Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers India’s new open internet policy, the UK’s latest surveillance power bill, a Zimbabwe court’s strike-down of a defamation law, and more.
In response to protests and petitions against Facebook’s Free Basics app, India introduced a new open internet policy on February 8. At the end of December, India’s telecom regulator asked Reliance Communications to suspend the Free Basics app, Facebook’s initiative to provide free basic internet services in developing countries. Through Free Basics users can access roughly 80 sites, including the BBC, Wikipedia, and Facebook, on their smartphones without a data plan. Several protesters and advocacy groups have spoken out against the app, claiming that it violates net neutrality. India’s new law bans zero-rating, a practice that allows mobile network operators and internet service providers to give preferential treatment to certain apps and websites. This new policy blocks Free Basics in India, although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he remains, “committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world.” India’s new law is stronger than the US’s Federal Communications Commission regulation, which does not explicitly ban zero-rating. Malavika Jayaram, executive director of the Digital Asia Hub, applauded the new law, but cautioned that India has a lot of progress to make on internet connectivity. “This is a victory for a broad movement that included policy experts as well as grassroots activists,” Jayaram said. “But this is not the end of the fight, because it does not answer the larger question of how to connect India’s unconnected population to the entire internet, not just a select portion of it. That must be the focus moving forward.”
On February 9, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament published its Report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, introduced in November 2015, is now subject to scrutiny by the Parliament. On February 1, the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament criticized the draft bill’s lack of clarity, especially on the issue of encryption. The latest report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) addresses a wider range of issues including privacy, hacking, and government intrusion. One of the aims of the bill is to close “capability gaps” for intelligence agencies and police forces, however the ISC believes the bill lacks clear justification for its intrusive measures. In a press statement released on February 9 alongside its report, the ISC argues, “The issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, however it has been evident that even those working on the legislation have not always been clear as to what the provisions are intended to achieve. The draft Bill appears to have suffered from a lack of sufficient time and preparation.” The bill faces a short timetable, because the current emergency surveillance legislation, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act of 2014, is set to expire at the end of this year. Another committee is expected to release its report on the draft bill later this week.
On February 3, Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court struck down a criminal defamation law that negatively impacted journalists for over a decade. The Chronicle lauded the court for striking down the law, writing, in an editorial, “The piece of legislation was outdated and uncivilised as it criminalised the practice of journalism and we agree with the full bench of the highest court in the land that criminal defamation has no place in a modern society.” The Media Institute of Southern Africa brought the case to court, arguing that the law was unconstitutional and inconsistent with media freedoms outlined in the new constitution. The head of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Nhlanhla Ngwenya, applauds the victory but also cautions that there is still much work to be done to ensure free journalism in Zimbabwe. “It is a small victory in the sense that there are still a lot of laws which can be used to criminalize the profession of journalism,” said Ngwenya. “There is still a litany of laws that Zimbabwe still needs to fight; but, having said that, we are coming from [leaving] a period where criminal defamation was now the preferred law that members of the ruling elite were now using against journalists. They were wantonly and recklessly using the law where they felt the stories were quite unpalatable.”
On February 4, Israel’s Chief Military Censor Col. Ariella Ben-Avraham requested that 30 bloggers and Facebook page administrators submit military and security-related reports to the censor for review prior to publication. Previously, censors mainly targeted major media sources. The censor claims that examining independent Facebook pages and blogs is necessary for maintaining national security in the internet age, and stresses that they are only evaluating pages listed as public. Ben-Avraham stated, “Let it be made very clear that these are not private profiles. They are all public profiles that define themselves as ‘media’ and are open to public scrutiny.” Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the media reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, criticized the new expansion of military censorship. She said, “On the face of it, it looks like adding insult to injury: Not only do the defense regulations constitute an anti-democratic arrangement that does not recognize the right to free expression, the censor is now asking to expand these bad arrangements to the digital world, instead of fixing them. It is unreasonable that the system chooses to expand [the censor’s] authority instead of using it in proper measure, under the perception that the world of 2016 can continue to operate in the reality of the beginning of the 20th century.”
On February 10, the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee began exploring a bill that would establish a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorists’ use of social media. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a similar bill after the San Bernardino shooting in December. Law enforcement officials reported that the perpetrators of this attack, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, communicated via private message on Facebook to coordinate the attack. After the attack, Malik pledged her support to ISIS on Facebook, which spurred fears about terrorist activity and social media. Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) pushed for legislation because he did not feel that the Obama Administration was dealing with the issue effectively. “There isn’t an overall plan,” said Poe. “The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the FBI all have different ideas on how foreign terrorist organizations should be combated online…just come up with a uniform plan so we’re all dealing with the same issues.” The White House disputes this accusation and insists that the government is working to combat terrorist threats on social media. “When the use of social media crosses the line from communication… into active terrorist plotting, that is deeply concerning and has to be addressed,” said Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “This is something that we have been focused on for some time.”
Index unveils 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards shortlist, INDEX
On February 9, Index released its shortlist for the 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards, featuring 20 individuals and organizations shortlisted from over 400 nominations worldwide. The list recognizes journalists, artists, campaigners, and writers fighting for freedom of expression. Many of the shortlisted nominees have faced death threats, prosecution, and imprisonment for their efforts. The finalists will be announced on April 13 and receive funding to support their work. Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, believes it is important to honor those fighting censorship globally. “Censorship is not something that happens ‘somewhere else’,” said Ginsberg. “It occurs on a daily basis in every country, in every part of the world. The shortlist honours those who are among the bravest and most creative in tackling such threats.”