Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

IFEX at Canadian parliament: do more to protect human rights defenders

April 4, 2022

IFEX Deputy Executive Director Rachael Kay delivered a presentation on the situation of human rights defenders, journalists, and media organisations to the Canadian House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights.

…Like everyone, we see the expansion of authoritarianism in all its forms. Information is being weaponized in ways that has a profound impact on people and is creating a kind of information chaos. In our network alone, we’ve seen how misuse of access to information legislation, internet shutdowns, misinformation, attacks on media and of course the murder of journalists is becoming routine. When those targeted directly with online disinformation and smear campaigns are women, the form the attacks take is usually gendered and often results in self-censorship.

The aim is to silence these voices, and it is doing just that.

We can see this played out in the current context. Immediate action is required in the most urgent situations, Ukraine/Russia, Afghanistan, Belarus, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Sudan, just to name a few. It is imperative that coordinated systems of emergency support for journalists at risk and their families are created, something where we see Canada is already moving in the right direction. But we must continue to increase our effectiveness.

And to be effective, these systems should include providing emergency visas that have simple and secure methods of submission and, in the absence of such, they must expedite the processing of visas for journalists and their families, as well as ensure safe passage. Key to the success of any intervention is effective coordination with local and international civil society organisations working to protect and evacuate journalists.

We see that media freedom has never been more crucial. Democracies cannot survive and flourish without free, independent and pluralistic media. We need to reverse engineer the current branding of the media as fake news and the enemy of the people as normal. It has been the lexicon adopted around the world – language mimicked and acted upon that includes continued verbal and physical attacks on the media with total impunity. This has had a profound impact on press freedom and journalists in particular. And be sure, no country, including Canada, is exempt from this trend.

The narrative needs to be countered forcefully with words and actions. Outside of intervening in urgent situations, the government must play a significant, ongoing role in reinforcing the need for press freedom and respect for journalists in its own national context.

There is also the need for accountability. The criminalisation of journalism and abuse of law by state actors has to end and we call on multilateral relationships and institutions to ensure that those who attack the media face real consequences for their actions – otherwise attacks against the press will continue to escalate and any standards championed by Canada will remain empty.

…..

At IFEX our network of over 100 member organisations in more than 70 countries actively advocate for freedom of expression and information as a fundamental human right – many do so in very dangerous circumstances. The targeted repression of press freedom advocates and journalists, and attacks on communities and institutions, see accepted norms being increasingly undermined and weakened.

We have been called on to do more direct support for our members, across all regions, who find themselves increasingly under attack by authoritarian states focused on shutting down the voices of civil society and threatening dissent at any price.

Organisations whose offices and staff are targeted and harassed with no other aim but closure and erasure need to be supported, funded and engaged with – because these are the voices that call for accountability and if these voices are shuttered it will leave a vacuum for democracy.

We know these issues are complex. IFEX’s members and allies around the world have been working on them, doing grassroots advocacy, publishing reports, indexes and offering solutions and campaigning for years. They are a rich pool of knowledge that could inform Canada’s policies and discussions with nuance and a national and global perspective. As part of your efforts in focusing on press freedom we would welcome being a conduit to these sources.

Governments and civil society groups need to continue to find ways to collaborate, to be at the table together.

NGOs express great worries about human rights situation in Russia at UN Human Rights Council

March 5, 2022

UN Human Rights Council should take urgent action to address the dire human rights situation in Russia say NGOs in a Joint Letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/02/27/anti-war-human-rights-defenders-in-russia/

To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council:

Excellency,

As the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council gets underway, and Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, we, the undersigned civil society organisations, would like to draw your attention to the dire human rights situation within the Russian Federation, and urge all states to bring this neglected country situation onto the agenda of the Human Rights Council.

A year after last year’s joint statement on the situation in Russia, authorities there have further intensified the already unprecedented crackdown on human rights. A fully-fledged witch hunt against independent groups, human rights defenders, media outlets and journalists, and political opposition, is decimating civil society and forcing many into exile.

The gravity of this human rights crisis has been demonstrated in the last few days by the forcible dispersal of anti-war rallies and pickets across Russia with over 6,800 arrested (as of 2 March  2022), attempts to impose censorship on the reporting of the conflict in Ukraine and to silence those media and individuals who speak out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including through blocking media websites, threats of criminal prosecution under “fake news” and “high treason” charges and other means.

In a shocking development, the authorities moved to shut down “Memorial,” one of the country’s most authoritative human rights organizations. At the end of December, courts ruled to “liquidate” the group’s key legal entities, International Memorial Society and Human Rights Center Memorial, over alleged persistent noncompliance with the repressive legislation on “foreign agents.” On 28 February, the Supreme Court upheld this decision, despite an article 39 ruling from the European Court of Human Rights ordering the Russian authorities to halt liquidation proceedings.

The December rulings came at the end of a particularly terrible year for human rights in the country, during which authorities threw top opposition figure Alexei Navalny in prison, banned three organizations affiliated with him as “extremist,” launched criminal proceedings against several of his close associates, doubled down on Internet censorship, and designated more than 100 journalists and activists as “media-foreign agents”.

