conflicts in China from the Uyghur perspective. The site has been inaccessible since Ilham's arrest.

As highlighted in an online petition signed by more than 1,000 Chinese intellectuals for the release of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur professor teaching in Beijing Minzhu University has played a significant role in ethnic reconciliation in China:

Ilham Tohit has always opposed Xinjiang independence and violence of any kind. He actively pushes for friendly communication between Uighurs and Chinese. He put his faith of solving the Xinjiang issue in the Chinese government adjusting its problematic Xinjiang policy. Because of this, he has criticized the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy, and at the same time, proposed various changes. His criticism and suggestions are all based on serious academic research. He is regarded by the intellectual community as a precious man who bridges Uighurs with Chinese, and by the local Xinjiang people as a courageous representative of Uighurs. In the future, he should be an important civic leader in solving the Xinjiang issue, and play an irreplaceable role in ethnic reconciliation.

Since the 2008 Lhasa violence to the 2009 Urumqi riots to today, the failure of China’s ethnic policy is obvious to all. The detention of Ilham Tohti demonstrates that the Chinese government is continuing its mistakes. The Communist Party’s grip on power is temporary, but the wellbeing of the Chinese people should be lasting. The Chinese Communist Party maintains present stability by sacrificing the future of the people. Every Chinese citizen has the right to hold the Communist party accountable, taking shared responsibility for the sake of the future of the country. Citizens of other countries may also pay attention to this event, because the suffering of the Uighur people is the suffering of all human beings, and China’s failure could jeopardize the entire world.

According to Ilham's wife, in an account recorded by Tibetan writer Woeser, Ilham was arrested in front of his sons and his computers were confiscated:

Probably between 3:30 and 4:00, there was knocking on Ilham’s door. Ilham opened the door and a line of Xinjiang police burst in, pushing him onto the sofa. There were a lot of police and Ilham was quickly taken away by one group of them. The eldest son was frightened and began to cry. Ilham had time to tell his son not to cry.

The police began to search everywhere throughout the home, including the closets and the children’s bedroom. Afterwards they took away the family’s four computers, three cell phones (including Guzelnor’s cell phone), portable hard drives, flash drives and writeable CDs/DVDs. They also took Ilham’s lesson plans, his student’s exams and essays, and books, etc. In addition, they carried off his small strongbox containing his official papers and bank cards.

On the same day, the dormitories of Ilham's seven students were raided and five male students were detained.

Yesterday, while Ilham was being taken away by the police, 7 Uyghur students who were studying at Central Minzu University (5 males, 2 females) were taken by the police from their individual dormitories. Their cell phones, computers and bank cards were also taken. Late that night the 2 female students were released and sent home. However there is absolutely no word about the 5 male students, just as is the case with Ilham.

Currently Ilham's family is under house arrest and cannot be reached by phone. Many believe the arrest is meant to criminalize speech. The online petition urges the Chinese authorities to release Ilham Tohti immediately, or to otherwise provide concrete evidence to prove their case and allow his lawyer and family to meet with him.

January 13 2014

‘Red Pencil Protest’ Demands Media Freedom in Malaysia

Journalists shouted 'Free The Media' and 'Free The Heat' during the 'Red Pencil' protest in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Journalists shouted ‘Free The Media’ and ‘Free The Heat’ during the ‘Red Pencil’ protest in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Malaysian journalists and activists banded together and organized a ‘red pencil’ protest early this month in reaction to the decision of the Ministry of Home Affairs to suspend news weekly magazine The Heat for an indefinite period. Protesters accused authorities of suspending The Heat in retaliation for publishing a story on the spending habits of the Prime Minister and his wife.

More than 200 people gathered to demonstrate in downtown Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. Participants belonged to the Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm) or Angry Media Movement, a loose coalition of journalists which was formed to push for greater media freedom in the country.

