Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers the Myanmar protests, Spanish gag law reactions, new encryption laws, and more.
New Report Highlights Major Problems in Freedom of Expression
This week, the New America Foundation released the results of their report, Ranking Digital Rights, which assesses 65 global tech and mobile firms on how they handle user privacy and freedom of expression. According to the report, even the best-ranking company failed by standard measures, revealing an obvious gap in how users believe their data is used and how it is actually used. Tech firms including US giants Facebook, Google and Microsoft, Europe’s top mobile companies Vodafone and Orange, China’s Tencent, and South Korea’s Daum Kakao are among those surveyed in the report, according to The Guardian. The study revealed that all of the firms fail to offer their users basic disclosures about privacy and censorship. In the assessment, companies were given an aggregate percentage score out of 100, which encapsulated their performance on areas such as data storing and privacy. No single firm, mobile or web-based, scored higher than Google, which itself received 65%. Ranking second and third to Google were Yahoo and Microsoft, with Chinese Tencent, Russian Mail.Ru, and UAE-based Etisalat receiving the three lowest scores. Rebecca MacKinnon, who heads the project, warns companies that improvement in these areas is needed to succeed in a global market. “Part of the problem is that this is a new world with the internet, and we are so dependent on these companies that we really need them to get it right. And they have a lot of work to do,” says MacKinnon.
Three Arrested in Myanmar after Exercising Freedom of Expression Online
The Guardian reported this week on three separate arrests of individuals in Myanmar over Facebook posts deemed offensive to the government. The arrests are part of a largescale government crackdown on freedom of expression in the country leading up to the 2015 general elections. Although internet penetration is still slow in Myanmar, Facebook has quickly become the nation’s most popular and heavily-trafficked site. In recent weeks, the government has separately detained Chaw Sandi Tun, Patrick Kum Jaa Lee, and Maung Saungkha for posting content that made references to or innuendos about the government or the way it is run. Officials have been quick to defend the arrests, including Information Minister Ye Htut, who said “people can criticize or comment freely, but nobody can insult someone’s dignity, religion or nationality.” An array of human rights groups, including watchdog Amnesty International have publicly condemned the arrests, warning that an escalating crackdown of free speech leading up to the election may have adverse effects on the democratic outcomes. While the arrests are the first of their kind in Myanmar, many other countries around the world see social media-based freedom of expression limitations on a regular basis.
Reuters Investigation Uncovers Worldwide Chinese Radio Web
On November 2, Reuters reported on its investigation into a global scheme led by state-run China Radio International (CRI) to disseminate pro-China event reporting across four continents. The investigation was sparked by the South China Sea events of August, wherein the Chinese government was heavily criticized for building artificial islands in the area. One report of the events however, stood out for being distinctly non-critical of the Chinese government’s actions. WCRW, located outside Washington, D.C., reported on the August events by methodologically positioning fault for the events on ‘external forces,’ not on the Chinese government. Upon investigation, Reuters discovered that WCRW is one of 33 radio stations in 14 countries through which Beijing is broadcasting “China-friendly” news and programming in a way that obscures its majority shareholder, CRI. Many of these stations, located everywhere from Finland to Nepal, broadcast content created by CRI or by companies it controls in the United States, Australia, and Europe. The content is carefully scripted, according to Reuters, “with the treatment of sensitive topics adhering strictly to the government line.”
Iconic Serbian News Agency Shut Down
On Wednesday, November 4, Serbian government officials announced that they have shut down Tanjug, once the most popular news outlet in socialist Yugoslavia, after two failed attempts at privatization, The Daily Star reports. Tanjug, short for the Telegraphic Agency of the New Yugoslavia, was one of 38 state-owned media outlets listed for sale in a campaign to end state-ownership in Serbia. The Serbian government first tried to sell the company in August of 2015, at a starting price of €761,000. When Tanjug received zero bids, it was put back up for sale in October, this time for €380,467, but still did not attract any buyers. According to a statement by government officials, the “law regulating operations of the Public Enterprise Tanjug” expired on October 31. Tanjug, along with the other 37 media outlets listed for sale, are among the state assets the Serbian government is looking to offload in order to “reduce its footprint on the economy and further Belgrade’s EU bid.” In its prime, as the face of the socialist Yugoslavian federation, Tanjug employed a staff of more than 2,000 people.
New UK Bill Claims Encryption Laws, Data Storage
On November 4, British MPs unveiled the Investigatory Powers Bill, new legislature that contains a list of changes to internet, privacy, and telecom operations. At the top of the list of contentious topics are new encryption laws, which will no longer allow tech companies such as Apple and Google to offer encryption so advanced that even the companies themselves cannot decipher it. According to the bill, the reason for the new rule is purely for safety measures – companies must be able to decipher their own encryption in the event that communications is needed by police for a warrant. In the past, tech companies have advertised their inability to decrypt data stores on their own devices as a selling point for user privacy. Also on the laundry list of new rules imposed by the bill are internet data retention, warrants for surveillance, and a formalized Wilson Doctrine. Home Secretary Theresa May announced this week that internet service providers (ISPs) will be required to store the details of every website visited by UK netizens for 12 months. May explains that the law will concern only the front page of websites, not individual pages or searched content. The bill has already faced considerable criticism from MPs and internet activists, and is expected to continue to be scrutinized heavily as it goes through parliament.
Media Watchdogs Urge Spanish Government to Repeal Gag Law
This week, a group of four international media and journalists’ rights advocacy organizations implored Spanish officials to repeal the public security law, called the ‘gag law,’ after the country’s general election on December 20. Among a list of restrictions to opposition sentiments, the law allows authorities to fine citizens, journalists, and media organizations for distributing unauthorized images of police. The law has been controversial since its inception and has already resulted in the arrests of a number of Spanish citizens. It was passed in July of this year by the ruling conservative Popular Party after protests hit Spain amid the financial crisis, The New York Times reports. The International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Federation of Journalists, and the Platform in Defense of Free Expression said in a statement that the law will pose a significant threat to the free flow of information if it continues. The CPJ in particular has been publically critical of the gag law since the law’s inception, reducing it to an effort by the Spanish Parliament to “maintain its hold on power.” In addition to media restrictions, the gag law sets fines for protests outside the Spanish Parliament and allows illegal migrants entering Spain’s North African enclaves to be expelled.