Recent months also saw a dramatic escalation of repression in Chechnya, where Russian law and international human rights obligations have been emptied of meaning. With the Kremlin’s tolerance or acquiescence, the local governor, Ramzan Kadyrov has been eviscerating all forms of dissent in Chechnya, often using collective punishment. In December 2021, Kadyrov opened a brutal offensive against his critics in the Chechen diaspora, by having the police arbitrarily detain dozens of their Chechnya-based relatives. It continued in January with the abduction and arbitrary detention on fabricated charges of Zarema Musaeva, mother of human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev, and death threats issued against the Yangulbaev family and some prominent human rights defenders and journalists. 

This is a country situation urgently requiring the Council’s attention. We urge the Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution expressing serious concern about the human rights violations and abuses occurring in Russia, requesting the High Commissioner to monitor and report on the situation, and appointing a dedicated Special Rapporteur to address the human rights situation in Russia.

Yours sincerely,

Signed:

  1. Human Rights Watch
  2. Amnesty International
  3. Human Rights House Foundation
  4. International Federation for Human Rights
  5. International Service for Human Rights
  6. Human Rights Centre Memorial (Russia)
  7. Civic Assistance Committee (Russia)

There was also a statement was delivered by Yulian Kondur and the International Charitable Organization Roma Women Fund ‘Chiricli’ in the name of Minority Rights Group (MRG) and other organizations at the Human Rights Council’s Urgent Debate, held on Friday 4 March 2022, on the situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian Aggression. They called on authorities and aid actors to ensure that Roma, minorities and marginalised peoples are granted equal access to protection and safety when seeking refuge, including those without identity documentation.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/04/joint-letter-united-nations-human-rights-council-human-rights-situation-russia

Internet Censorship 2021: A Global Map of Internet Restrictions

October 19, 2021

On October 12 I referred the report Freedom on the Net [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/10/12/report-freedom-on-the-net-2021/ and on 24 April to the latest RSF report [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/04/24/world-press-freedom-index-2021-is-out/]. Now my attention was drawn to another tool to measure internet censorship:

Nearly 60 percent of the world’s population (4.66 billion people) uses the internet. It’s our source of instant information, entertainment, news, and social interactions.

But where in the world can citizens enjoy equal and open internet access – if anywhere?

In this exploratory study, our researchers have conducted a country-by-country comparison to see which countries impose the harshest internet restrictions and where citizens can enjoy the most online freedom. This includes restrictions or bans for torrenting, pornography, social media, and VPNs, and restrictions or heavy censorship of political media. This year, we have also added the restriction of messaging/VoIP apps.

Although the usual culprits take the top spots, a few seemingly free countries rank surprisingly high. With ongoing restrictions and pending laws, our online freedom is at more risk than ever.

We scored each country on six criteria. Each of these is worth two points aside from messaging/VoIP apps which is worth one (this is due to many countries banning or restricting certain apps but allowing ones run by the government/telecoms providers within the country). The country receives one point if the content—torrents, pornography, news media, social media, VPNs, messaging/VoIP apps—is restricted but accessible, and two points if it is banned entirely. The higher the score, the more censorship. https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/IBnNS/3/

The worst countries for internet censorship

  1. North Korea and China (11/11) – No map of online censorship would be complete without these two at the top of the list. There isn’t anything either of them doesn’t heavily censor thanks to their iron grip over the entire internet. Users are unable to use western social media, watch porn, or use torrents or VPNs*. And all of the political media published in the country is heavily censored and influenced by the government. Both also shut down messaging apps from abroad, forcing residents to use ones that have been made (and are likely controlled) within the country, e.g. WeChat in China. Not only does WeChat have no form of end-to-end encryption, the app also has backdoors that enable third parties to access messages.
  2. Iran (10/11): Iran blocks VPNs (only government-approved ones are permitted, which renders them almost useless) but doesn’t completely ban torrenting. Pornography is also banned and social media is under increasing restrictions. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all blocked with increasing pressures to block other popular social media sites. Many messaging apps are also banned with authorities pushing domestic apps and services as an alternative. Political media is heavily censored.
  3. Belarus, Qatar, Syria, Thailand, Turkmenistan, and the UAE (8/11): Turkmenistan, Belarus, and the UAE all featured in our “worst countries” breakdown in 2020.  But this year they are joined by Qatar, Syria, and Thailand. All of these countries ban pornography, have heavily censored political media, restrict social media (bans have also been seen in Turkmenistan), and restrict the use of VPNs. Thailand saw the biggest increase in censorship, including the introduction of an online porn ban which saw 190 adult websites being taken down. This included Pornhub (which featured as one of the top 20 most visited websites in the country in 2019).

https://comparite.ch/internetcensorshipmap

‘Beijing Spring’ The Story of Chi Xiaoning and His Smuggled Camera

March 6, 2021

Revealed for the first time: Reminiscent of what is happening in Hong Kong today, this is a story about underground film-making, radical art, and censorship. In 1979, Chi Xiaoning created his “Film of Star Group Activities of 1979.” It is the only known video documenting the radical activities of the Stars Group, avant-garde artists from China who championed individuality and freedom of expression. The only copy of the footage is in the M+ Collections in Hong Kong. American film-maker Andy Cohen, a regular Global Insights Magazine contributor, portrays this story in his 2020 film ‘Beijing Spring’, which is being premiered internationally at the Geneva Human Rights Film Festival (FIFDH) in March, 2021. [see https://fifdh.org/en/2021/film/120-beijing-spring]

In Global Geneva of 11 February 2021 Andy Cohen writes about the challenges behind Chi Xiaoning’s daring film-making during a period that was subject to severe censorship in favour of official propaganda art.