During the protest, red pencils were broken in half to symbolize the violence perpetrated against the media. Fathi Aris Omar, spokesman of Geramm and editor of online media site Malaysiakini, explained further the meaning of the red pencil:

The red pencil represents journalists who were injured (in the past, by the authorities) and a culture of control by the powers that be.

Listen to the breaking sound. That is the suffering of journalists and the media when it is ‘broken'.

Geramm has eight demands addressed to the government. Aside from calling for the withdrawal of the suspension order against The Heat, the network is also pushing for the easing of the tight media regulation in the country. Some of the other demands include the following:

Abolish the publication permit which is made mandatory under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984.

Allow all media practitioners to cover government events and access to public buildings for news gathering purposes.

Apologise to media practitioners for any breach of media freedom and rights.

The controversial PPPA was invoked by the government when it suspended The Heat. Malaysian journalists and activists are demanding the repeal of the law which they argue institutionalizes media censorship in the country.

The appeal for the review of the law was supported by Christopher Leong, president of the Malaysian Bar:

It is an archaic piece of legislation that no longer holds any relevance in a modern democracy. The Act has been used and abused to influence, bully, intimidate, threaten and punish the press. Such legislative and governmental control of the press, including licensing regimes, should end.

Red pencils were broken in half to symbolize media violence in Malaysia. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Red pencils were broken in half to symbolize media violence in Malaysia. Photo by Sam Ruslan, Copyright @Demotix (1/4/2014)

Prominent activist and Bersih (clean) founder Ambiga Sreenavasan attended the protest and noted the political importance of the gathering:

This is one of the first times I have seen journalists come together fighting for this very important fight. I know you are not just fighting for online or specific media, you’re fighting for all journalists. For me, this is about your self-worth and integrity as journalists.

Ambiga founded the Bersih a few years ago to push for electoral reforms.

Meanwhile, journalist Eric Loo criticized mainstream media for tolerating censorship in the country. He asked Malaysian netizens and the alternative media to persist in reporting the truth:

Let’s refuse to buy their interpretation of political realities, their version of history. It’s time we tell our own stories and circulate online what we know to be true, stories that reflect today’s political realities than those framed by the mainstream media.

Alternative Malaysian TV station KiniTV has additional reporting on the ‘red pencil’ protest

January 11 2014

“No”, the Brilliant and Optimistic Campaign that Boosted a Revolution

“No” campaign logo. Released to public domain.

Augusto Pinochet, perpetrator of the 1973 coup d’etat in Chile, fell from power by the force of the ballot box in 1988. He is history’s only dictator who organized an election to decide his future, and was deposed democratically. As in any political race, there were campaigns supporting each side. The “Yes” was advocating for Pinochet’s reelection; the “No” aimed to put an end to the military dictatorship. Openly airing an advertising message against a military regime that controls the media is a heroic task, even today. But the “No” campaign used an optimistic message — bringing about a paradigm shift in the art of presenting raw and painful human rights issues — and with that was able to propel a revolution.

The 2012 film “No” by Pablo Larraín, tells the story – without being a documentary – of the October 5, 1988 referendum on Pinochet in a positive light. The central character – René Saavedra (Gabriel García Bernal) is a bright young advertising agency creative and the son of a well-respected opposition figure who returns to Chile after growing up in exile in Mexico. His talent and family background lead the “No” campaign leader, José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), ask him to participate in the strategy and design of the “fringe” (a name given to the official 15 minute television program used for political propaganda by all parties during elections).

At the beginning of the process, members of the Concertación (the group of opposition parties) wanted to show the vicious reality of the dictatorship: murders, tortures and disappearances, as a way to open people’s eyes and lean public opinion towards their just cause. René managed to convince the opposition to bet on selling democracy as a desirable product rather than emphasizing the dark realities of the present. “No” became the campaign that talked about the joy of living in freedom. And the “No” beat Pinochet.

