3.1 Censorship of online content
Human rights defenders have benefited from the Internet that enabled them to easily communicate with the global community. News of human rights violations are published online and can stimulate quick condemnation from outside a particular country or area. Regions, previously outside the reach of international media, can now have their voices heard. Governments, trying to silence dissenting voices in their countries, now face difficulties on the global level.
National media laws are not appropriate for Internet publications, as the latter are targeted at a global audience. If a country’s law prohibits publication of any material that criticises the royal family, what can the authorities do, if the critical story appears on a website hosted in a different country? Can they still persecute the writer? Let’s look at the Australian libel case Dow Jones Media group v. Gutnick.84 Joseph Gutnick brought an action for defamation against the online magazine Barrons. The High Court of Australia confirmed the decision of the State of Victoria Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the case on grounds that the article could be also seen on the computers situated in the state. In other words, the place of publication was anywhere in the world where the article could be read, not just the particular geographic location where it was put online. The same ruling has been repeatedly applied to similar cases in Canada and France.
In order not to inhibit the right to freedom of expression on the Internet (provided it conforms to Article 19 of the UDHR), the above issue must be dealt with at an international level.
Another case, relating to censoring online content, began in 2000 and led to the Yahoo! Inc. v. La Ligue Contre le Racisme et L’antisemitisme proceedings in France and in the U.S. The issue was the publication of Nazi literature and memorabilia on Yahoo run websites, which were also accessible to users in France, where such activity is illegal. The French court insisted that Yahoo took measures to stop such content from being accessible in France. Technically, it was very difficult to implement, and Yahoo would have had to remove this content altogether, even though such websites are not deemed illegal in the United States – where the Yahoo servers are located. Eventually, courts in both countries ruled against Yahoo, in defiance of the First Amendment to the US Bill of Rights. This was a dangerous precedent that allowed one country’s laws to be enforced in another, thus restricting the global nature of the Internet.
Many countries issued specific directives on the legality of publishing information online. For instance, in Iran the law “...prohibits and considers a crime to publish on the internet any material in conflict with or insulting the Islamic doctrine, revolution’s values, the thoughts of Imam Khomeini, the Constitution, jeopardizing national solidarity, instilling cynicism in the public regarding the legitimacy or efficiency of the ruling body, propagating a good image of illegal groups, revealing state classified information, promoting vice, advertising smoking, accusing or insulting state officials...” 85
In Burma, “Internet users are banned from posting contents related to politics that are ‘detrimental’ to the country’s interests or the current policies and affairs of the government.” 86
In Zimbabwe, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) is particularly vague classifying the publication of anything “likely to cause alarm or despondency” as a criminal offence.
In Egypt, the ever-extending Emergency Laws include a statement on publishing, “…calling by word of mouth or by writing or by any other means for the impediment of any provision of the constitution or laws; possession of written material that calls for or favours the previous actions; deliberate dissemination of news, statements, faulty or ill-motivated rumours or agitating news if the objective thereof is to disturb public order, induce fear in people, or causing harm to public interest or possession or development of publications that contain any of the previous crimes.” 87 In 2002, Egyptian Internet users were warned of taboo issues (such as relations between Copts and Muslims, publicising terrorist ideas, human rights violations, criticising the president, his family and the army and promoting modern versions of Islam) and told that excessive openness was unwelcome.
Oppressive regimes have come down strongly on the human rights defenders attempting to criticise governments and officials.
Mohammad Reza Nasab Abdullahi
Iran - On February 23, 2005, following a closed-door trial held without his lawyer, Mohammad Reza Nasab Abdullahi was sentenced to six months in prison on appeal for insulting the SupremeLeader and spreading anti-government propaganda. He was imprisoned five days later. Abdullahi, a university student, human rights defender, editor of a student newspaper, and blogger in the central Iranian city of Kerman, served six months in an Iranian prison for posting an entry on his blog, Webnegar, (“Web writer”)88. The offending post, titled “I Want to Know,” was addressed to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and criticised the suppression of “civil and personal rights and liberties” by the government.
Iran – Because of his activities as a journalist and blogger, Arash Sigarchi has been in prison since 26 January 2006, four days after being given a three-year sentence for “insulting the Supreme Guide” and “propaganda against the regime.”