Stars Protest March Demanding Artistic Freedom— Beijing, National Day (1979) (Photo: ©Wang Rui)

Before the 1980s, documentary films in China were mostly propaganda made to serve the ideological purposes of the Communist Party. Views critical of the party were prohibited. Only one official voice could be heard: that of the government. Film-makers obeyed Mao Zedong’s dictum that artists’ works should reflect the lives of the masses — the workers, peasants, and soldiers—for whom they were made. These films, scripted and staged using ‘model people’ instead of ordinary subjects, were crafted in a dogmatic, formulaic style that put a positive spin on government policies.

By 1979, however, the political tide in the People’s Republic had turned and the scent of reform began to fill the air, heralding what would become known as the Beijing Spring. Mao Zedong had died a few years earlier, and the nation had begun to reawaken after thirty years of oppression that had claimed more than fifty million lives. Deng Xiaoping, the new ‘paramount leader’, experimented with not only economic reforms but also loosening restrictions on freedom of speech. He even tolerated the open postings of government criticisms in one easily monitored locale in central Beijing — a long brick wall running along Xidan Street just west of Tiananmen Square that came to be known as Democracy Wall.

Originally intended for workers and peasants to post the grievances they’d suffered during the Cultural Revolution, the wall was quickly overtaken by artists and activists, who seized the opportunity to post their radical works in such a prominent place. These artworks and writings not only exposed the suffering the country had been through but also focused on the present plights of ordinary people, emphasising that every individual is unique, equal, and imbued with the right to openly express thoughts and emotions without being crushed or silenced.

A young Beijing film-maker named Chi Xiaoning used this moment to shoot an unofficial documentary about the Democracy Wall movement in a style different from its predecessors. Chi chose to focus his film on the daring activities of one specific group that had arisen from the underground magazine Today: a band of artists who called themselves the Stars Group (Xingxing). Explaining the imagery behind the choice of the name, the group’s co-founder Ma Desheng said: ‘When I was growing up there was only one star in the sky: the red sun, Mao Zedong. Many stars mean many people. Every individual is a star.’

In order to realise his vision, Chi needed to overcome one major obstacle: finding a camera and film stock, both of which were unavailable to the average person. Luckily for Chi, his faithful friend Ren Shulin was among the precious few who not only knew how to operate a camera but actually had access to one.

In May 1979, Ren was assigned to work at the Institute of Coal and Carbon Science. His job was to film official documentaries about safety in coal mines. ‘To smuggle one or two boxes of film out of my service was easy. To get more? That took some time. And to get the movie camera out — that racked my brains,” Ren later stated. In the end, Ren succeeded and the two began filming on 27 September, 1979, the first day that the Stars Group hung an unofficial exhibition on the perimeter fence outside of Beijing’s China Art Gallery (now known as the National Art Museum of China). Simultaneously, an official propaganda art show was being held inside the space.

Adding to this paradox was the name of the film Ren had smuggled out: Every Generation Is Red (Dai Dai Hong). Ren’s knowledge and courage enabled him to play the crucial role of camera assistant, steadily unloading and reloading the reels under the cover of trees at the eastern wall of the gallery. By keeping the film stock safe from the crowds, avoiding the scrutiny of undercover police, and feeding him reels, Ren enabled Chi to continuously film the Stars exhibition on the fence.

The camera Ren smuggled out was a hand-wound Gansu’s Light model (Gan Guang). This made Chi’s already difficult task all the more so, as he aimed to capture real events unfolding in real time. A fully wound camera could shoot for only thirty seconds, and an entire box of film produced only three minutes of footage. This time constraint, coupled with having to avoid the police, tested Chi’s improvisational style.

Filmmaker Chi Xiaoning on Top of Democracy Wall (1979)  (Photo: ©Wang Rui) 

Chi climbed the back of the fence to capture the impressions of onlookers as they stared at the artworks with shock and awe. Chi’s method, like the Stars artists’, focused on ordinary people such as factory workers, teachers with students, and the elderly. He recorded their genuine emotions and free expressions typically hidden beneath the outer masks that had become the default after years of toeing the party line.

The fact the Stars artists also employed original, modernist styles and content, utilising free forms and abstraction, added a meta-artistic layer to the undertaking. Chi shot an avant-garde film about avant-garde artists during a time when the act of filming was also considered an act of protest. This was art for art’s sake, produced about and with the aim of freedom of expression. Chi’s lens revealed faces viewing never-before-seen artworks that challenged the aesthetic conventions of the party, and that depicted the naked female body in twisted modern forms. The first day was a success for both the Stars artists and the greater artistic principle.