It would be naive to think that an advertising campaign alone was able to overthrow a dictator. But it is interesting to consider the idea proposed by this campaign: re-thinking the way we advocate today by shifting the focus on the negative, the vile and painful towards hope and happiness and – why not humor – that the future may hold. In recent years, we have witnessed multiple revolutionary movements around the world, but also many instances of mass violence and injustice. Many of us have reached the point of an overload of messages of struggle that are so often disheartening. Media studies scholars like Wendy Johnston and Graham Davey have studied the ways in which this abundance of images and stories of atrocities online can be enough to leave one feeling apathetic, even helpless. It may be critical to find new ways to spread this sense of urgency towards achieving peace and freedom — many activists are doing this already, and finding great success. The humorous “No Woman, No Drive” (a spoof on Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”) video created by Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh to support the Women2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia is a terrific example of this kind of ingenuity — Syria Untold, a web platform that highlights creative and journalistic projects within the non-violent Syrian uprising, is another.

The harsh realities that people in these situations face still need to be documented and shared openly — but we can complement these narratives with humor, hope, and an optimistic approach towards realizing the changes this planet is looking for.

On a recent edition of GV Face, co-founder Ethan Zuckerman and GV editors Solana Larsen, Sahar Habib Ghazi, and Ellery Roberts Biddle discussed the ins and outs of “solutions journalism.”

December 09 2013

Spain: Public Safety Bill or Threat to Civil Rights?

GreenPeace desplegó una pancarta inmensa en el edificio España con el lema NO a la #LeyAntiProtesta.

GreenPeace spread out a huge banner on the España building with the slogan “NO to the #AntiProtestLaw”

Various groups were quick to organize demonstrations against Spain's Protection of Public Safety Bill [es] a few days after Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz presented the draft bill. A new version of the bill could restrict basic civil rights, particularly affecting activists both online and on the streets.

This law will replace the Corcuera Law, passed by Felipe González's socialist government in 1992, which at the time was already known as the “kick down the door law” because it allowed security forces to enter and search a home without obtaining prior approval from a judge. It was later declared unconstitutional. Now the governing People's Party intends to compliment this law, despite having voted against it in 1992.

Joan Coscubiela, a representative from the Iniciativa per Catalunya – Verds (ICV) and spokesperson for Izquierda Plural, quipped that new version could be called the “kick in democracy's teeth law” [es] because it aims to start a “brutal attack on civil rights,” while the Izquierda Unida (United Left) parliamentary group commented that “the People's Party is trying to put the country under a totalitarian system.” Izquierda Unida (IU) MEP Willy Meyer spoke out before the European Commission about the fact that passing it would come as a violation to the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Although the government insists that the draft bill is just a draft [es], it appears to contain a series of measures against civil movements and any kind of dissent. It is expected that, due to societal pressure as well as that of other parliamentary groups and even judges, the draft will change in the coming days, before the final version is approved.

Many of those arrested during demonstrations (particularly since the economic crisis began) have not been convicted of criminal proceedings [es] because most of the judges hearing their cases have not found probable cause in police accusations. The new draft text considers the possibility of introducing offenses administratively. The 39 valid offenses will increase to 55, of which 21 are quite serious. The new law would involve “very serious” offenses (with fines between 30,001€ to 600,00€), “serious” offenses (between 1,001€ to 30,00€), and minor offenses (punishable by  100€ to 1,00€). These all fall well above penalties under the existing law.

Of all the new offenses included, the most problematic are:

  • It is against the law to participate in a demonstration before a state institution without sending prior notification to the relevant government office.
  • Those who call for demonstrations through the Internet, social networks, or another other means may also be penalized for having committed a very serious offense.
  • The circulation of riot images during demonstrations can also constitute a very serious offense, punishable by 600,000€.
  • Disobedience or resistance to authorities; refusing to identify oneself; and giving false or inaccurate information given to state security agents are all prohibited.
  • “Insulting, harassing, threatening, or coercing” members of the Security Forces will constitute a serious offense.
  • Circulating information on the Internet that is understood to be an attack on an individual's privacy or that of a person's family, or that contributes to disrupting an operation, will be punished equally with fines up to 600,000€.
  • Failure to provide a valid ID to the police upon request is prohibited.
  • Covering one's face with a hood, hat, or helmet will also result in a heavy fine and a serious offense if the subject is detained during a demonstration for violent behavior.
  • Violence against street furniture is prohibited.

