Posts Tagged ‘freedom of expression’

25 March: IACHR Hearing on Internet Content Moderation

March 22, 2021

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is in the middle of its 179th Period of Sessions, which is being held again in an all-virtual format.  The IACHR has called a hearing on its own initiative (an ex officio hearing) on the important topic of content moderation: “Internet content moderation and freedom of expression in the Americas”, scheduled for Thursday 25 March 2021, from 2-3:30pm ET.

For some of my earlier posts on this topic, see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/content-moderation/

To register to watch the virtual hearing on Internet Content Moderation, visit: https://cidh-org.zoom.us/j/85942567179?pwd=SWY1cTVTOUp6MmhyTjR6bFNPZTV1Zz09

Event: IACHR Hearing on Internet Content Moderation and the Freedom of Expression in the Americas

Profile of Muay: A Laotian Woman Human Rights Defender

March 18, 2021

On 17 a blog post in hrcessex by Sarah Mui profiles Muay: “A Fierce Woman Human Rights Defender”

Houayheung (“Muay”) Xayabouly is not only a mother, small business owner and the primary breadwinner of her family, but shehas also been breaking down stereotypical gender roles by being a fierce human rights defender and environmental activist in Laos.She is viewed as a public figure among her community because of her work to shed light onto the countless human rights violations that she and fellow Lao people have endured at the hands of the national government. In 2019, the Lao government decided to make an example out of Muay and unjustly sentenced her to five years in prison, for which she was stripped of all fair trial guarantees. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I urge all who read this to remember her name, learn her fight and spread awareness to demand that all charges be dropped and Muay be set free.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundatio

In 2017, Muay began raising awareness on social media over the excessive tolls that she along with other people in her community were being charged when crossing a bridge on the border of Laos and Thailand. The cost of the toll was equivalent to several meals, but Lao people relied on it to travel to and from work each day, including Muay herself. It turned out that the Lao government had given the private international company, Duangdee, the concession to charge the toll when it constructed the bridge in the first place. This concession left her community in an impossible situation where they were perpetually indebted to this private company who took advantage of the bridge’s necessity. Muay’s video about the toll deeply resonated with the Lao people, who agreed that the government benefited from the financial relationship with Duangdee. This made Muay realize the importance of using her voice to speak up for Lao people, and it was then that she made the decision to dedicate her life to fighting for them.   

The Lao government did nothing in response to their people’s outcry over the excessive tolls, but rather chose to focus attention on finding ways to intimidate Muay. Soon after the video went viral, the police were sent to her location to warn her to not criticize it.

In 2018, Muay challenged the Lao government over the corrupt hiring practices of public sector and governmental positions in that they were being appointed on the condition of bribes instead of through proper hiring procedures. This was quite personal for Muay because her own brother had been deeply impacted by this practice. He had always aspired to become a police officer but was cheated out of money and the position of his dreams due to these dishonorable practices. Muay’s video discussing the topic received over 320,000 views as of July last year. 

Soon after Muay’s widely viewed video, she was fired from her job as a tour guide for “unknown” reasons other than the fact her employer had been mysteriously pressured to do so. 

Muay was not going to let the government deter her from helping Lao people. Later that year, she decided to create a school for Lao children to address the dire inequalities that they faced in accessing education. The current practice was for parents to pay a bribe to secure a spot for their children, otherwise they could not provide them an education. She started multiple fundraisers to accomplish this goal, including selling shirts that said, “I don’t want to buy government positions,” referencing the Lao government’s corrupt hiring practices in addition to holding a concert featuring a number of local performers. 

Again, instead of actually listening to the suffering of its people, the government chose to continue to try to intimidate Muay by shutting down the fundraising concert and prohibiting the selling of shirts. 

The year 2018 was also troubling because that summer a dam collapsed in Attapeu Province, which led to numerous deaths, disappearances and displacements of Lao people. The government purportedly underreported the impact of the collapse and restricted access to the scene by the media and independent aid organizations. Muay decided to take matters into her own hands and post her own videos of the disaster and its significant effect on the community. 

In response to the shocking video, Muay was called to the police station and was told to cease all criticism of the Lao government. 

Around the same time, Muay had learned that donations for the impacted families of the dam collapse were being sold by Lao police for their own monetary gain. She could not allow her community to suffer so she started collecting donations for them herself. She documented and shared this all on social media.