Early the next morning, Chi and Ren were back at the fence, locked, loaded, and ready to film, when the police suddenly arrived to take down the Stars Group exhibit. As the police closed in, Chi wound his way through the crowds, in and out of the chaos ‘like a wartime journalist in a battlefield’, as Ren later described it. After tearing the art off the fence, the police surrounded Chi and Ren. They had no chance to escape. The police confiscated the camera from Chi. From Ren, they took the camera bag containing the used and unused film stock.

“I was very nervous,” Ren recounted. “If the camera was confiscated, I’d be fired from my job at the institute. But Xiaoning was calm, arguing with the other side.” After being kept in a windowless room inside the museum for hours, the film and the camera were abruptly and inexplicably returned to Chi and Ren. For some reason, the authorities’ mood was sympathetic to the artists that day.

Stars Artists Group Portrait (1980)  (Photo: ©Helmut Opletal)

The Stars Group artists, on the other hand, were angry that their show had been terminated and their artworks confiscated. Together with other political activists, they planned a protest rally and march. Everyone knew this could mean jail time for the ringleaders.

The Stars rally was an enormous provocation to the Communist leaders — it was reported on and documented by foreign media at the time — and it was planned for 1 October: National Day and the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The big parade had been cancelled in light of Mao’s death in 1976; now, in its stead, the Stars and their supporters took it upon themselves to march from Democracy Wall to the Municipal Building. Chi planned to film it but told Ren not to assist him. If caught, there was no sense in both of them going to jail, as he would need Ren to develop the reels and edit the film.

Chi stood atop Democracy Wall, filming as the rally began. When the group headed for the Municipal Building, Chi and his camera weaved in and out. He went inside factories and shot from windows to capture workers’ perspectives; he zoomed in on passengers’ reactions as they peered from the windows of passing buses; he filmed the crowds of protestors marching along rainy streets, zooming in on their puddle-pounding feet.

While the crowds marched on, Ren waited anxiously all day for news of his friend. This was an era before cell phones and pagers. It was inevitable that, with a 16mm camera in hand, filming in highly visible locations, Chi once again attracted the omnipresent authorities’ attention. When asked how Chi had saved his film, Stars Group artist and friend Wang Keping recounted that Chi had told him he’d exposed the part that had not yet been filmed, tricking the police into thinking it was useless. Beyond showcasing his enormous talent, what makes Chi’s footage even more spectacular and immediate is the constant risk of arrest he faced while filming.

In stark contrast to his main action footage of the protest march, Chi also shot B-roll focusing on scenes by the lake in the park of the Old Summer Palace. In its deceptively quiet manner, however, the B-roll is just as avant-garde. From the weather conditions it is evident that he filmed on two different occasions. On the first day, the water was calm, as were the demeanours of the subjects—rowing on the lake, playing guitars or mah-jong, strolling along tree-lined trails, and picnicking. This idleness was diametrically opposed to the ‘heroic’ actions of the ‘model people’ in official documentaries. The calmness of the lake mirrors the first quiet day of the exhibit.

Artist Ma Desheng Speech at Democracy Wall (1979) (Photo: ©Wang Rui)

On the second day of B-roll, the wind was flapping the red flags on the bridge and bending the branches of trees, reflecting the chaos of the protest march. Chi’s use of contrasting weather filmed at the park echoes the inner emotions of his subjects as well as the political events surrounding them. The B-roll shows close-ups of everyday objects with an anthropomorphic introspection: the empty rowboats lined up like cadres, crates of empty soda bottles (Coca-Cola had just entered China in December 1978), goldfish swimming in a vendor’s water-filled plastic bag—all shots considered unsuitable for documentaries at the time.

When asked why the style of this footage can now be considered groundbreaking, Ren replied, “Documentary films in China were almost all propaganda, not the expression of the author himself. We were conscious of this, so our film, from idea to structure to visual language, was different from documentaries of that time.”

Despite its significance, almost no one knew about this unfinished film until recently. In total, it comprises forty-seven minutes of raw footage, out of sequence, that was hidden from the authorities for the past thirty-five years. Fearing for the safety of his friends and his family, Chi hid the salvaged footage in a confidant’s home, swearing him to secrecy.

After Chi’s untimely death in 2007, no one knew the whereabouts of the footage, not even Ren, as it had been kept underground, passed from friend to friend. The footage was eventually recovered and the only copy now resides in the M+ Collections.

Film of Star Group Activities of 1979 by Chi Xiaoning and Ren Shulin reflects on and documents the social, cultural, and political changes that took place during the Beijing Spring. This treasure trove will be mined for years to come by film-makers, historians, and art historians alike. This pivotal moment in China’s history, which gave birth to its democracy movement, could not have been possible without the powerful combination of art and activism that coalesced at Democracy Wall. And because of the courageous feats of one documentarian and his assistant cameraman, history will forever have the visual accounts of those exciting times.