He was previously arrested and imprisoned for two months in early 2005 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a revolutionary tribunal on the same charges in February 2005. After paying bail of 1 billion rials (95 000 euros), he was released on 17 March 2005.
Prior to that, he was arrested on 27 August 2004 and held for several days for posting an article online, with photos, about a rally held in Tehran by the relatives of prisoners executed in 1989. Since then, he has been constantly harassed by the police.
The former editor of the daily Gylan Emroz, Sigarchi kept a political and cultural blog (www.sigarchi.com/blog) for three years in which he often criticised the regime. The authorities made it impossible to access the blog from within Iran.
Libya – Al-Mansuri published his last article on January 10, 2005. It was a critique of a debate between two government officials, one of whom, Shukri Ghanim, was a reputed reformer, and the other, Ahmad Ibrahim – a reputed hardliner. Al-Mansuri expressed hope that al-Qaddafi would support the former. 15 On October 19, 2005, Akhbar Libya reported that a Tripoli court had sentenced al-Mansouri to one-and-a-half years in prison for illegal possession of a weapon.
Ibrahim Lutfy, Mohamed Zaki, Ahmad Didi and Fathimath Nisreen
Maldives – Ibrahim Lutfy was arrested (together with Mohamed Zaki, Ahmad Didi and Fathimath Nisreen, Lutfy’s assistant) in January 2002 for producing Sandhaanu, a newsletter about human rights violations and corruption distributed by email. Accused of “defamation” and of “trying to overthrow the government,” Lutfy, Zaki and Didi were condemned to life imprisonment on 7 July 2002. Nisreen, who was only 22 at the time of the trial, received a 5-year prison sentence. He was released in May 2005 after 3 years in prison.
Lutfy gave his police guard the slip on 24 May, while in nearby Sri Lanka for an eye operation. He was suffering from chronic conjunctivitis, aggravated by poor prison conditions (after many refusals, the authorities had finally given him permission to go to Sri Lanka for treatment). He spent several months in hiding in Sri Lanka with the help of a network of friends. Then the UNHCR helped him obtain refugee status in Switzerland, where he currently lives. The policeman, assigned to guard him while in Sri Lanka, was imprisoned.
Didi was hospitalised in Male in February 2004 and was then put under house arrest. He had serious heart problems which probably needed surgery. Zaki, whose health deteriorated seriously while in prison, was also put under house arrest. Both their sentences were reduced to 15 years in 2003.
Dr Nguyen Dan Que
Vietnam – Dr Nguyen Dan Que, 61, a freedom of expression activist, released in 1998 after nearly 20 years in prison, was re-arrested at his home in Saigon on 17 March 2003. Officials did not give the reason for his arrest, but it was thought to be linked with a statement he posted online criticising the lack of press freedom in Vietnam. He was responding to remarks by a foreign ministry spokesman claiming that freedom of information was guaranteed. Although he is suffering from high blood pressure and a stomach ulcer, his family has not been allowed to visit him or give him the medication he needs, and he has not been brought to trial. On 22 September 2003, 12 Nobel Prize winners wrote to the Vietnamese communist party Secretary General Nong Duc Manh voicing concern about Que’s health and asking that he be allowed proper medical treatment and family visits pending his release.
Nguyen Vu Binh
Vietnam – The former journalist was sentenced to seven years imprisonment on 31 December 2003 at the end of a trial lasting less than three hours. The people’s court of Hanoi also sentenced him to three years house arrest once he reaches the end of his sentence. Sources close to the Vietnamese authorities said that the main charge reportedly relates to a letter sent by Nguyen on 19 July 2002 to the Human Rights Commission of the US Congress, in which he criticised the human rights situation in his country. He is apparently also charged with being in contact with “subversive dissidents” such as Le Chi Quang and Pham Hong Son, both of whom are also behind bars. He is further accused of having received 4.5 million dongs (about 230 euros) “from a reactionary organisation based abroad”, taken part in an anti-corruption organisation and having called on the Vietnamese authorities in 2000 to set up a liberal democratic party. Vu Binh is also charged with posting messages of a “reactionary nature” on the Internet, in particular an essay headlined, “reflections on the Sino-Vietnamese borders agreements” in which he criticised the 1999 treaty between the two countries.