Within a few days, the Lao government issued a press statement advising the public against reading “unofficial news” about the collapse. 

In the autumn of 2019, the Lao people who lived close to the dam were again harmed after a tropical storm caused major flooding, leaving over 100,000 displaced from their homes. Again, disturbed by the Lao government’s indifference towards its people, Muay posted another video calling the government out for its slow response and its lack of preventative measures which could have mitigated the storm’s impact.  

Around the same time, the Lao government sent police to arrest Muay without a warrant while she was dining at a restaurant. She tried to post a video about what had happened, but she was forced to delete it. She was then placed in pre-trial detention long before her hearing and was denied an impartial lawyer and the ability to challenge her detention. She was subject to repeated long interrogations where she was coerced to confess to “spreading propaganda against the Lao government.” She was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison, for which she visitation has been limited and closely monitored. She has not been able to see her young daughter but a handful of times and international NGOs have been completely barred.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundation

The Lao Government is Using Muay as an Example to Silence Dissent 

Muay is a strong and dedicated woman human rights defender and environmental activist who has fought endlessly for her community. Instead of taking accountability and listening to the suffering of its people, the Lao government has instead chosen to turn a blind eye to its human rights obligations and punish Muay for her significant contributions to her country. Until now, Muay’s story has only been made available by a few NGOs working hard to shed light onto her fervent advocacy and now wrongful detention. To spread the word about her fight, please share this blog, follow #FreeMuay and visit this link to demand that Muay be set free!

About the Author: Sarah Mui is an American human rights lawyer currently in the LLM for International Human Rights Law program at the University of Essex. She is also a research assistant with the Manushya Foundation located in Bangkok. Sarah hopes to work in the field women’s rights upon graduation. 

https://hrcessex.wordpress.com/2021/03/17/muay-a-fierce-woman-human-rights-defender/

Clooney Foundation for Justice to observe trial of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan

March 2, 2021

On 25 February, 2021 the Clooney Foundation for Justice announced it will monitor the trial of award-winning Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who has been detained in Kashmir for over two and a half years and faces the death penalty if convicted. [See https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/15/trialwatch-finds-its-feet-in-2019/.

Sultan is a journalist who wrote stories about human rights and political issues for the Kashmir Narrator. He has been imprisoned since his arrest in August 2018 and was only indicted 5 months later. He is now charged with supporting a terrorist group (the Hizbul Mujahideen) and conspiring to kill a police officer, and if convicted after trial, faces the death penalty. Press and human rights organizations believe the charges actually stem from Sultan’s coverage of a Kashmiri militant killed by Indian security forces, whose killing set off anti-government demonstrations in Kashmir in July 2016. The indictment cites Sultan’s social media posts and possession of letter pads of the Hizbul Mujahideen in his home as evidence of his involvement with the banned group. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), after CPJ called for Sultan’s release in The Washington Post, the Jammu and Kashmir police responded on Twitter that Sultan was not being held for his work but for “hatching a criminal conspiracy, harbouring and supporting terrorists who martyred a police constable.”

Sultan, who has received the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from the American National Press Club in 2019, featured in TIME magazine’s 10 ‘Most Urgent’ cases of threats to press freedom around the world last year.

Sultan’s trial is restarting after multiple delays by the State, including absences by key prosecution witnesses,and again afterthe2 019 revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. He is one of a number of journalists in Kashmir who appear to have been detained, investigated, and/or prosecuted in connection with their journalistic activities under Indian counterterrorism and related laws. Detained for over two and a half years in Kashmir Central Jail, where COVID cases have been mounting since the summer of 2020, Sultan’s next bail hearing is scheduled for February 26, 2021. The Clooney Foundation for Justice calls on the authorities to ensure that Sultan’s bail hearing is conducted in accordance with international human rights law and any proceedings against him respect his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression.

https://thewire.in/media/clooney-foundation-to-monitor-trial-of-kashmiri-journalist-detained-for-over-2-years

Journalists on the ground are often the real heroes

February 18, 2021

Janine di Giovanni, Senior Fellow at Yale University, wrote on 9 February 2021 in iwpr.net/ a piece “The real heroes are the journalists on the ground, fighting to bring truth to light”

Based on her many years of reporting in North Africa and the Middle East and observing revolution after revolution she published the book: The Morning They Came for Us. Here she looks back on the Arab spring and the current situation. Journalists are indeed among the most targeted as also shown by the Digest for Human Rights Laureates recently launched by THF: there are some 450 journalists and media workers among the laureates [see:https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates].

