August Roundup: Freedom of Expression on Trial

Supporters of the jailed academic, Stella Nyanzi, after the sentencing. Dr. Nyanzi appeared at the court session on Friday via video link from a maximum-security prison.
Supporters of Stella Nyanzi, an imprisoned Ugandan researcher, after she was sentenced on August 2. Sumy Sadurni/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Our monthly roundup highlights trends in digital rights law from around the world. Last month, Ukraine, Uganda, and Kenya put free speech on trial; Nepal and Turkey introduced new laws restricting freedom of expression; and India’s annexation and blackout in Kashmir spurred criticism from both inside and outside the country.

Freedom of Expression on Trial

In August, courts in Uganda and Ukraine ruled against freedom of expression, while courts in Kenya took a positive step towards protecting free speech.

On August 2, a court in Uganda sentenced researcher Stella Nyanzi to 18 months in prison after she criticized President Yoweri Museveni on Facebook. The court claimed her criticism constituted cyberharassment, exploiting communication laws like The Computer Misuse Act to prosecute her. According to Joan Nyanyuki, director for East Africa at Amnesty International, the Kenyan government has repeatedly used this act to restrict free expression online. 

Then, on August 6, a judge in Kiev ruled that news site Hromadske defamed CP14, a far-right group, because the site referred to them as a “neo-nazi” group. Despite the court ruling, CP14 has regularly promoted neo-Nazi viewpoints. Therefore, the case “harms freedom of expression” because it “might have a ‘dissuading effect on journalistic work’”, preventing news organizations from covering the actions of CP14 and similar groups in the future.

In a more positive move, a judge in Kenya found section 84 (D) of the Kenyan Information Act, which bans “obscene material” online, unconstitutional. The judge alleged that the law is too vague and ruled in favor of blogger Cyprian Nyakundi, who faced charges under this section for criticizing Kenyan authorities.

Nepalese Activists Warn Against New Mass Media Bill

In Nepal, the Ministry of Law and Justice is drafting a controversial Mass Media Bill. Post Online Media obtained a copy of the Bill, revealing that journalists face fines up to $88,000 and a maximum of 15 years in prison if they are found to be publishing or broadcasting any content against sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity. Ramesh Bista, general secretary of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, explained that “some provisions in the draft bill are clearly aimed at controlling media houses and journalists”, and confirmed that politicians did not reach out to any journalists when drafting this law.

Countries Create New Restrictions for Media Registration

Countries around the world continue to introduce legislation requiring social media users to register as media entities. On August 1, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council passed an amendment that will further stifle freedom of expression. Under this law, “streaming services and online broadcasters” need to obtain a license that costs up to $18,000 in order to keep publishing. Similarly, the Uganda Communications Commission also extended its requirements for online publishers to register. Since March 2018, authorities have imposed a fee of $20 per year to publishers, and now the measure will include news organizations and citizens with many followers, in a move that will affect influencers like musicians and athletes, and also limit dissent.

India’s Actions in Kashmir Threaten Free Press

Meanwhile, India’s annexation and communications blackout of Jammu and Kashmir is drawing criticism from both inside and outside of the country. Indian state West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, stated that Narendra Modi’s government is preventing the press from reporting from Kashmir. Likewise, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, described the communication blackout in Kashmir as “unprecedented” in a democratic society. Digital Rights Foundation and 65 other digital rights organizations have condemned the blackout, stressing that it violates fundamental rights.

Authorities in Southeast Asia Impose Extralegal Censorship

Over the course of the year, a number of countries in Southeast Asia have taken measures limiting free speech, and unfortunately that trend is continuing. In Singapore, Law and Home Affairs minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam compelled both Facebook and YouTube to block a satirical rap video, which he claimed was prejudiced against Chinese Singaporeans. The ability of the Singaporean political leaders to censor content has raised concerns amongst civil society especially because the government recently passed a fake news law.

In Indonesia, the government-run North Sumatra University fired the entire staff of Suara USU, a news website managed by students, after they published a queer love story. The university authorities accused the students of “promoting homosexuality” and violating “the vision and mission of the university”. A trial between the individuals that used to run the website and the rector is currently taking place after the students filed a petition.

Read last month’s round-up here

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