Verbal offenses or insults, in written form or via advertising, against Spain, its Autonomous Communities, or its symbols or emblems, will be punished with imprisonment from seven to 12 months. (See hashtag #OfendeAEspaña (#OffendSpain) on Twitter as a response in protest of this new regulation.)

Amnesty International Spain has developed a campaign [es] and even a video denouncing the government's cuts to democracy:

Online action platform Avaaz has also launched a campaign [es] that has already collected over 100,000 signatures protesting the law.

As seen in this video, socialist parliament member Eduardo Madina says that if the bill passes, it will be appealed in the Constitutional Court. He even assures viewers that it will be repealed in the face of a possible change in the government in the next election. Meanwhile, the Interior Minister insults him and loses his temper:

One of the most active groups in the civil protests in Spain, the 15M, has seen a direct attack on the bill. Public reactions can be seen via hashtag #leyAnti15M (#Anti15Mbill).

GreenPeace also participated in the demonstration, which took place in Madrid two weeks ago, by hanging a large banner over the España building in Madrid with the slogan “NO to the #LeyAntiProtesta (#AntiProtestBill)”:

Concern remains that the commotion caused by the bill is diverting attention away from blatant cases of corruption [es] in the People's Party, where senior officials stand accused of violating the law, while others have already been jailed.

December 02 2013

Syrian Activists: Crimes Against Media Workers Must Stop

Media organizations in Syria are speaking out against the increasing harassment of journalists by jihadist groups in the country. Following recent abuses by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), advocacy groups in Syria and around the world have launched a campaign demanding an end to crimes against Syrian media workers.

The Global Voices Advocacy community is deeply concerned about threats and attacks against free speech posed by extremist groups taking over areas free of regime control in Syria. While the Syrian regime's tradition of censorship, monopoly over communication infrastructures, and repression against journalists and media activists is well-known, violations of freedom of expression in so-called “liberated” areas reveal a tragic trend.

We join other local and international organizations in demanding support of press freedom and freedom of expression, the release of detainees and an end to the crimes and abuses committed by ISIS in Syria. A campaign effort is under way at freepressforsyria.com.

PETITION STATEMENT: FREE PRESS FOR SYRIA

In its last report, Reporters Without Borders considers Syria “the world’s most dangerous country for journalists.” Priority targets of the regime and its security forces since 2011, Syrian journalists are now facing an increasing deadly threat since 2013: the Jihadist militias.

Facing retaliation if they denounce the abuses aloud, and facing extinction if they don't, Syrian media have chosen the former. Despite intimidation and threats, Syrian media are uniting for the first time and standing up together to demand an end to the crimes committed against all journalists. This is unprecedented and holds potential for real change. This coalition for press freedom and against intolerance has the potential to be the core of a vast popular movement.

However, Syrian media are taking a very serious risk by doing so, and their action will only have an impact if they receive enough national and international support to make a difference.

Please sign the petition to support the Syrian media who refuse the alternative between a criminal regime and intolerant extreme Islamists, and who show the possibility of a third way, equidistant from the Syrian regime and the Jihadist militias.

To sign this petition, visit Avaaz.org. This petition is available in Arabic, English, French, and Italian.

More coverage of media worker abuses in Syria:

November 22 2013

Protesters, Journalists Speak Out Against Japan's National Secrecy Bill

Protest against Japan's Secrecy Law

Screenshot from the live stream of the protest against the Secret Information Protection Act on November 21, 2013. Demonstrators chant, “No to secrecy law, protect the constitution.”