Andy Cohen is an American documentary film-maker, journalist and author based in Geneva. Much of his work is investigative and human rights-based. Cohen’s films have been shown at the FIFDH Geneva, Venice Film Festival, Telluride, Tribeca, Traverse City, Toronto International Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, and the Sundance Film Festival, among others, and broadcast on PBS, BBC, UK Ch4, ARTE, Netflix, and Amazon.For more information about AC Films, please go to his website.

A version of this article was first published by M+ HK.

Andy Cohen

Beijing Spring’ is scheduled for its International Premier at the Human Rights Film Festival in Geneva (FIFDH), which takes placed 5-14 March, 2021. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/03/06/2021-edition-of-geneva-film-festival-kicks-off-in-virtual-format/

Facebook and YouTube are allowing themselves to become tools of the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship and harassment

December 1, 2020

On 1 December 2020, Amnesty International published a new report on how Facebook and YouTube are allowing themselves to become tools of the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship and harassment of its population, in an alarming sign of how these companies could increasingly operate in repressive countries. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/03/more-on-facebook-and-twitter-and-content-moderation/].

The 78-page report, “Let us Breathe!”: Censorship and criminalization of online expression in Viet Nam”, documents the systematic repression of peaceful online expression in Viet Nam, including the widespread “geo-blocking” of content deemed critical of the authorities, all while groups affiliated to the government deploy sophisticated campaigns on these platforms to harass everyday users into silence and fear.

The report is based on dozens of interviews with human rights defenders and activists, including former prisoners of conscience, lawyers, journalists and writers, in addition to information provided by Facebook and Google. It also reveals that Viet Nam is currently holding 170 prisoners of conscience, of whom 69 are behind bars solely for their social media activity. This represents a significant increase in the number of prisoners of conscience estimated by Amnesty International in 2018.

In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Viet Nam. More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns.

Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen – they’re increasingly complicit.

In 2018, Facebook’s income from Viet Nam neared US$1 billion – almost one third of all revenue from Southeast Asia. Google, which owns YouTube, earned US$475 million in Viet Nam during the same period, mainly from YouTube advertising. The size of these profits underlines the importance for Facebook and Google of maintaining market access in Viet Nam.”

In April 2020, Facebook announced it had agreed to “significantly increase” its compliance with requests from the Vietnamese government to censor “anti-state” posts. It justified this policy shift by claiming the Vietnamese authorities were deliberately slowing traffic to the platform as a warning to the company.

Last month, in Facebook’s latest Transparency Report – its first since it revealed its policy of increased compliance with the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship demands – the company revealed a 983% increase in content restrictions based on local law as compared with the previous reporting period, from 77 to 834. Meanwhile, YouTube has consistently won praise from Vietnamese censors for its relatively high rate of compliance with censorship demands.

State-owned media reported Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung as saying in October that compliance with the removal of “bad information, propaganda against the Party and the State” was higher than ever, with Facebook and Google complying with 95% and 90% of censorship requests, respectively.

Based on dozens of testimonies and evidence, Amnesty International’s report shows how Facebook and YouTube’s increasing censorship of content in Vietnam operates in practice.

In some cases, users see their content censored under vaguely worded local laws, including offences such as “abusing democratic freedoms” under the country’s Criminal Code. Amnesty International views these laws as inconsistent with Viet Nam’s obligations under international human rights law. Facebook then “geo-blocks” content, meaning it becomes invisible to anyone accessing the platform in Viet Nam.

Nguyen Van Trang, a pro-democracy activist now seeking asylum in Thailand, told Amnesty International that in May 2020, Facebook notified him that one of his posts had been restricted due to “local legal restrictions”. Since then, Facebook has blocked every piece of content he has tried to post containing the names of senior members of the Communist Party. 

Nguyen Van Trang has experienced similar restrictions on YouTube, which, unlike Facebook, gave him the option to appeal such restrictions. Some appeals have succeeded and others not, without YouTube providing any explanation.

Truong Chau Huu Danh is a well-known freelance journalist with 150,000 followers and a verified Facebook account. He told Amnesty International that between 26 March and 8 May 2020, he posted hundreds of pieces of content about a ban on rice exports and the high-profile death penalty case of Ho Duy Hai. In June, he realized these posts had all vanished without any notification from Facebook whatsoever.

Amnesty International heard similar accounts from other Facebook users, particularly when they tried to post about a high-profile land dispute in the village of Dong Tam, which opposed local villagers to military-run telecommunications company Viettel. The dispute culminated in a confrontation between villagers and security forces in January 2020 that saw the village leader and three police officers killed.

After Facebook announced its new policy in April 2020, land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu reported that all the content they had shared about the Dong Tam incident had been removed from their timelines without their knowledge and without notification.

On 24 June 2020, the pair were arrested and charged with “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the Criminal Code after they reported extensively on the Dong Tam incident. They are currently in detention. Their Facebook accounts have disappeared since their arrests under unknown circumstances. Amnesty International considers both Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu to be prisoners of conscience.