Spotlight

Back in 2011, it was a revelation to see thousands of people marching for freedom. Each demonstration, each revolution was different but there were common themes. The main rallying cry from the crowds in Tahrir Square or Ben Ghazi or Homs or Aleppo or Tunis was always the same: we want our freedom.

It was exhilarating. Crowds were rising up against decades of dictatorships, of corruption, voicing their frustration at the lack of opportunity. What they wanted was the right to speak and write and live in accordance with their personal liberties. 

As someone who grew up first in North America, later in the UK and France, freedom of speech was a tenet of human rights I took for granted. Not so for my colleagues in Tunis who had to work underground with white-hat hackers like Anonymous to overthrow Ben Ali’s ministry of information and get their messages out. Not so for my Syrian colleagues in Aleppo or Damascus who risked everything to plead for freedom, and if they were caught, were thrown into prison and tortured or killed. Or my Egyptian friends who were tortured in prison and stripped of all rights. 

What the authorities want to say is, “It’s dangerous to speak out”. The number of the missing in Syria, the number of imprisoned in Egypt is enormous: many of them are our comrades and colleagues who tried to express and explain what was happening. These activists and journalists are what their repressive governments say is a threat to “national security”. 

Ten years on, what have we learned? Egypt under General Sisi remains even more repressed and dangerous for journalists than ever. The proportions of journalists attacked in 2020 as opposed to ten years ago is shocking:  according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 27 journalists are imprisoned, two murdered and one missing. 

This includes Aamar Abdelmonem, a freelancer, imprisoned in December 2020 on false charges, denied medication in prison (he is diabetic) and his eyeglasses. When I read about the cases of my colleagues who are incarcerated for simply telling the truth, I realize how lucky I am to live in a society where I can write what I choose. 

Always, when I think of press freedom I think of my colleague Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by henchmen under the order of Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Jamal’s work is not over – it lives on in the spirit of every reporter working to bring truth to light. They are not only journalists but also lawyers, human rights defenders, members of civil society. You might not hear about them – because they are working quietly but with great precision and care. They are my heroes.

As an international journalist, I am forever grateful to the journalists working under the radar in these countries – the ones who risked arrest to meet with me or speak with me or share their experiences or notes, the ones who came to my hotel in Cairo, risking everything, the ones who met me in Damascus cafes under the eyes of the mukhabarat, then saw the security guards and had to flee. The ones on the ground working when the international press cannot. 

They are our heroes, our inspiration and above all, our colleagues. We must not forget them – and we must do everything in our power to protect them. Part of the reason I am proud to be a part of the IWPR international board is to spread the word of the excellent work that is done on the ground by my colleagues. In the words of the former assistant secretary general for human rights at the United Nations, Andrew Gilmour, we are living in times when the pushback to human rights has never been greater. Which means those of us who can raise our voices louder to protect our friends on the ground must do so, with conviction and passion.

Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, IWPR international board member and the author of nine books. In 2020, the American Academy of Arts and Letters gave her their highest prize for non-fiction for her lifetime body of work, which largely focuses on human rights.

https://iwpr.net/global-voices/why-local-voices-matter

Prominent human rights defender Eren Keskin given six-year jail sentence in Turkey

February 16, 2021

I have been prosecuted many times and jailed for my thoughts. I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere’ – Eren Keskin tweeted after she was sentenced.

Amnesty International has condemned the sentencing of four Turkish human rights defenders on “terrorism-related” in a case involving Özgür Gündem – a daily newspaper that was closed down in 2016. Eren Keskin, a prominent human rights defender and lawyer in Turkey – was sentenced to six years in jail for supposed “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”. See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/BFDBB222-0FE0-32BF-ADD6-4D342A315C22

Zana Kaya, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief was sentenced to one year and 13 months in prison for “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation.” Özgür Gündem’s former publisher, Kemal Sancılı and the newspaper’s managing editor İnan Kızılkaya have been sentenced to six years and three months in prison for “being a member of an armed terrorist organisation” – the same sentence as Eren Keskin’s.

All four remain at liberty pending their appeals. This case is latest where anti-terrorism laws used to criminalise legitimate and peaceful activity in Turkey. Milena Buyum, Turkey Campaigner at Amnesty International said: “Today a human rights lawyer who has spoken out against injustice for more than three decades, has become the victim of injustice herself.