Thousands of people marched in Hibiya Park in Tokyo in protest of a bill that stiffens penalties for leaking classified information that could jeopardize national security. The bill has been lambasted by critics who fear it could hinder freedom of the press and the right to information.

Representatives from human rights groups, labor unions, the Japanese Communist party, and concerned citizens joined the protest on November 21. According to the organizer [ja], 7,000 people participated in the march to demand the withdrawal of the bill.

The bill would introduce harsher punishments for leaking national secrets in related to defense, diplomacy, counter-terrorism, and counter-espionage, but it remains unclear how the so-called Secret Information Protection Act would define what is a “national secret”.

The day before the march, a group of journalists organized a press conference in Tokyo to publicly object to the bill. Journalist and critic Soichiro Tahara spoke [ja] at the gathering:

私たちが普段やっている取材では、オフレコ取材、共謀、教唆などあたりまえ。この法律で“不当な取材”とされたら10年の懲役刑を喰らう。これでは報道は萎縮してしまう。これは危険きわまりない法律で、とんでもない

The job of journalists like us commonly involves off-the-record news gathering…If the bill is put into force, our job of reporting could be considered an act of inappropriate reportage, and we could face ten years in prison. This would make journalists wither. A bill like this is nothing but dangerous, and truly absurd.

Journalists criticize Secret Information Protection Act

Journalists criticize the Secret Information Protection Act at a press conference held in Tokyo on November 20, 2013. Image captured by Labornet Japan

Article 19, a London-based organization concerned with freedom of expression, also condemns the bill:

ARTICLE 19 urges the Japanese National Diet (Japanese Parliament) to reject the pending Special Secret Protection Bill. The bill violates international standards on freedom of expression and the right to information.

On the Internet, a number of users mentioned the bill. According to social media analytics, more than 370,000 tweets mentioned the bill during the week of the protest. Users published their messages under the hashtag “Demolish the Secrecy Act”(#秘密保護法をブッ潰せ) to express their sentiments against the proposed law.

Aside from the danger that the bill poses for access to information and freedom of expression, a pseudonymous lawyer known as “K” pointed out in an article [ja] on Weekly Playboy that foreign spies might not be subject to the penalties of leaking information:

このままでは日本ばかりが外国の機密を守る義務が生じて、日本の機密は他国に奪われ放題という悲惨な状態に陥ってしまうと思います……

I think, ultimately, the law would only obligate Japan to protect secret information potentially designated as such by foreign countries, while Japan's national secrets can be spied on and obtained by other countries, which would be a terrible situation.

November 08 2013

Thai Media Groups Reject ‘Internet Censorship’ Bill

Protesters hold up a banner demanding a reform in Article 112 or the Lese Majeste (anti-royal insult) law. Thousands of websites are blocked in Thailand by invoking Article 112. Photo by Matthew Richards, Copyright @Demotix (2/5/2012)

Protesters hold up a banner demanding a reform in Article 112 or the Lese Majeste (anti-royal insult) law. Thousands of websites are blocked in Thailand by invoking Article 112. Photo by Matthew Richards, Copyright @Demotix (2/5/2012)

Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) wants to revise the Computer Crime Act of 2007 but several media groups in the country are opposing changes to the law.

The ICT claims that reforming the law is necessary to curb the growing menace of cybercrime but critics fear it would lead to greater online censorship.

On October 24, five media groups in Bangkok issued a joint statement rejecting the amendments drafted by the Ministry. They include the Thai Journalists Association, Thai Broadcasting Journalists Association, Online News Providers Association, Information Technology Reporters and Academic Specialists on Computer Law Group.

The amendments would further tighten the Computer Crime Act (CCA), a law that has been widely criticized for its harsh penalties for various kinds of online speech. It includes the lèse majesté law under which several netizens have been imprisoned for criticizing the king online.

Among proposed amendments to the CCA is a measure that would allow authorities to block websites without seeking prior approval from a court and the ICT Minister. Under the current law, authorities cannot have sites blocked without a court order.

