World governments crack-down on social media opponents: Reports from Mexico, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Inida, UK, and the U.S.

Mar 29, 2017 | 0 comments

Editor’s note: The following includes reports from the Netizen project of Global Voices regarding government efforts to monitor, control, restrict and sometimes punish users of social media and the Internet.

In mid-February, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out a sweeping vision of the social network’s role in “bringing us all together as a global community.” It echoed a 2015 Facebook ad that promised, “the more we connect, the better it gets.”

More governments try to control cyberspace.

Of course, the ubiquitous connectedness to which Zuckerberg aspires can serve the interests of many different actors — including governments seeking to keep a clean, positive image online and to quiet their critics. Highlighted below are a few such examples from the first three months of 2017.

A man in Myanmar was sentenced to six months in prison for defaming State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Facebook. Activists from Myanmar are calling for amendments to section 66D of the Telecommunications Law, which criminalizes defamation. According to PEN Myanmar, 38 people have been charged under section 66D since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took power, among them human rights activists and journalists known for their critical commentary on the party.

In Mexico, the government is resorting to trickery in an effort to arrest social media users it objects to.  After January’s gas price hikes triggered public protests on major roadways and online, a select set of Twitter accounts began promoting illegal activities such as looting and theft, in what appeared to be an effort to influence conversations and delegitimize the protests. Most commonly, they inserted hashtag #SaqueaUnWalmart (“loot a Walmart”) into conversations bearing the #gasolinazo hashtag, which was widely used by protesters. These accounts also propagated images of people rioting, which turned out to be false (the photos actually depicted street riots in Egypt in 2011.)

By visualizing data from over 15k tweets associated with the protests, data scientists at the Jesuit University of Guadalajara observed that the #SaqueaUnWalmart hashtag interrupted the flow of conversations, seeking to associate #Gasolinazo with malicious intentions. Some of the accounts involved in these campaigns have been identified as bots or trolls who had already been linked to harassment and threats against journalists and social activists.

These observations, along with recent allegations of spyware used against researchers and public servants promoting a tax on soda (reported by the New York Times and analyzed by Citizen Lab) suggest an increasingly threatening environment for citizens seeking to advocate and express their views on matters of public interest in Mexico.

Palestinian journalist Sami al-Saai, a political reporter with the local and independent Al Fajer Al Jadeed TV station, was arrested by Palestinian Intelligence Services on February 2 in the West Bank and charged with ‘inciting sectarian strife‘ in Facebook posts. Despite having posted bail, he was held in Jericho Prison for 20 days, where he says he was forced to stand for very long periods of time, deprived of sleep, and injected with an unknown drug four times a day.

Al-Saai believes that he was actually arrested for sending reportson Palestinian political prisoners in Israel and the West Bank to Hamas, the militant movement that governs the Gaza Strip and is the main political rival to the nationalist Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority. Al-Saai suspects that these report were the pretext for his arrest.

Dengin Ceyhan, a Turkish pianist and supporter of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, was arrested in mid-February for social media posts that allegedly insulted President Erdogan. Ceyhan is in good company — Turkish Minute cited statistics from Turkey’s Ministry of Interior indicating that from August 2016 to January 2017, 1656 social media users were arrested “on suspicion of terrorist propaganda and insulting senior state officials on social media.” For regular updates on social media censorship and persecution of journalists by Turkish authorities, see the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Turkey Crackdown Chronicle.

In India, students push back against online harassment

University students in India rallied behind a female student facing online rape and death threats for standing up to the right-wing student group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi, which has ties to Hindu nationalist organizations. The student, Gurmehar Kaur, started the #StudentsAgainstABVP protest after ABVP protesters disrupted a conference on cultures of protest that was intended to feature activists supportive of the “Free Kashmir” movement. The protest is supportive of free speech on university campuses and in opposition to hateful messages, and has spread widely across India.

US civil liberties groups call for investigation of mobile searches by border patrol

US civil liberties organizations authored a joint letter urging high-ranking UN officials to investigate reports that US border officials are demanding that visitors give them access to their electronic devices, including the passwords to their online accounts, before being authorized to enter the country. The letter asserts that the practice violates US obligations under human rights treaties. “It is a violation of human rights to obtain at the order or elsewhere, by force or coercion, suspicionless access to a person’s digital life,” the letter argues. The ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Iranian American Council are among the signatories to the letter.

Hong Kong daily suffers cyberattacks, vandalism

Staff at the pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Pao Daily have reported physical and digital attacks on their work and homes to local police. In addition to multiple cyberattacks on the newspaper’s website on February 18 and 19, vandals believed to be associated with local organized crime attacked the home of a senior editor at Sing Pao, leaving his front door covered in red paint. The attacks indicate a divide among pro-Beijing leadership in Hong Kong.

Venezuela blocks more news websites, including CNN

The Spanish language version of the US-based news channel CNN, and its corresponding website, were blocked in Venezuela on February 15, after reporting on passport fraud allegations.

CNN is not alone — Mexico-based TV Azteca was also taken off the air on February 16. Since February 7, the Venezuelan news and public opinion website Maduradas has been inaccessible on a majority of ISPs (including government-controlled CANTV) in seven provinces in Venezuela since February 7. The site is known for its summaries of online responses to issues of public interest. In a public statement, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro called CNN an “instrument of war.”


Ukraine will censor websites that ‘undermine sovereignty’

Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy is preparing a list of websites that “undermine Ukrainian sovereignty” in an effort to uphold the country’s new information security doctrine. The policy appears to target the dissemination of pro-separatist and pro-Russian information. A statement from the presidential administration said the policy was introduced “with a view to counter the destructive information impact of Russia in conditions of hybrid war unleashed by it.”

Wanna blow the whistle in Tunisia? There’s a bill for that.

Tunisia’s assembly voted unanimously on February 22 in favor of a draft law that would protect the rights of whistleblowers denouncing corruption. The law also provides penalties for individuals seeking to reveal the identities of anonymous whistleblowers.

Why are Russian regulators eyeing Telegram?

Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor held a closed door meeting with the authors of several popular channels on the messaging app Telegram. While it remains unclear what they discussed, a critic of Roskomnadzor wrote on his channel that officials were seeking information about the service in order to find new content to ban. The meeting was reportedly organized by the head media liaison for the All-Russia People’s Front, a political movement created by Vladimir Putin in 2011.

UK Parliament zeroes in on algorithms

The UK Parliament Science and Technology Committee launched a new inquiry into the use of algorithms in public and business decision making. “How an algorithm is formulated, its scope for error or correction, the impact it may have on an individual—and their ability to understand or challenge that decision—are increasingly relevant questions,” said the Committee in its announcement. Submissions on this topic may be sent to the committee through April 21.


Source: Global Voices Netizen Reports,


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