Eren Keskin has dedicated her life to defending the rights of women, prisoners and fought for justice for the families of the disappeared. This verdict is yet another shocking example of anti-terrorism laws being used to criminalise legitimate, peaceful activities.See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/12/martin-ennals-award-finalist-eren-keskin-honoured-in-ankara/

https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/turkey-human-rights-lawyer-eren-keskin-given-six-year-jail-sentence-terrorism

New Year, New Charges against Thai Protesters – the Lese-majesty law in Thailand

January 4, 2021

Thai authorities on 1 January 2021 made their 38th arrest of a pro-democracy activist in recent weeks under the country’s tough lèse majesté law as authorities crack down on the country’s unprecedented protest movement. That law, Section 112 of the Thai criminal code, forbids defamation of the king and provides for three to 15 years’ imprisonment for violations.The law had been dormant since King Maha Vajiralongkorn succeeded his father, King  Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016. The Thai government, though, is now using it to try to stamp out continuing protests calling for the government to resign, a new constitution and reform of the monarchy

Thailand’s authorities must stop targeting pro-democracy protesters with draconian legal action and instead enter into dialogue, according to the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of assembly, who warned the country risks sliding into violence. Clément Voule said he had written to the Thai government to express alarm at the use of the fierce lese-majesty law against dozens of protesters, including students as young as 16.

It is legitimate for people to start discussing where their country is going and what kind of future they want,” Voule said of the protests. “Stopping people from raising their legitimate concerns is not acceptable.

So far, 37 people face charges of insulting the monarchy for alleged offences ranging from wearing traditional dress deemed to be a parody of the royals to giving speeches arguing that the power and wealth of the king should be curbed.

Anti-government protesters flash a three-finger salute – a gesture used adopted by protesters from the Hunger Games films – as they gather in support of people detained under the lese-majesty law at a police station in Bangkok.
Anti-government protesters flash a three-finger salute – a gesture used adopted by protesters from the Hunger Games films – as they gather in support of people detained under the lese-majesty law at a police station in Bangkok. Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA

Prominent protest leaders face an unusually high number of charges. This includes the student activists Parit Chiwarak, also known as Penguin, (12 charges) and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul (six charges) and the human rights lawyer Anon Nampa (eight charges), who have given speeches calling for the power of the royals to be curbed.

The pro-democracy protest fundraiser Inthira Charoenpura
The pro-democracy protest fundraiser Inthira Charoenpura speaks from a stage outside Bang Khen police station in Bangkok. Photograph: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Protesters – who have faced various other charges over recent months, including sedition – declined to participate in a government reconciliation panel in November, rejecting it as an attempt to buy time. The recent cases come after months of demonstrations in which protesters have made unusually frank and public calls for reform to the monarchy.

Benja Apan, 21, one of 13 people facing charges over a demonstration outside the German embassy in Bangkok, said legal action was unlikely to deter protesters from coming out in the new year. “I actually think it will bring more people out, because it is not fair,” she said.

The human rights group Amnesty International has launched a campaign calling on PM Prayut Chan-o-cha to drop charges pressed on a number of activists for their role in the pro-democracy movement and to repeal, or at least amend, Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law. According to the campaign, at least 220 people, including minors, face criminal charges for relating to their actions in the pro-democracy movement. Activists are calling on government and monarchy reform, raising issues considered taboo and unprecedented in Thai society. Thailand must amend or repeal the repressive laws it is using to suppress peaceful assembly and the expression of critical and dissenting opinions.

Amnesty International is calling on people to take action and send a letter to the prime minister, calling on the Thai government to change their approach when handing the ongoing protests to protect human rights. Sample letter by AI’s campaign calls on Prayut to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally drop all criminal proceedings against protesters and others charged solely for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
  • Cease all other measures, including harassment, aimed at dissuading public participation in peaceful gatherings or silencing voices critical of the government and social issues
  • Amend or repeal legislation in order to ensure it conforms with Thailand’s international human rights obligations on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, and to train state officials to carry out their duties confirming to Thailand’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.