Tunisia – Zouhair Yahyaoui, founder and editor of the news website TUNeZINE, was conditionally released on 18 November 2003 after serving more than half of his 28-month sentence. Arrested in a Tunis publinet (government initiated Internet café) on 4 June 2002, he used his site to spread the news about the fight for democracy and freedom in Tunisia. Under the pseudonym “Ettounsi” (“The Tunisian” in Arabic), he wrote many columns and essays and was the first to publish an open letter to President Ben Ali criticising the Tunisian judiciary’s lack of integrity.
TUNeZINE was censored by the authorities right from the start. But its fans received a weekly list of “proxy” servers through which they could access it. On 10 July 2002, Yahyaoui was sentenced by an appeal court to 12 months in prison for “putting out false news” (article 306-3 of the criminal code) and another 16 months for “theft by the fraudulent use of a communications link” (article 84 of the communications code), meaning that he used an Internet connection at the publinet where he worked. He was jailed under very harsh conditions and staged two hunger-strikes in early 2003 to protest against his imprisonment. He was released more than a year later, in November 2003, and died of natural causes in March 2005 at the age of 36.
Tunisia – Mohammed Abbou is a prominent human rights lawyer who is currently serving three and a half years in prison for publishing statements on the Internet that called attention to human rights abuses in the Tunisian prison system. The statements compared the torture and ill treatment suffered by Tunisian prisoners to that suffered by prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Mohammed is a member of the National Committee for Liberties in Tunisia, one of many national NGOs that the Tunisian government refuses to recognize, and a former Director of the Association of Young Lawyers. A vocal critic of corruption, he was one of the few lawyers in Tunisia willing to publicly comment and act on corruption allegations involving President Ben Ali?s family. He was imprisoned in April 2005, following a trial widely condemned as unfair and arbitrary by Tunisian and international NGOs and is incarcerated in El Kef prison, 170 km from his home and family in Tunis. From 11 March to 21 April 2006, in order to draw attention to the inhuman and degrading conditions in which he is being held and the harassment faced by family members whilst visiting him, Mohammed went on his second hunger strike since his imprisonment.
Samia Abbou, wife of Mohammed Abbou, was subjected to a brutal assault on 7 December 2006. She and three other leading Tunisian human rights defenders were attacked and beaten outside El Kef prison, near Tunis, by a group of about forty men in civilian clothing. National Freedom of Samia Abbou traveled to El Kef to visit her imprisoned husband with human rights defenders; Moncef Marzouki, former president of the National Committee for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT) and the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) Salim Boukhdhir, a well known Journalist and Samir ben Amor, founding member of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoner. According to reports, police stopped the car in which they were traveling on a number of occasions throughout the journey to El Kef and were present outside the prison at the time of the assault.
Syria – On May 29, 2005, military intelligence officers arrested Habib Salih in Tartus, approximately 100 miles (130km) north of Damascus (he had only just been released from a previous incarceration - for participation in the civil society movement of the “Damascus Spring”). This time, he was arrested for posting on two Web sites a series of open letters addressed to the delegates attending the June 2005 Ba`ath Party Conference in which he detailed his prison experience. In the months since his release, he had also written critical articles for the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar and the banned Web site http://www.elaph.com. The authorities quickly transferred him to the investigations office, where he risks torture. His trial is still pending.
China – Huang is a human rights defender who set up the Tianwang website (www.6-4tianwang.com) in June 1999 to publicise information about missing people. Gradually, the site also began to feature comments and news articles on topics not normally covered by the state-controlled media. It published stories about human rights abuses, government corruption, and - just days before Huang was taken into custody - several pieces about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Huang was arrested on June 3, 2000 – the day before the 11th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 – and charged under articles 103 and 105 of the criminal code. He was accused of posting on his website articles about the protests written by dissidents living abroad. In an interview with the BBC, Huang said he was ordered to sleep on the floor next to the toilet for the first year in jail. He denied the charge of subversion and insisted it did not apply to him.
Huang said: “If someone in China fights for democracy and freedom and is then accused of being a participant of the June 4th incident, a member of Falun Gong or a pro-democracy activist, I am definitely going to tell the Chinese regime that I am one of them and proud of it. There is no doubt that I am in pursuit of democracy and freedom.” On June 4, 2005, Huang Qi was released from jail after completing his sentence. Reporters sans frontières awarded him the Cyber-Freedom Prize in 2004.