September Roundup: Slander-in-Chief

Image via Emmanuel Herman/Reuters

Our monthly roundup highlights trends in digital rights law from around the world. In September, Indonesian, Ugandan and Tanzanian authorities went to bat for their heads of state by cracking down on media and individuals who criticize them online. Over on the subcontinent, the courts played a crucial role in enabling access to the internet for citizens, while in Ethiopia, digital rights organizations and activists convened for the 2019 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa.

Nothing but respect for MY President

Indonesia’s legislature was ready to resurrect a 400 year old law that would “criminalize contempt” of virtually any entity that exercises state power – from the President to the courts to state agencies. Despite the Constitutional Court deciding in 2006 that the law had no place in the country’s democracy, the government agreed on amending the penal code to reintroduce it. The basis of the decision was the current criminalization of contempt for the national flag, anthem and symbols: the failure to also criminalize contempt for the nation’s leader was considered “bizarre.” But critics noted that this new law could be exploited by authorities to stifle media freedom and opposition, and, amid this fervent pushback, the President himself postponed the vote for further feedback from the public.

Although affirming the right to freedom of expression in its Constitution, Uganda uses a portfolio of laws to restrict it anyway. The country is notorious for its determined application of outdated defamation laws, which endangers activists who use the internet to oppose the government and its policies. As covered in last month’s roundup, the Computer Misuse Act is also weaponized against activists under its provisions prohibiting “cyber harassment” and “offensive communications.” Various other laws, such as those targeting terrorism, have been used to fragrantly justify interception and monitoring of communications. The President’s arsenal also includes arbitrary internet shutdowns, and a social media tax to pay for the consequences of internet “gossip” Turns out expression isn’t really free after all.

Another country in the running for most creative ways to silence dissent is Tanzania, who initially detained investigative journalist, Erick Kabendra, for questioning over his citizenship in July. Kabendra, known for criticizing President Magufuli’s government, then faced allegations of sedition, before he was eventually charged with tax evasion, money laundering, and organized crime. He’s currently being held in a maximum security prison, where he reports that his health is deteriorating rapidly. His trial has been postponed for the 6th time, and is now scheduled for October 11th, 2019.

It’s because you’re always on that phone

In a landmark judgment for digital rights in India, the Kerala High Court declared that access to the internet is part of the fundamental rights of free expression, education, and privacy under the country’s Constitution. A college student approached the court after she was expelled for violating a rule that restricted the use of mobile phones in her hostel. The court found that mobile phones are now “part and parcel of the day to day life and even to a stage that it is unavoidable to survive with dignity and freedom.” The court explained that access to the internet enhanced educational opportunities for students more than it hampered them. Additionally, restrictions could not be placed on students who were at the age of majority even if they were supported by parents, and the restriction could not only apply to girls: access to the internet also included the agency to decide when and how to access it.

Image via Islamabad High Court

The Islamabad High Court in Pakistan also emphasized the pervasiveness of the internet in our lives by holding that rights that are traditionally safeguarded offline, must also be protected online. The court held that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) was not empowered to block websites or regulate content without due process, transparency, and oversight. It must instead inform the allegedly infringing party before any action is taken against them and give them an opportunity to respond. The decision comes after the PTA shut down the website of a political party just weeks before the general election, as well as their blocking of news sites during the 2017 Faizabad protests.

The Other, Cooler FIFA

Image via Africa Internet Rights Alliance

The 2019 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa was held in Addis Ababa from September 23rd to 26th. We were represented by one of our partners, the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology (CIPIT), who shared details about CYRILLA with our colleagues in digital rights. Several initiatives towards both access and safety were launched at the forum, including South Africa’s 7-point plan for universal internet access and digital equality, Together! and Data4Change‘s project making online educational tools accessible to the visually impaired, and Safe Sister’s guide for digital security trainers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The forum culminated with host, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), releasing their 2019 edition of the State of Internet Freedom in Africa report. Other discussions included the prevalence of internet shutdowns on the continent, the attack on independent media online, exploring feminism on social media, and the relationship between democracy and the internet. You can find more info on the sessions on CIPESA’s YouTube channel or via #FIFAfrica19.


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