On Saturday 19 December 2020 Maya Taylor in The Thaiger had already reported that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has expressed shock and dismay at Thailand’s use of its strict lèse majesté law against a 16 year old pro-democracy activist. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani has called on Thailand to refrain from using the law against those exercising their right to freedom of speech, as she expressed alarm that a minor was being charged under the law. “It is extremely disappointing that after a period of 2 years without any cases, we are suddenly witnessing a large number of cases, and – shockingly – now also against a minor. We also remain concerned that other serious criminal charges are being filed against protesters engaged in peaceful protests in recent months, including charges of sedition and offences under the Computer Crime Act. Again, such charges have been filed against a minor, among others.

The UN Human Rights Committee has found that detention of individuals solely for exercising the right to freedom of expression or other human rights constitutes arbitrary arrest or detention. We also urge the government to amend the lèse majesté law and bring it into line with Article 19 of the ICCPR on the right to freedom of expression.”

Thailand’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has played down the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ criticisms over the kingdom’s enforcement of the Lese Majeste law.

See also in 2019: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/23/thailand-amnesty-and-un-rapporteur-agree-on-misuse-of-lese-majeste/

https://thethaiger.com/news/national/pro-democracy-movement-making-little-headway-monarchys-powers-remain-untouched

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/27/un-thailand-protesters-royal-insult-law-lese-majesty

https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/new-year-new-charges-thai-protesters-slapped-royal-defamation-charges

Writer Tran Duc Thach sentenced to 12 years in Vietnam

December 22, 2020

PEN America reported on 17 December 2020 that writer Tran Duc Thach was sentenced to 12 years in Vietnamese prison.

This picture taken and released by the Vietnam News Agency on 15 December 2020 shows Vietnamese writer Tran Duc Thach during his court trial in Nghe An province, as he was sentenced to 12 years in jail. -/Vietnam News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

Vietnamese writer Tran Duc Thach was convicted on charges of subversion under Article 109 of the country’s criminal code. He was arrested in April for Facebook posts criticizing corruption in government and human rights abuses in the country.

Poet, blogger, and human rights defender Tran Duc Thach was sentenced to 12 years in prison and three years probation. PEN America condemned the sentencing today as a repressive attack on free expression in the country. “This is a shocking and shameful outcome in a case that never should have been brought to trial in the first place. Thach should be celebrated for his civic engagement and advocacy, not subjected to mistreatment and imprisonment,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “This draconian sentence is another blatant violation of basic human rights and stifling of freedom of expression by the Vietnamese state in the name of national security. We call for his immediate and unconditional release.

Thach was initially arrested on April 23 for “activities against the people’s government.” Authorities reportedly used several Facebook posts he published criticizing government corruption and human rights violations as the primary implicating evidence. During the trial, provincial prosecutors claimed that Thach’s activism and writings “threatened social stability, encroached upon national independence and socialism, reduced people’s trust in the political institution of the state of Vietnam, and infringed upon national security and social safety and order.”

Thach is a prolific writer, whose work includes his 1988 novel Doi Ban Tu (Two Companions in Prison), his memoir Ho Chon Nguoi Am Anh (A Haunting Collective Grave), and his poetry collection Dieu Chua Thay (Things Still Untold). His writing commonly deals with human rights issues within Vietnam. Thach is also co-founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy, a civil society group that has been repeatedly targeted by authorities for their activism, with several members of the group apprehended in recent years. Thach has faced repeated harassment for his writing and his activism.

Thach is just one of those who has been targeted by the Vietnamese government’s heightened campaign against internet personalities, rights advocates, and independent journalists, a campaign that has become more pronounced in the run-up to the country’s 13th National Congress scheduled for January 2021. According to the NGO Vietnam Human Rights Defenders, there have been 17 subversion-based convictions this year alone while 31 individuals are currently held in pre-trial detention. Additionally, the government has leveraged the pandemic to arrest dissidents on the pretext of public security and stifling COVID-related disinformation.

PEN America has been active in advocating for other targeted or imprisoned Vietnamese writers, including Pham Doan TrangNguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (“Mother Mushroom”), and Nguyen Huu Vinh, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy. In PEN America’s 2019 Freedom to Write Index, released earlier this year, the organization noted that the lengthy imprisonment of bloggers Truong Duy Nhat and Ho Van Hai “demonstrate the longstanding risks associated with online expression in the country.”

