March 15, 2012 | By Maira Sutton

This Week in Censorship: A Mixed Bag of News

Update on Pakistan’s plans for national censorship program

US company McAfee has just announced that they will not submit a proposal to create and implement a national blocking and filtering system in Pakistan. Their response came after pressure from various local and international groups including the EFF, Access, and the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

While we commend McAfee for their recent decision, we also note that the computer security company has a history of selling products used to implement mass censorship to governments. Their software, called SmartFilter, has been used in Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, as noted in an OpenNet Initiative report from 2011. In some cases, states used the software to block access to political and human rights-related content.

We therefore urge McAfee to uphold the pledge made to the Pakistani government in all of their dealings with foreign governments. To that end, we recommend adopting EFF's "Know Your Customer" guidelines.

Pro-democracy activist in United Arab Emirates arrested for tweets

On March 5, blogger and activist Saleh AlDhufair was arrested for posting statements criticizing the UAE government on its policy of arresting and deporting Syrians who had been peacefully demonstrating outside their embassy in Dubai. Saleh had tweeted his strong opposition to the arrests, and wrote a piece on his blog [Arabic] more broadly criticizing recent repressive actions by state authorities. Under new far-reaching cyber crime laws, the federal court could sentence him for to up to 5 years in prison.

This is the newest case of a blogger’s arrest in the UAE since authorities imprisoned five activists last summer. The bloggers has been sentenced to three years of prison, but the president pardoned them shortly after the conviction in late November.

EFF urges Emirati authorities to immediate release Saleh, and discontinue their efforts to censor citizens in the name of "maintaining peace."

Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari to be released

Saudi blogger and journalist Hamza Kashgari may be freed after a “light sentence”, The Next Web reports. He had left his country for Malaysia after a campaign of public attacks against him, including calls demanding his execution. The massive backlash came because he was accused of being blasphemous against the Prophet Mohammed in several tweets. There were concerted international efforts to pressure the Malaysian government not to extradite him, but to no avail. Despite fears that he may have had to face the death penalty, Hamza has purportedly “repented” for his statements and the Shariah court has forgiven him.

New revelations on China’s censorship methods

A new study from the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon sheds light on the way China censors the Internet in real time. The researchers statistically analyzed 56 million messages from the domestic microblog site Sina Wibo, as well as 11 million Chinese-language tweets. They found that there was a massive evolving list of “politically sensitive terms” that, if found in a message, would most likely ensure its deletion. They also found that the state was able to block messages based on locale, “with messages originating in the outlying provinces of Tibet and Qinghai exhibiting much higher deletion rates than those from eastern areas like Beijing.”

Though it has been known that China censors its messages, it is the first time such an extensive study has been done on their methodology. As expected, banned terms include anyone and any thing related to anti-state activism, including Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government, and human rights activists Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo.

Read the original full text of their research here.

Tajikistan lifts ban on Facebook and other sites

Tajikistan’s ban of Facebook and two other news sites has been lifted following international outcry. Authorities ordered Internet providers to ban the sites for allegedly hosting content that was critical of President Emomali Rakhmon, who has continually headed the state since 1992. A representative for one of the providers stated however, “Yes, we've allowed access to Facebook but we don't know how long it will last. If we again receive a signal to shut it down we will have to comply.”

EFF will remain watchful of Tajikistan, and urges the state to discontinue future plans to block websites in their country.

Iranian blogger continues hunger strike for over 2 months

EFF has continued to monitor Iran, which has been ranked as having one the worst repression of online expression. One blogger and ophthalmologist, Mehdi Khazali, has been on a hunger strike for more than 65 days after being sentenced to prison for 14-years, including a mandatory 10-year exile and 90 lashes to his body. Iranian authorities arrested Mehdi for criticizing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the state’s repressive policies.

Iranian authorities must stop their persecution of activists and bloggers.  We call on the Iranian government to uphold the right to free expression as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Singapore: new amendments to the Evidence Act will impact online activists

Despite engaging only minimally in online censorship, the Singaporean government has always found ways to suppress dissent. Two separate--but equally chilling--bits of news from the country indicate that the country might be taking stricter measures to curb online speech.

A February 17 article from AsiaOne news outlines amendments recently made to the Evidence Act in Singapore's Parliament. According to local lawyer Suppiah Thangaveloo, new changes to the computer output evidence clause would ensure that any evidence obtained from computers are "presumed to be accurate unless proven otherwise in court." In the Act's current form, computer-based evidence is only admissible when parties to a case agree to it.

The Asia Sentinel recently reported on the case of a blog, Temasek Review Emeritus (TR Emeritus), that angered Singapore's ruling Lee family by publishing a post accusing them of cronyism and nepotism. Though TR Emeritus quickly removed the article, the new amendments to the Evidence Act would permit the deleted blog post to be used as evidence in court. As the Sentinel points out, "the Lees have set a world record in filing defamation suits and a second one by never losing one.

In other countries, including the US, the party introducing the evidence must prove whether the evidence is both reliable and relevant. The automatic admission of computer evidence is dangerous because the data can be so easily manipulated and altered. Since the Evidence Act applies to defamation suits, there is justified concern that the new amendments will facilitate state charges against activists.


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