June 7, 2012 | By Eva Galperin and Katrina Kaiser

This Week in Internet Censorship: Tiananmen Square Censorship, Libya's Article 37, Malaysia's Backslide, Kuwaiti Repression, and a Hunger Strike in Tunisia

China: Weibo Ratchets Up Censorship for Tiananmen Square Anniversary; Google Helps Users Avoid Blocked Search Terms

Chinese social media outlets expanded their lists of censored words in anticipation of the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. On June 4, the date of the anniversary, Twitter-clone Weibo went so far as to block searches of the characters for “today” (今天) and “tomorrow” (明天). Weibo also removed its candle emoticon and blocked searches for the character for candle (烛) to prevent references to the annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. After users questioned the disappearance, Weibo’s parent company Sina announced that the icon was being “optimized” and replaced the emoticon with an Olympic torch.

Weibo also blocked all forms of the numbers eight, nine, six, and four, which resulted in accidental censorship of reports about the Shanghai Stock Exchange when the market index fell 64.89 points.

In the same week, Google added a search feature warning Chinese users when their terms are likely to produce blocked results. Searching a prohibited term in China will not only produce an official error message, but will also cut users’ connection to Google for a couple of minutes. Senior vice president Alan Eustace wrote, “By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China." Chinese state censors do not normally disclose which terms are censored at any given time.

Libya: Anti-Sedition Laws Under Constitutional Review

Libya’s Supreme Court will review the constitutionality of Article 37, a series of laws which criminalize speech glorifying Gaddafi, insulting the revolution and Islam, or weakening the morale of Libyan citizens by questioning the country’s “people, slogan, or flag.” The National Transition Council passed these laws on May 2, prompting outrage from many Libyan legal experts and civil society organizations. Violations of Article 37 carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Libya’s new deputy culture minister Atia Lawgali has called the law “a joke” and “a sign of weakness from the NTC.”

Article 37 clearly flies in the face of Libya’s transition towards democracy and the goals of the popular revolution. “When I looked at Article 37 I was pleased with the reaction… there was total agreement that this law is a disaster,” said Lawgali. The government defends that Article 37 is necessary to “re-establish the state” as Libya transitions towards elections this month, and that there will be little need for such laws afterwards.

Malaysia: Officials Backpedal on Promise of a Censorship-Free Internet

Malaysia’s commitment to freedom of expression on the Internet faces new challenges from government officials, past and present. Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has publically called for new online content regulations, saying: “When I said there should be no censorship of the Internet, I really did not realize the power of the Internet to create problems and agitate people.”

Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim has echoed the former Prime Minister’s sentiments suggesting that bloggers and website-owners should regulate themselves so that only “facts” are posted online, and suggested that content should be of a “society-building nature” and not contain libel. The government has already amended the law so that Internet intermediaries are legally accountable for all seditious or libelous content that third parties may upload, so websites are already likely to discourage and delete politically or religiously sensitive material. Malaysia’s Internet has no national content filters at this time, though the government has tried to install them twice. Vigorous protest from Malaysian Internet users on both efforts forced the government to back down.

Kuwait Hands Down Ten Year Sentence for Twitter Criticism

In the small Gulf country of Kuwait a young man, Hamad al-Naqi, has just been handed a ten-year sentence for criticizing the kings of neighboring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and allegedly "insulting" the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. According to Human Rights Watch, Kuwait’s Court of First Instance sentenced Hamad al-Naqi, 26, on those charges on June 5, 2012.

Article 15 of Kuwait's National Security Law sets a minimum sentence of three years for spreading statements or rumors that "harm the national interests of the state" while Article 111 of the Penal Code prohibits mocking religion.

Al-Naqi's sentencing is just one instance in a series of repressive events the country has seen this year. In June, the Emir of Kuwait rejected parliamentary legislation that would have authorized the use of capital punishment or life imprisonment for anyone mocking "God, the prophets and messengers, or the honor of his messengers and wives." The veto can still be overriden by a two-thirds majority of members of parliament and cabinet ministers.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Kuwait must protect the rights of freedom of expression. EFF joins Human Rights Watch in condemning Kuwait's increasing repression of speech.

Tunisia: Citizen Journalists Continue Hunger Strike

Tunisian citizen journalist Ramzi Bettaieb has been on a hunger strike since May 28 to defend press freedom in the country after last year’s revolution. Bettaieb, who writes for the activist blog Nawaat, said that soldiers confiscated his cameras when he tried to film the trial of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and others who were involved in violently suppressing anti-regime protests in the towns of Thala and Kasserine. The army prohibited reporters from shooting more than three minutes of video footage during the trial.

Nawaat, which was blocked in Tunisia until January last year, was instrumental in channeling popular opposition to the Ben Ali regime and covering the protests that culminated in his removal. Bettaieb’s hunger strike is partly in order to show the world that the political revolution is not yet complete. He protests the new government’s lack of transparency in holding these important trials through a military tribunal rather than through public court or an independent commission. Bettaieb stated, “I demand that all cases be withdrawn from the military court. It is not independent, and is under constant pressure and threat… it is in conflict with the Ministry of Interior or at least with whatever corrupt body still lingers there.” Five other bloggers have joined Bettaieb’s hunger strike, and he also commands wide support from other regional journalists.

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