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/12/01/facebook-and-youtube-are-allowing-themselves-to-become-tools-of-the-vietnamese-authorities-censorship-and-harassment/

Arab Spring: information technology platforms no longer support human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa

December 18, 2020

Jason Kelley in the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) of 17 December 2020 summarizes a joint statement by over 30 NGOs saying that the platform policies and content moderation procedures of the tech giants now too often lead to the silencing and erasure of critical voices from across the region. Arbitrary and non-transparent account suspension and removal of political and dissenting speech has become so frequent and systematic in the area that it cannot be dismissed as isolated incidents or the result of transitory errors in automated decision-making.

Young people protest in Morocco, 2011, photo by Magharebia

This year is the tenth anniversary of what became known as the “Arab Spring”, in which activists and citizens across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) used social media to document the conditions in which they lived, to push for political change and social justice, and to draw the world’s attention to their movement. For many, it was the first time they had seen how the Internet could have a role to play in pushing for human rights across the world. Emerging social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all basked in the reflected glory of press coverage that centered their part in the protests: often to the exclusion of those who were actually on the streets. The years after the uprisings failed to live up to the optimism of the time. Offline, the authoritarian backlash against the democratic protests has meant that many of those who fought for justice a decade ago, are still fighting now.

The letter asks for several concrete measures to ensure that users across the region are treated fairly and are able to express themselves freely:

  • Do not engage in arbitrary or unfair discrimination.
  • Invest in the regional expertise to develop and implement context-based content moderation decisions aligned with human rights frameworks.
  • Pay special attention to cases arising from war and conflict zones.
  • Preserve restricted content related to cases arising from war and conflict zones.
  • Go beyond public apologies for technical failures, and provide greater transparency, notice, and offer meaningful and timely appeals for users by implementing the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation.

Content moderation policies are not only critical to ensuring robust political debate. They are key to expanding and protecting human rights.  Ten years out from those powerful protests, it’s clear that authoritarian and repressive regimes will do everything in their power to stop free and open expression. Platforms have an obligation to note and act on the effects content moderation has on oppressed communities, in MENA and elsewhere. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/03/more-on-facebook-and-twitter-and-content-moderation/]

In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Founder of Facebook, wrote

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.

Instead, governments around the world have chosen authoritarianism, and platforms have contributed to the repression. It’s time for that to end.

Read the full letter demanding that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube stop silencing critical voices from the Middle East and North Africa, reproduced below:

17 December 2020

Open Letter to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube: Stop silencing critical voices from the Middle East and North Africa

Ten years ago today, 26-year old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest over injustice and state marginalization, igniting mass uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries across the Middle East and North Africa. 

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, we, the undersigned activists, journalists, and human rights organizations, have come together to voice our frustration and dismay at how platform policies and content moderation procedures all too often lead to the silencing and erasure of critical voices from marginalized and oppressed communities across the Middle East and North Africa.

The Arab Spring is historic for many reasons, and one of its outstanding legacies is how activists and citizens have used social media to push for political change and social justice, cementing the internet as an essential enabler of human rights in the digital age.   

Social media companies boast of the role they play in connecting people. As Mark Zuckerberg famously wrote in his 2012 Founder’s Letter

“By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.”

Zuckerberg’s prediction was wrong. Instead, more governments around the world have chosen authoritarianism, and platforms have contributed to their repression by making deals with oppressive heads of state; opening doors to dictators; and censoring key activists, journalists, and other changemakers throughout the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes at the behest of other governments:

  • Tunisia: In June 2020, Facebook permanently disabled more than 60 accounts of Tunisian activists, journalists, and musicians on scant evidence. While many were reinstated, thanks to the quick reaction from civil society groups, accounts of Tunisian artists and musicians still have not been restored. We sent a coalition letter to Facebook on the matter but we didn’t receive a public response.
  • Syria: In early 2020, Syrian activists launched a campaign to denounce Facebook’s decision to take down/disable thousands of anti-Assad accounts and pages that documented war crimes since 2011, under the pretext of removing terrorist content. Despite the appeal, a number of those accounts remain suspended. Similarly, Syrians have documented how YouTube is literally erasing their history.
  • Palestine: Palestinian activists and social media users have been campaigning since 2016 to raise awareness around social media companies’ censorial practices. In May 2020, at least 52 Facebook accounts of Palestinian activists and journalists were suspended, and more have since been restricted. Twitter suspended the account of a verified media agency, Quds News Network, reportedly on suspicion that the agency was linked to terrorist groups. Requests to Twitter to look into the matter have gone unanswered. Palestinian social media users have also expressed concern numerous times about discriminatory platform policies.
  • Egypt: In early October 2019, Twitter suspended en masse the accounts of Egyptian dissidents living in Egypt and across the diaspora, directly following the eruption of anti-Sisi protests in Egypt. Twitter suspended the account of one activist with over 350,000 followers in December 2017, and the account still has yet to be restored. The same activist’s Facebook account was also suspended in November 2017 and restored only after international intervention. YouTube removed his account earlier in 2007.

