Media law Roundup: September 4, 2015

Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a survey of this week’s latest in global media news. 

Azerbaijani Reporter Faces Harsh Sentence

On September 1, 2015, a court in Azerbaijan sentenced award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova to prison for seven and a half years. Ismayilova’s prominent career is largely defined by her investigations into corruption among Azerbaijani officials and government leaders—the  very work that is thought to have landed her with the sentence. Ismayilova and her supporters say that the charges, which include tax evasion, embezzlement, and abuse of power, are an act of reprisal. In explicit remarks aimed directly at President IIham Aliyev, Ismayilova spoke out against the charges against her, calling the Azerbaijani government an ‘oppressive machine,’ Voice of America reports. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency that oversees US civilian international media, denounced the ruling, calling Ismayilova’s sentence an ‘outrage.’ Ismayilova was first arrested in December 2014 for inciting her then-boyfriend to commit suicide, but charges were dropped after he admitted to being forced to testify against her. Ismayilova follows a long line of journalists and activists arrested in Azerbaijan in what human rights organizations call an effort to stifle dissent.

Hungarian Television to Stop Coverage of Immigrant Children

This week Hungary’s government-appointed media authority (MTVA) ordered employees of state television channel M1 not to include footage of immigrant and refugee children on the channel. MTVA’s order was revealed when screenshot of the editorial advice  leaked. MTVA claims the order is meant to protect children and not to limit public knowledge or sympathy regarding refugees’ legal, physical, or financial status. The order was met with public criticism from multiple NGOs in Hungary who are critical of the government. The Hungarian ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has faced “accusations of encroaching on independent journalism since it passed a controversial media law soon after securing its first ever parliamentary majority in 2010,” The Guardian reports. In 2014, Hungary received nearly 40,000 asylum applications, but a yearly poll suggests that only 3% of Hungarian citizens consider immigration a key issue and 66% believe refugees pose a threat to the country.

Russia’s Latest Internet-Restricting Law Meant to “Protect Citizen’s Privacy”

On August 31, 2015, Russia passed a new law that will force tech firms with Russian customers to operate local servers to handle Russian personal data. This law is the latest in a long line of government orders under President Vladimir Putin meant to tighten the control of the Russian government over the internet. Upon first glance, the law intends to protect the privacy of citizens and discourage firms from using servers which can easily be hacked. However, many have concerns about the law being misused, allowing officials to track data and undermine political activists. Freedom House research analyst Laura Reed said in a statement that “the regime is already ramping up censorship and surveillance and using it to target opposition activists, so the requiring of companies to host data on servers in the country makes it easier for the government to access that data.” Many have now turned their attention to international tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, speculating about the companies’ reluctance to comply with the new regulation. As of yet, no official statements have been made.

UK Foreign Secretary Urged to Defend Freedom of Expression in Turkey

On August 31, 2015, British Vice News journalists Philip Pendlebury and Jake Hanrahan, along with their Turkey-based Iraqi translator Mohammed Ismael Rasool were charged by a Turkish court and arrested on terror charges. One day later, The Guardian reported that the journalists were transferred to a high security prison, hours away from legal help. Vice News head of programming Kevin Sutcliffe called the move “a blatant obstruction of the fair legal process that Turkey has repeatedly pledged to uphold.” Since the arrests, freedom of expression organizations have written to UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urging him to speak out publicly in defense of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The letter, penned by executives at PEN International, English PEN, and Index on Censorship, urges the UK to “use its international position to help reverse the trend” of the use of terror laws to stifle independent media. Vice News has publicly condemned the Turkish government’s attempts to silence the reporters, calling the reporters’ work “vital.” According to an interview with BBC Radio 4, Sutcliffe believes the charges made against his colleagues were filed because the Turkish government believes they were involved with two separate terrorist organizations: the PKK and Islamic State. Sutcliffe was also keen to note that since the two are at war with each other, it is unlikely that anyone, including British reporters, could work for both. On September 3, 2015, Pendlebury and Hanrahan were released by Turkish officials but their translator remains in custody. Human rights activist groups continue to question the laws and state of morality that allowed for the arrests.

Thai Court Acquits Journalists in Defamation Lawsuit

On September 1, 2015, the Provincial Court of Phucket, Thailand lifted defamation charges against Australian journalist Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian. The journalists were set to face up to seven years in prison after publishing a story on Phucketwan. The lawsuit was filed against the journalists by Thailand’s navy under the draconian Computer Crimes Act. Morison and Sidasathian “published an online report that military forces accepted money to assist or turn a blind eye to the trafficking of refugees from Myanmar by sea,” Al Jazeera reports. According to officials, the nature of their release seems to have more to do with the journalism laws in Thailand than with the content of their report. Human rights groups welcomed their acquittal but still question the case. Regional Representative for Amnesty International Joseph Benedict said in a statement that “the acquittal of these two journalists is a positive decision, but the fact is that they should never have had to stand trial in the first place. Thai authorities have again shown their disregard for freedom of expression by pursuing this case.” Outside the courthouse in Phucket, Morison called the acquittal “an important result for Thai media and for media in general.”

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