Media groups speaking out against the amendments to the CCA are particularly opposed to this amendment, calling it a violation of the people’s right to information. Further, they have demanded that the government drop the draft proposal as it “lacks standards of training for responsible officials and grants excessive power to the authorities.” The groups added that the bill goes “against Internet communication infrastructure” and places disproportionate burdens on “website operators, Internet and mobile phone service providers, and Internet users.”

Some Thai journalists are in favor of amending the controversial CCA, but for different reason. An editorial in the Bangkok Post derided the 2007 law, arguing that it has become a tool for harassing government critics and must be scaled back:

[The CCA] is the basis for massive internet censorship, sometimes compared with that of China. It has imprisoned people to longer terms than parallel, non-computer laws allow. And it has almost never been used for the purpose it was supposedly introduced for.

[...]

There is no longer even an estimate of the number of websites and pages closed or blocked by (the ICT) ministry. Certainly it is well into six figures. The ICT minister, using opaque and unaccountable appeals to a court, can effectively block any website from standard online access, without accountability, appeal or even the knowledge of those involved.

The editorial argued that the government should shift its focus back to the original intent of the law, which was to prevent online financial crimes such as phishing and identity theft.

Supporting the five Thai media groups is Reporters Without Borders, which cautioned the government not to approve the amendments and to “withdraw the legislation in its entirety.”

The bill – in addition to eliminating a requirement for a judicial warrant to block a website – would allow that action without approval from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, thereby distancing the law even more from international standards.

In response, the ICT claims that because the proposed amendments have gone through public consultations, there should be no controversy over their passage.

The Thai government meanwhile is facing massive public pressure to shelf a bill of law that would grant blanket amnesty to politicians and leaders who committed various categories political offenses (including human rights violations) since 2006. The measure, which would allow former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to the country, has sparked massive street protests in Thailand over the past few days.

Mass protest against amnesty bill in Bangkok, November 2013. Photo by Twitter user @ter_TRnews

Mass protest against amnesty bill in Bangkok, November 2013. Photo by Twitter user @ter_TRnews

In the midst of public protests and the CCA debate still ongoing, the ICT has been accused of censoring websites that help users make anti-amnesty bill icons and e-banners. According to a report, the ICT was identified by the Prime Minister as a “security apparatus to control protesters.”

As political conflicts intensify in Thailand, the government is unfortunately also actively endorsing measures that would restrict media and Internet freedom in the country. But should the new regulations pass, they may inspire powerful and much-needed resistance from media and netizen groups.

October 03 2013

My Friend is Getting Tortured for Blogging

Since his arrest in late July, it has been hard for me and other bloggers to bring attention to the case of Mohammed Hassan (aka Safy) a Bahraini blogger detained by authorities for his online activities. In a country like Bahrain, the brutal regime has been successful in normalizing and silencing its crimes against those involved in the political struggle for freedom and equality. Doctors, journalists, human rights defenders, teachers, athletes, and protesters have been targeted in Bahrain with sanctions, surveillance, interrogations, arrests. Some have been tortured. Some have been killed. The horrors committed since the February 14 revolution (and years before) are too many to mention and the case of Safy is only one among many.

Illustration by Jafar al-Alawy

Illustration by Jafar al-Alawy

Many of you might not know Safy; he is not of the older generation of bloggers who enjoy much more visibility yet he is certainly from a generation that has been on the front line, facing high risks of arrest, torture, and perhaps being forgotten. Safy is a regular guy who has worked as an IT officer until he saw his friend get shot by riot police during the first weeks of the revolution. He could not be the ‘regular guy’ after this. After months of blogging anonymously, Safy decided to go with his real name and picture. He helped journalists move around, took them to villages where people breath tear gas more than oxygen, and spoke bluntly in front of the camera. He decided to join Global Voices despite the risks that face bloggers in Bahrain when contributing to a major international platform.

Safy is not alone in this struggle: Photographers Hussain Hubail and Qassim Zainaldeen were arrested in the same week, followed with the arrest of Safy’s own lawyer Abdulaziz Mousa who was accused of disclosing details of the interrogation without legal permission. Mousa stated before his arrest that Safy was beaten through the interrogation and has been charged “with being a member of the 14 February Media Network, calling for and participating in public demonstrations, inciting hatred against the government and being in contact with exiled members of the the Bahraini opposition.”

Safy was not allowed to sleep for four nights. They slapped him, punched him in the face, and kicked his stomach, shoulders, legs and back. In these four nights, he was handcuffed and not allowed to sit down. All this happens in a cold room like a freezing hell. Typical of Bahraini torturers, they insulted him all the time, called him a Shia traitor conspiring for Iran and a man with no honor. They threatened to rape him and rape his sisters. When Safy is freed, we will surely get to know more details of the nightmare he had to live in prison.

Last year, Safy appeared on Dan Rather’s report on Bahrain. When asked if he feared persecution for speaking openly against the regime, Safy replied, “I do not care anymore. My friends have been imprisoned. Some still in prison. Some in hiding and some are dead… at the end of the day if you don’t have your dignity, lots of things don’t really matter.” For this blogger, persecution is an expected result of his choice to resist the brutality of a dictatorship. His willingness to take the results should be a reason for us to make enough noise in his defense. In a country like Bahrain, free speech is a major crime in the eyes of the regime; this dictatorship is threatened by any effort that criminalizes its authoritarianism and violence.

Many bloggers have already shown support for Safy but many more are needed to fight for our imprisoned friend. We do not want Safy to be alone, we do not want to see death and torture normalized, we do not want to let it be believed that Bahrainis don’t matter, or that their bodies and souls are worthless. Thinking of Safy in prison getting beaten and tortured is enough of a reason for us to feel restless.

 

#FreeSafy Campaign

We urge readers to share this story widely. Use hashtag #FreeSafy and tweet links to this press release or recent reports by Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Use the campaign image above to highlight his case and read more about Safy and the campaign for his release below.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather interviewed Safy in 2012. See a clip from the news program here:

October 01 2013

Locked Up for Linking? US Journalist Faces Prosecution

This post was authored by ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Agnes Callamard. An earlier version of the text appeared on the ARTICLE 19 website.

US journalist Barrett Brown is currently being prosecuted for doing something many of us do every day: posting a link on the Internet. If he is convicted, the right to share information online in the US could be seriously endangered.

Campaign poster by Kaytee Nesmith, Christopher Chang, ABCNT, Freeanons and Somerset Bean via freebarretbrown.com

Campaign poster by Kaytee Nesmith, Christopher Chang, ABCNT, Freeanons and Somerset Bean via freebarretbrown.com

Brown is the founder of Project PM, a crowd-sourced think-tank which investigates the relationships between private security firms and the US government. Some of the charges against Brown relate to a hyperlink he posted on his Project PM chat room channel. The link led to a zip file containing information hacked from intelligence contractor Stratfor Global Intelligence. Although it is acknowledged that Brown himself did not participate in the hacking, because the zip file he posted included emails listing stolen credit card information, he has been charged with trafficking stolen authentication features, access device fraud, and aggravated identity theft. Brown has been in pre-trial federal detention since September 2012.

Next year, Brown will stand trial on various charges that together carry a maximum sentence of 105 years in prison. The outcome could set a disturbing precedent for future cases of this nature.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Internet itself is a series of hyperlinks. The use of links – references to other materials published online – is the mainstay of the Internet and a basic feature of online interaction and journalistic practice. Linking is an essential part of the right to receive and impart information and ideas. This is a fundamental right that is protected under both international human rights law and the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Convicting Brown for posting this link could have a devastatingly chilling effect on free speech online and on investigative journalism.