Examples such as these are far too numerous, and they contribute to the widely shared perception among activists and users in MENA and the Global South that these platforms do not care about them, and often fail to protect human rights defenders when concerns are raised.  

Arbitrary and non-transparent account suspension and removal of political and dissenting speech has become so frequent and systematic that they cannot be dismissed as isolated incidents or the result of transitory errors in automated decision-making. 

While Facebook and Twitter can be swift in responding to public outcry from activists or private advocacy by human rights organizations (particularly in the United States and Europe), in most cases responses to advocates in the MENA region leave much to be desired. End-users are frequently not informed of which rule they violated, and are not provided a means to appeal to a human moderator. 

Remedy and redress should not be a privilege reserved for those who have access to power or can make their voices heard. The status quo cannot continue. 

The MENA region has one of the world’s worst records on freedom of expression, and social media remains critical for helping people connect, organize, and document human rights violations and abuses. 

We urge you to not be complicit in censorship and erasure of oppressed communities’ narratives and histories, and we ask you to implement the following measures to ensure that users across the region are treated fairly and are able to express themselves freely:

  • Do not engage in arbitrary or unfair discrimination. Actively engage with local users, activists, human rights experts, academics, and civil society from the MENA region to review grievances. Regional political, social, cultural context(s) and nuances must be factored in when implementing, developing, and revising policies, products and services. 
  • Invest in the necessary local and regional expertise to develop and implement context-based content moderation decisions aligned with human rights frameworks in the MENA region.  A bare minimum would be to hire content moderators who understand the various and diverse dialects and spoken Arabic in the twenty-two Arab states. Those moderators should be provided with the support they need to do their job safely, healthily, and in consultation with their peers, including senior management.
  • Pay special attention to cases arising from war and conflict zones to ensure content moderation decisions do not unfairly target marginalized communities. For example, documentation of human rights abuses and violations is a legitimate activity distinct from disseminating or glorifying terrorist or extremist content. As noted in a recent letter to the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, more transparency is needed regarding definitions and moderation of terrorist and violent extremist (TVEC) content
  • Preserve restricted content related to cases arising from war and conflict zones that Facebook makes unavailable, as it could serve as evidence for victims and organizations seeking to hold perpetrators accountable. Ensure that such content is made available to international and national judicial authorities without undue delay.
  • Public apologies for technical errors are not sufficient when erroneous content moderation decisions are not changed. Companies must provide greater transparency, notice, and offer meaningful and timely appeals for users. The Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation, which Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube endorsed in 2019, offer a baseline set of guidelines that must be immediately implemented. 

Signed,

Access Now
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information — ANHRI
Article 19
Association for Progressive Communications — APC
Association Tunisienne de Prévention Positive
Avaaz
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
The Computational Propaganda Project
Daaarb — News — website
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor
Global Voices
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist and member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists Organization
Humena for Human Rights and Civic Engagement
IFEX
Ilam- Media Center For Arab Palestinians In Israel
ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies
Initiative Mawjoudin pour l’égalité
Iraqi Network for Social Media – INSMnetwork
I WATCH Organisation (Transparency International — Tunisia)
Khaled Elbalshy – Daaarb website – Editor in Chief
Mahmoud Ghazayel, Independent
Marlena Wisniak, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law
Masaar — Technology and Law Community
Michael Karanicolas, Wikimedia/Yale Law School Initiative on Intermediaries and Information
Mohamed Suliman, Internet activist
My.Kali magazine — Middle East and North Africa
Palestine Digital Rights Coalition (PDRC)
The Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy
Pen Iraq
Quds News Network
Ranking Digital Rights
Rima Sghaier, Independent
Sada Social Center
Skyline International for Human Rights
SMEX
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
Taraaz
Temi Lasade-Anderson, Digital Action
WITNESS
Vigilance Association for Democracy and the Civic State — Tunisia
7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/12/decade-after-arab-spring-platforms-have-turned-their-backs-critical-voices-middle

