As 2018 draws to a close, we’re going back to our roots here at Advox. While our story topics run the gamut from controversial cybercrime laws to journalist arrests to fake news on Facebook, there is one issue that underlies all our work — the protection of online speech in the public interest.
When it affects people’s fundamental right to access information about their political, cultural or economic realities, censorship matters to us. Here are just a few examples of censorship stories covered by Advox in 2018.
NICARAGUA: La Prensa and Confidencial
censored by DDoS attacks
Online, two independent local news sites, La Prensa and Confidencial, suffered what appeared to be distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Both had been reporting the most up-to-date accounts from the ground, including dispatches on violent confrontations between civilians, police and security forces in which dozens of protesters were killed.
censored by Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission
The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the business license of Rappler, one of the country’s leading independent news sites in January 2018 on baseless allegations that the company accepted illegal foreign funding. Rappler has aggressively covered extrajudicial drug killings in the Philippines and has been a frequent target of attacks by president Rodrigo Duterte, who accused Rappler of being a “fake news outlet” the day after the SEC ruling.
In December 2018, Rappler co-owner and editor-in-chief Maria Ressa was charged with tax fraud and a warrant was issued for her arrest, but she was released after posting bail. The Philippine National Union of Journalists said her arrest signaled that the Duterte administration “will go to ridiculous lengths to muzzle all those it does not agree with.”
CHINA: Rolling eyes
censored by Sina Weibo, at behest of Cyberspace Administration
Reporter Liang Xiangyi became the talk of the Chinese internet after she rolled her eyes at another reporter, Zhang Huijun, who had posed a long-winded and deferential question about China’s One Belt One Road project at a congressional press conference. After it aired on China’s Central Television, video of Liang’s skeptical expression spread like wildfire — until internet censorship authorities banned all discussions of the eye roll.
Among many “pro-eye roll” phrases censored on Weibo was this gem: “Deprived of free speech, ancient people blink their eyes as secret codes. In the new era, we have the freedom to roll our eyes.”
IRAN, RUSSIA: Telegram
censored by judiciary
A Moscow court announced a ban on Telegram, the privacy-friendly mobile messaging service, after Telegram’s CEO repeatedly refused to comply with demands to give law enforcement agents access to the app’s encryption keys.
But instituting the ban was easier said than done. In an effort to carry out the order, the country’s federal media regulator began banning millions of IP addresses in the attempt to shut down the service, which runs on through decentralized network. This led to the blocking of countless other business sites and communications platforms including Viber, Slack, and Evernote.
Later that month, the Iranian judiciary issued an order to block Telegram, citing national security reasons. Telegram also was temporarily censored during anti-government protests in December 2017 and January 2018.
TANZANIA: Jamii Forums (‘Tanzanian Reddit’ or ‘Swahili Wikileaks’)
censored by itself
Tanzania’s most popular independent news and user comment site, Jamii Forum, shut itself down in June, in anticipation of the country’s “blogger tax.” The law requires Tanzanian bloggers to register and pay over $900 USD per year to publish online. Blogs and other types of online content operating without a license can be punished by a fine “not less than five million Tanzanian shillings” (around $2,500 USD), or imprisonment for “not less than 12 months or both.” Jamii has since resumed operations online.
AUSTRALIA: Guilty verdict in priest sex abuse trial
censored by Victoria County Court
Australian Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest ranking official, was convicted of sexual assault by a Victoria court on December 12, 2018. But Australian media didn’t report on the trial or its outcome thanks to a blanket suppression order imposed by the court, on grounds that it might prejudice a subsequent trial being held in March.
Catholic and international media outlets nevertheless ran with the story, risking censorship and prosecution in Australia, and fueling a firestorm of commentary and criticism of the gag order on social media. If anything, the suppression order elevated public knowledge about the case online.
CHINA: Peppa Pig
censored by Douyin video platform, at behest of Chinese Communist Party
In May, the Chinese video platform Douyin removed more than 30,000 videos of the British cartoon sensation Peppa Pig — many of which had been re-dubbed with adult language and themes. In tandem, the popular porker was denounced by Chinese Communist Party media mouthpieces, in response to an internet subculture connecting Peppa Pig with “Shehuiren”, a term that refers to organized crime syndicates and is more generally used to describe “immoral” behavior.
A commenter on Sina Tech explained that Peppa has become a symbol of “a person who follows their heart regardless of social norms.”
CUBA: El Estornudo (‘The Sneeze’)
censored by ETECSA, state-owned ISP
The fledgling independent online magazine El Estornudo (“The Sneeze”), which includes critical essays and feature articles on social issues and cultural change, joined the ranks of media outlets in the country that are or have been temporarily censored by state authorities. In a response to the blockage, the site’s editors wrote a letter to state authorities in which they said:
In a country where print publications cannot circulate outside the margins of the state, where internet is very limited, and where they block the URL to your outlet so people cannot even read you through that very limited access, we should remember that this magazine exists also for Cubans to find out tomorrow what was happening to them today.
KENYA: The symbolic swearing-in of Raila Odinga
censored by President Uhuru Kenyatta
When Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga was symbolically — if not legally — sworn in as the “people’s president” on January 30, three major broadcasting networks were unplugged by the government of Kenya. Although incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta officially won the controversial October 2017 re-run election (after the country’s Supreme Court annulled the results of the initial August 2017 vote, having found “irregularities and illegalities”), supporters of Raila Odinga remained committed to his campaign and cause. Three journalists at NTV media house, which aired the ceremony, were threatened with arrest.
In a critique of the move for Al Jazeera, Nanjala Nyabola wrote: “Switching off three media houses, just because you can, is the definition of swatting a fly on your head with a hammer – painful, self-destructive and counterproductive.”
RUSSIA: YouTube video of pension reform protest
censored by Google, at behest of Moscow court
One day before a major rally against an unpopular pension reform was planned in Russia, Google informed rally organizers of its plans to take down YouTube videos promoting the rally, citing legal requirements for a “day of silence” on the day before an election. The rally was organized by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is led by prominent opposition figure Alexey Navalny. Leonid Volkov, an ally of Navalny and fellow organizer, took Google to task in a Facebook post:
The corporations — including Google — should face the reality. In authoritarian regimes these are the governments who most frequently abuse the law. Not every request signed by a government authority should be automatically considered as a lawful one. A good portion of criticism is necessary to protect the users and their rights.
Alongside these and other blocks on internet content, sites and services, Access Now counted 188 internet shutdowns documented by activists and researchers around the world. The Software Freedom Law Centre counted 133 regional internet shutdowns in India, 64 of which took place in the northeastern state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Here’s hoping that 2019 brings greater protections for independent voices around the world!
This roundup includes research, writing and editing by Afef Abrougui, Mahsa Alimardani, Nwachukwu Egbunike, Janine Mendes Franco, Alexey Kovalev, Oiwan Lam, Amanda Lichtenstein, Karlo Mongaya, Diphus N’geny, Melissa Vida, Laura Vidal and Njeri Wangari Wanjohi.