The importance of Brown’s case has already been demonstrated by the recent events involving Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Green. Earlier this month, Green received a request to remove a blog post he'd written criticising the National Security Agency because it “linked to classified material”. The only classified material Green had linked to was information already available to the public in news reports published by the Guardian and the New York Times. This incident underlines the urgent need for the USA to explicitly protect the right to link in federal law.

More broadly, It is a well-established principle that journalists should never be held liable for publishing and disseminating classified and leaked information, unless it has been obtained criminally (through fraud, for example). This protection is vital to ensuring the sustainability of investigative journalism. In this case, it has not been alleged that Brown was involved in the hacking; he merely posted a link to information which was available elsewhere. Linking to information that has already been published on the Internet should be strongly protected, especially when this activity is carried out for journalistic purposes.

In addition to these charges against Brown, a district court judge in Dallas, Texas issued an order in September 2013 prohibiting Brown and his defence team from making extrajudicial statements about the case and from discussing it with the media. Advocacy groups including ARTICLE 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists fear that this order signals yet again the US Government’s aggressive protection of national surveillance networks at the expense of the free speech and press freedom guaranteed under international law.

September 09 2013

How the NSA is Tampering with Encrypted Communications (and how to fight back)

National Security Agency Headquarters. This photo has been released to the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

National Security Agency Headquarters. This photo has been released to the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This post was co-authored by Dan Auerbach, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
 

In one of the most significant leaks of information about US National Security Agency (NSA) spying, the New York Times, the Guardian, and ProPublica reported last week that the NSA has gone to extraordinary lengths to secretly undermine secure communications infrastructure online, collaborating with GCHQ (Britain's NSA equivalent) and a select few intelligence organizations worldwide.

These revelations imply that the NSA has pursued an aggressive program of obtaining private encryption keys for commercial products—allowing the agency to decrypt vast amounts of Internet traffic sent by users of these products. They also suggest that the agency has attempted to put backdoors (well-hidden ways to access data) into cryptographic standards designed to secure users’ communications. Additionally, the leaked documents make clear that companies that manufacture these products have been complicit in allowing this unprecedented spying to take place, though the identities of cooperating companies remain unknown.

Many important details about this program, codenamed Bullrun, are still unclear. What communications are targeted? What service providers or software developers are cooperating with the NSA? What percentage of private encryption keys of targeted commercial products are successfully obtained? Does this store of private encryption keys (presumably procured through theft or company cooperation) contain those of popular web-based communication providers like Facebook and Google?

What is clear is that these NSA programs are an egregious violation of user privacy. Under international human rights doctrine, users have a right to speak privately with fellow citizens and to freely associate and engage in political activism. If the NSA is allowed to continue building backdoors into our communications infrastructure, as law enforcement agencies have lobbied for, then the communications of billions of people risk being perpetually insecure against a variety of adversaries, ranging from governments to criminals to domestic spy agencies.

Faced with so much bad news, it's easy to give in to privacy nihilism and despair. After all, if the NSA has found ways to decrypt a significant portion of encrypted online communications, why should we bother using encryption at all? But this massive disruption of communications infrastructure need not be tolerated. Here are some of the steps you can take to fight back:

  • Use secure communications tools (read some useful tips by security expert Bruce Schneier). Your communications are still significantly more protected if you are using encrypted communications tools such as messaging over OTR or browsing the web using HTTPS Everywhere than if you are sending your communications without taking such precautions.
  • Finally, the engineers responsible for building our infrastructure can fight back by building and deploying better and more usable cryptosystems.

The NSA is attacking secure communications on many fronts; advocates must oppose them using every method they can. Engineers, policy makers, and netizens all have key roles to play in standing up to the unchecked surveillance state. The more we learn about the extent of the NSA's abuses, the more important it is for us to take steps to take back our privacy. Don't let the NSA's attack on secure communications be the end game.

The original version of this post appeared on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Deeplinks blog.
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