Legal fund in Malaysia to protect freedom of expression of human rights defenders

December 10, 2020

Centre for Independent Journalism executive director Wathshlah Naidu said the fund will be financed by a number of international groups. (Facebook pic)

Imran Ariff – on 9 December 2020 reports that a coalition of NGOs has joined forces to launch a legal defence fund to protect individuals who speak out on issues of human rights. This is to ensure their freedom of expression is not suppressed. Organised by the CSO cluster on Freedom of Expression (FOE), the fund is the first of its kind in Malaysia. It is currently being financed by a number of international groups which have funded similar overseas initiatives, including hosting crowdfunding efforts

At a press conference to announce the launch, Centre for Independent Journalism executive director Wathshlah Naidu said the fund comes at an important time as she believes the government has allowed the reform agenda to “take a backseat” to prioritise its own “political survival at all costs”.

She added that “what we have seen for the last eight to nine months is a government that is focused primarily on initiating all efforts to silence dissent or those who are critical and completely shutdown alternate discourses or narratives that challenge or question their positions and policies.”

The fund will cover legal fees and other expenses incurred by human rights defenders and members of the public facing investigation or prosecution due to them exercising their right to free speech.

Applications will go to a committee which will rule on the eligibility of the individuals and decide on the amount of assistance that needed to be meted out..

In addition to the fund, the CSO cluster called for the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act to be repealed and for the Finas Act 1981, Film Censorship Act 2002 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 to be reviewed.

They said these legal reforms will allow for greater freedom of expression across various mediums. These will allow the public to better hold the government accountable for their actions and policies.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/23/zambian-ngo-establishes-fund-to-assist-human-rights-defenders/

https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2020/12/09/legal-fund-to-protect-freedom-of-expression-of-human-rights-defenders/

Virtual Side Event on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Academic Freedom today 9:00-10:00 EST in New York

October 21, 2020

Co-organizers:

●UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

●Permanent Mission of Finland to the UN

●Permanent Mission of the State of Qatar to the UN

●Open Society Foundations’ Education Program

●Scholars at Risk

Context: On Friday 23 October 2020 the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly will consider the report on academic freedom presented by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The report focuses on the ways in which the freedom of opinion and expression protect and promote academic freedom, and the special role played by academics and academic institutions in democratic society when assured of institutional autonomy and self-governance. Without academic freedom, societies lose their capacity for self-reflection, for knowledge generation and for a constant search for improvements of people’s lives and social conditions. Drawing on examples from all regions of the world, the report highlights the repression and harassment of scholars and students, unlawful restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression that interfere with research, teaching, debate and discussion by the academic community in their institutions or in other fora, and various measures, from funding of research to hiring of professors and administrators, that are used to erode and attack the autonomy of academic institutions.The report provides clear guidance on the scope of academic freedom, recognizing that it is protected by a wide range of human rights norms and principles, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It encourages individuals and organizations to articulate their claims as violations of academic freedom, and concludes with a set of recommendations to States, academic institutions and civil society. The side event is aimed at discussing how the report’s findings and recommendations can be used to ensure the realization of the freedom of opinion and expression to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers as an integral aspect of academic freedom and enhance the ability of academics and institutions to contribute to democracy and development around the world.Objectives

This side event will provide a forum to discuss the challenges to academic freedom, including social harassment and political repression of scholars, students, and institutions around the globe, as well as legal protections offered by international human rights law, including in particular the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and how the report’s analysis and recommendations can be used to protect the freedom of opinion and expression aspects of academic freedom worldwide.Modalities.

The one-hour moderated discussion will have the following format:

Opening remarks: H.E. Sheikha Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al-ThaniPermanent Representative of Qatar to the United Nations and H.E. Juan Ramon de la Fuente Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations

Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Presentation of the main findings and recommendations of the report Prof. David Kaye, former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Panel discussion:

●Ms. Camilla Croso, Director of the Education Program of the Open Society Foundations, will highlight the role of academic freedom and its importance in advancing open and democratic societies

●Dr. Maleiha Malik, Executive Director, Protection of Education in Insecurity and Conflict, Education Above All Foundation, will discuss the particular challenges to academic freedom in countries affected by conflict

●Mr. Robert Quinn, founding Executive Director of the Scholars at Risk Network, will describe some current legal challenges and responses to pressures on academic freedom around the world

Concluding remarks: Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur.