Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers internet access in Cuba, telecom blackouts in the Congo, Iranian hackers, and more.
CONGO HOLDS ELECTIONS UNDER TELECOM BLACKOUT, FRANCE 24
On March 19, Congo’s Interior Minister, Raymond Mboulou, urged telecommunication companies to shut off telephone, internet, and SMS services for 48 hours. The shutdown was declared for “reasons of security and national safety” amidst Congo’s contentious presidential elections. Incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso aims to prolong his 32-year rule and defeat his eight rivals, describing Election Day as a “penalty kick and then victory.” In October 2015, public referendums removed a two-term limit and 70-year age limit for the presidency, allowing Nguesso to continue his political career. The blackout still remained in effect on March 22 in order to prevent “illegal” reporting of election results, according to Mboulou.
According to a new analysis published on March 18 by The Associated Press, The Obama administration has set a record for censoring or denying access to government files requested under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The government received a record 714,231 requests in 2015, yet it censored or fully denied access to a record 39% of these requests. “This disappointing track record is hardly the mark of an administration that was supposed to be the most transparent in history,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who had co-sponsored legislation to improve the Freedom of Information law. The White House published different statistics by excluding instances when it could not find records, a person refused to pay for copies, or the request was deemed improper. “When it comes to our record on transparency, we have a lot to be proud of,” White House spokesman John Earnest told reporters. However, AP chief executive Gary Pruitt is concerned about the future of freedom of information in America. “The systems created to give citizens information about their government are badly broken and getting worse all the time,” Pruitt wrote in a column published on March 13, 2015.
On March 16, Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior ordered security guards to remove staff from Al-Baghdadia’s offices in 16 Iraqi cities. The Iraqi Commission of Media and Communications, Iraq’s media regulator, revoked Al-Baghdadia’s license due to incendiary content that promotes “terrorist organizations” and uses a “sectarian tone.” Although the channel is pro-Sunni, Abdel Hamed al-Saeh, director of Al-Baghdadia TV’s London office, denies that the channel incites violence and believes the channel is being shut down due to its show “9 o’clock,” which exposes corruption. As of March 22, the channel’s website is up and running, but according to the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, it cannot be accessed inside Iraq. Al-Baghdadia has been temporarily shut down multiple times in the past, such as in 2010 after broadcasting demands of gunmen who attacked a church in Baghdad. The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned Iraq’s decision and call on the Iraqi Commission of Media and Communications to restore Al-Baghdadia’s license. “The Iraqi government cannot muzzle its critics every time there is a political conflict. Authorities should respect citizens’ right to diverse perspectives,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Coordinator Sherif Mansour said.
FOI BRAVADO LIVE, INQUIRER.NET
During the second Philippine presidential debate on March 20, all four candidates expressed staunch support for the Freedom of Information bill. The bill has been approved by the Senate, but held up in the House of Representatives. Senator Grace Poe, who is running for president, supported the bill while in the Senate and promised that if she were elected she would not even wait for the bill to pass in the House and would issue an executive order enforcing transparent governance. The other three candidates, Vice President Jejomar Binay, Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, and former interior secretary Mar Roxas, all supported the bill with similar vigor. This anti-corruption rhetoric is not new in the Philippines though; during President Aquino’s campaign in 2010 he vowed to make the FOI bill a priority as well. He has since avoided the issue and in 2011 told Southeast Asian business leaders, “You know, having a freedom of information act sounds so good and noble, but at the same time—I think you’ll notice that here in this country— there’s a tendency of getting information and not really utilizing it for the proper purposes.”
During his historic trip to Cuba, President Obama made several comments about information technology and internet transparency. According to the World Bank, only about 30% of Cubans have internet access, and it is tightly censored. In a speech on March 22, Obama suggested that Cuba improve internet access and called the internet, “one of the greatest engines of growth in human history.” During an event the day before, Obama announced that American companies such as Cisco and Stripe will partner with Cuba to help train Cuban students in IT skills and promote business online. Google is also joining the effort by providing internet-connected Chromebooks to a museum in Havana and pledging to continue to assist Cuba expand internet access. Google operates in Cuba through Jigsaw, a unit that aims to “to protect vulnerable populations and defend against the world’s most challenging security threats.” However, there are questions about the US’s ability to actually influence Cuban internet accessibility and policy due to oppression of free speech in Cuba. Although Obama did not directly address Cuban censorship, he suggested to President Castro, “you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”
On March 19, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with China’s propaganda chief, Lin Yunshan, while in Beijing for an economic forum. Facebook, along with other Western social media sites, are banned in China due to increasingly harsh censorship. Zuckerberg has long sought to open Facebook in China, as the country has 668 million internet users. Thus far, it seems that these efforts have proven futile as China attempts to regulate internet globally through a “governance system.” According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Yunshan hopes that Facebook can share its experience with Chinese enterprises to help, “internet development better benefit the people of all countries.”
France’s data protection unit, CNIL, is fining Google $112,000 for violating European Right to Be Forgotten agreements. In 2014, Europe’s highest court established that Google and other search engines must delete links to information about residents of European countries upon requests. Initially, Google argued that under the ruling it would only be required to censor links in a country-specific search engine like Google.fr, but it would still be accessible on other Google sites such as Google.com. Earlier this year, Google compromised and agreed to expand Europe’s right to be forgotten rule across all European search engines. On March 24, CNIL declared that this was insufficient and that Google must censor links regardless of geographic origin. The regulators of CNIL wrote, “The right to be delisted is derived from the right to privacy, which is a universally recognized fundamental right laid down in international human rights law. Only delisting on all of the search engine’s extensions, regardless of the extension used or the geographic origin of the person performing the search, can effectively uphold this right.” Global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer believes that global censorship is dangerous and said, “In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.”
On March 24 the US government indicted seven hackers allegedly linked to the Iranian government for targeting 46 financial institutions and a New York damn. According to the US Justice Department, the accused hackers broke into computers of major US banks such as the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, and the Bank of America. The hackers are accused of infecting people’s computers with malware at these institutions between 2011 and 2013, which led to millions of dollars in lost business. According to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “these attacks were relentless, they were systematic, and they were widespread.” In addition to banks, one of the alleged hackers gained access to the control system of the Bowman Avenue Dam, 30 km north of New York City. With access to the control system, the hacker would have been able to attack the city near the dam by controlling the gate, however the gate had been disconnected for maintenance at the time. The defendants have been identified, however it is highly unlikely that the Iranian government will extradite them. FBI Director James Comey said the goal of this indictment is to raise awareness of cyber-terrorism and to let cyber-criminals know that their activities can be traced. “The message of this case is that we will work together to shrink the world and impose costs on these people so that no matter where they are, we will reach them,” Comey said.