The Vietnamese authorities’ campaign of repression often results in the harassment, intimidation, prosecution and imprisonment of people for their social media use. There are currently 170 prisoners of conscience imprisoned in Viet Nam, the highest number ever recorded in the country by Amnesty International. Nearly two in five (40%) have been imprisoned because of their peaceful social media activity.

Twenty-one of the 27 prisoners of conscience jailed in 2020, or 78%, were prosecuted because of their peaceful online activity under Articles 117 or 331 of the Criminal Code – the same repressive provisions that often form the basis of ‘local legal restrictions’ implemented by Facebook and YouTube. For every prisoner of conscience behind bars, there are countless people in Viet Nam who see this pattern of repression and intimidation and are understandably terrified about speaking their mind. Ming Yu Hah

These individuals’ supposed “crimes” include peacefully criticizing the authorities’ COVID-19 response on Facebook and sharing independent information about human rights online.

For every prisoner of conscience behind bars, there are countless people in Viet Nam who see this pattern of repression and intimidation and are understandably terrified about speaking their minds,” said Ming Yu Hah.

Amnesty International has documented dozens of incidents in recent years in which human rights defenders have received messages meant to harass and intimidate, including death threats. The systematic and organized nature of these harassment campaigns consistently bear the hallmarks of state-sponsored cyber-troops such as Du Luan Vien or “public opinion shapers” – people recruited and managed by the Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV)’s Department of Propaganda to engage in psychological warfare online.

The activities of Du Luan Vien are complemented by those of “Force 47”, a cyberspace military battalion made up of some 10,000 state security forces whose function is to “fight against wrong views and distorted information on the internet”.

While “Force 47” and groups such as Du Luan Vien operate opaquely, they are known to engage in mass reporting campaigns targeting human rights –related content, often leading to their removal and account suspensions by Facebook and YouTube.

Additionally, Amnesty International’s investigation documented multiple cases of bloggers and social media users being physically attacked because of their posts by the police or plainclothes assailants, who operate with the apparent acquiescence of state authorities and with virtually no accountability for such crimes.


Putting an end to complicity

The Vietnamese authorities must stop stifling freedom of expression online. Amnesty International is calling for all prisoners of conscience in Viet Nam to be released immediately and unconditionally and for the amendment of repressive laws that muzzle freedom of expression.

Companies – including Facebook and Google – have a responsibility to respect all human rights wherever they operate. They should respect the right to freedom of expression in their content moderation decisions globally, regardless of local laws that muzzle freedom of expression. Tech giants should also overhaul their content moderation policies to ensure their decisions align with international human rights standards.

In October 2020, Facebook launched a global Oversight Board – presented as the company’s independent “Supreme Court” and its solution to the human rights challenges presented by content moderation. Amnesty International’s report reveals, however, that the Board’s bylaws will prevent it from reviewing the company’s censorship actions pursuant to local law in countries like Vet Nam. It’s increasingly obvious that the Oversight Board is incapable of solving Facebook’s human rights problems. Ming Yu Hah

“It’s increasingly obvious that the Oversight Board is incapable of solving Facebook’s human rights problems. Facebook should expand the scope of the Oversight Board to include content moderation decisions pursuant to local law; if not, the Board – and Facebook – will have again failed Facebook users,” said Ming Yu Hah.

[see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/11/algorithms-designed-to-suppress-isis-content-may-also-suppress-evidence-of-human-rights-violations/]

“Far from the public relations fanfare, countless people who dare to speak their minds in Viet Nam are being silenced. The precedent set by this complicity is a grave blow to freedom of expression around the world.”

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/12/viet-nam-tech-giants-complicit/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/01/facebook-youtube-google-accused-complicity-vietnam-repression

https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/facebook-vietnams-fickle-partner-in-crime/

ZOOM accused of suspending accounts of human rights defenders

July 29, 2020

Bernise Carolino on 28 July 2020 wrote in the Canadian lawyers Magazine that Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada has condemned Zoom Communications Inc.’s suspension of the accounts of human rights activists, calling it a breach of its responsibility to respect the rights to free expression, association and assembly.

A letter from Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada called upon Zoom to ensure that the communications of its users are not similarly suspended or disrupted in the future. The group urged Zoom to establish a company policy to clarify how it intends to adhere to its international legal responsibility under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The group also requested that Zoom refrain from blocking participation of users based on geography.

In June, Zoom suspended three accounts of activists based in the U.S. and Hong Kong in compliance with a request from the government of China, which claimed that the activists were trying to use Zoom to host meetings commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Zoom then reinstated the accounts and said that it would not in the future permit such requests to affect individuals outside mainland China.

Despite the reinstatement of these accounts, the lawyers’ rights group took issue with Zoom’s plans to develop technology that will allow it to remove or block participants based on their location in response to requests from local authorities claiming that certain activity on the platform is prohibited based on their country’s laws.

All international businesses, including Zoom, must ensure that all their users can enjoy the rights and freedoms afforded to them under international law,” wrote Joey Doyle, a director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada and an author of the letter, in the organization’s press release. “This is particularly important in this present world where most communication takes place over online platforms such as Zoom.”

Zoom has an international law obligation to respect the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, the right to access information and the right to privacy, said Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as legal bases. The group also called attention to the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which recognizes the right of such defenders to advance the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Joshua Lam, another director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, and executive director Catherine Morris co-authored the letter, addressed to Eric S. Yuan, Zoom’s founder and chief executive officer, and Lynn Haaland, the company’s chief compliance and ethics officer.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/21/frontlines-guide-to-secure-group-chat-and-conferencing-tools/

https://www.canadianlawyermag.com/practice-areas/privacy-and-data/lawyers-rights-watch-canada-urges-zoom-to-abide-by-international-human-rights-obligations/331904

Anti-Censorship initiative with free VPN accounts for human rights defenders

July 15, 2020

On 14 July Business-Wire reported that the VPN company TunnelBear has partnered with NGOs to give away 20,000 accounts (these NGOs inlcude Access Now, Frontline Defenders, Internews, and one other undisclosed participant).

This program aims to empower individuals and organizations with the tools they need to browse a safe and open internet environment, regardless of where they live. The VPN provider is encouraging other NGOs or media organizations across the world to reach out if they too are in need of support. “At TunnelBear, we strongly believe in an open and uncensored internet. Whenever we can use our technology to help people towards that end, we will,” said TunnelBear Cofounder Ryan Dochuk.

TunnelBear’s VPN encrypts its user’s internet traffic to enable a private and censor-free browsing experience.

By undergoing and releasing independent audits of their systems, adopting open source tools, and collaborating with the open source community, TunnelBear has proven itself to be an industry leader in the VPN space and a valuable private sector partner within the internet freedom movement. Internews is happy to support TunnelBear in extending its VPN service to the media organizations, journalists, activists, and human rights defenders around the globe who can benefit from it,” said Jon Camfield, Director of Global Technology Strategy at Internews.

Contact: Shames Abdelwahab press@tunnelbear.com

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/23/trump-now-starts-dismanteling-the-open-technology-fund/

https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200714005302/en/TunnelBear-Kicks-Anti-Censorship-Initiative-Free-Accounts-Activists

Trump now starts dismanteling the Open Technology Fund

June 23, 2020

Raphael Mimoun wrote in Newsweek of 22 June 2020 an opinion piece “Dictators are Besieging Internet Freedom—and Trump Just Opened the Gates”. It is a detailed piece but worth reading:

raph-m

Last week, the Trump administration started dismantling one of the US government’s most impactful agencies, the Open Technology Fund, which supports projects to counteract repressive censorship and surveillance around the world.

The Open Technology Fund, or OTF, is relatively new, founded in 2012 as a program of the government-backed Radio Free Asia. In 2019, it became an independent non-profit reporting to the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Since its founding, the organization has funded dozens of projects now part of the toolkit of millions of rights advocates and journalists around the world. But OTF is now under attack: the new leadership of USAGM, appointed just weeks ago, fired the leadership of all USAGM entities, including OTF, dismissed OTF’s independent and bipartisan board of directors, and is threatening to hollow out OTF altogether….

Many of those tools help those who most need it, where surveillance, censorship, and repression is most acute. Just last month, Delta Chat declined a request for user data from Russia’s communication regulator—because the security architecture developed with OTF support meant it did not have any data to handover. FreeWechat, which publishes posts censored by the Chinese government on the app WeChat, has been visited over 7 million times by Chinese-speakers. Dozens more OTF-funded tools enable millions to evade surveillance by autocratic governments and access the open internet, from Cuba to Hong Kong and Iran.

OTF’s work is critical to human rights defenders and journalists, but it brings privacy and security far beyond those groups. OTF only supports open-source projects, meaning that the code used must be available for anyone to view and reuse……….

But OTF’s work on internet freedom isn’t limited to funding technology development. The organization takes a holistic approach to internet freedom, providing life-saving training and capacity-building to groups directly targeted by cyberattacks, harassment, and violence: LGBTQI advocates in Indonesia, journalists in Mexico, civic activists in Belarus, or exiled Tibetan organizations. OTF also funds events bringing together researchers, technologists, policy-makers, and advocates. Those gatherings—whether global like the Internet Freedom Festival or focused on specific countries or regions like the Iran Cyber Dialogue, the Vietnam Cyber Dialogue, or the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa–have been transformative. They have helped build a tight community in a space where trust is hard to achieve. Without such events, many of the projects, tools, and collaborations to circumvent censorship and counter surveillance would not exist.

See also: https://www.theverge.com/2020/6/23/21300424/open-technology-fund-usagm-circumvention-tools-china-censorship-michael-pack

https://www.newsweek.com/open-technology-fund-trump-dismantling-1512614

Amnesty accuses Facebook of complicity in Vietnamese censorship

April 22, 2020

On 21 April, Reuters reported that Facebook has begun to significantly step up its censorship of “anti-state” posts in the country. This follows pressure from the authorities, including what the company suspects were deliberate restrictions placed on its local servers by state-owned telecommunications companies that caused Facebook to become unusable for periods of time. The next day Amnesty International demanded that Facebook reverses immediately its decision.  “The revelation that Facebook is caving to Viet Nam’s far-reaching demands for censorship is a devastating turning point for freedom of expression in Viet Nam and beyond,” said William Nee, Business and Human Rights Advisor at Amnesty International. “The Vietnamese authorities’ ruthless suppression of freedom of expression is nothing new, but Facebook’s shift in policy makes them complicit.

Facebook must base its content regulation on international human rights standards for freedom of expression, not on the arbitrary whims of a rights-abusing government. Facebook has a responsibility to respect freedom of expression by refusing to cooperate with these indefensible takedown requests.” The Vietnamese authorities have a long track record of characterizing legitimate criticism as “anti-state” and prosecuting human rights defenders for “conducting propaganda against the state.” The authorities have been actively suppressing online speech amid the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating repressive tactics in recent weeks.  “It is shocking that the Vietnamese authorities are further restricting its peoples’ access to information in the midst of a pandemic. The Vietnamese authorities are notorious for harassing peaceful critics and whistleblowers. This move will keep the world even more in the dark about what is really happening in Viet Nam,” said William Nee.

Facebook’s decision follows years of efforts by Vietnamese authorities to profoundly undermine freedom of expression online, during which they prosecuted an increasing number of peaceful government critics for their online activity and introduced a repressive cybersecurity law that requires technology companies to hand over potentially vast amounts of data, including personal information, and to censor users’ posts. “Facebook’s compliance with these demands sets a dangerous precedent. Governments around the world will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship. It does all tech firms a terrible disservice by making them vulnerable to the same type of pressure and harassment from repressive governments,” said William Nee…

In a report published last year, Amnesty International found that around 10% of Viet Nam’s prisoners of conscience – individuals jailed solely for peacefully exercising their human rights – were jailed in relation to their Facebook activity. In January 2020, the Vietnamese authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on social media, including Facebook and YouTube, in an attempt to silence public discussion of a high-profile land dispute in the village of Dong Tam, which has attracted persistent allegations of corruption and led to deadly clashes between security forces and villagers.  The crackdown has only intensified since the onset of COVID-19. Between January and mid-March, a total of 654 people were summoned to police stations across Viet Nam to attend “working sessions” with police related to their Facebook posts connected to the virus, among whom 146 were subjected to financial fines and the rest were forced to delete their posts. On 15 April, authorities introduced a sweeping new decree, 15/2020, which imposes new penalties on alleged social media content which falls foul of vague and arbitrary restrictions. The decree further empowers the government to force tech companies to comply with arbitrary censorship and surveillance measures.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/10/28-ngos-ask-eu-parliament-to-reject-cooperation-deal-with-vietnam-on-11-february/

Re Facebook and content moderation see also the Economist piece of 1 February 2020: https://www.economist.com/business/2020/01/30/facebook-unveils-details-of-its-content-oversight-board

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/viet-nam-facebook-cease-complicity-government-censorship/

Policy response by human rights to COVID-19: the Human Rights Foundation

April 5, 2020

Further in the series of posts on this topic: On 13-14 April 2020, the New York based Human Rights Foundation will host COVIDCon, a virtual Oslo Freedom Forum event focused on how tyranny sparked and is exploiting the novel coronavirus pandemic to crack down on civil liberties. For earlier posts: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/covid-19/

This two-day event, open to global audiences, will feature presentations and panels about the current pandemic and its relationship to state censorship, disinformation, surveillance, and the future of civil liberties. COVIDCon sessions will showcase the difference in the responses of authoritarian regimes and democratic governments to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Confirmed speakers include former Chinese prisoner of conscience Yang Jianli; Iranian journalist and human rights activist Masih Alinejad; Russian democracy advocate Garry Kasparov; recently expelled Wall Street Journal deputy China bureau chief Josh Chin; entrepreneur and angel investor Naval Ravikant; Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong; futurist and “After On” author Rob Reid; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum; Ideas Beyond Borders’ Melissa Chen; China-U.S. expert Kyle Bass; and others.

Day 1 of the conference will focus on how tyranny sparked the pandemic. Sessions will include:

  • Censorship in China: The Pandemic Spark
  • How Democracies and Dictatorships are Reacting to the Virus
  • China: Savior or Culprit?
  • Reporting on COVID-19: State Censorship and Surveillance
  • What the Pandemic has Revealed about Chinese Economic Dominance
  • The Increasing Risk of Synthetic Biology

Day 2 of the conference will focus on how tyranny exploits the pandemic. Sessions will include:

  • Iran’s Criminal Negligence: COVID-19’s Gateway to the Middle East
  • Pandemic Power Grab: State Abuse of Emergency Laws
  • Trampling on the Rule of Law and Undermining Public Health
  • Keeping Protest Movements Alive During The Pandemic
  • How the Pandemic Changes the Relationship Between Citizen, Technology, and State

REGISTER

https://mailchi.mp/dcbac9797509/authoritarian-regimes-ill-equipped-for-public-health-emergencies-287692?e=f80cec329e