What is 'fake news' anyway? Is it news that hides truths that are unpalatable to the politically correct? Is it reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Is it politicians outlining improvements in the economy?
Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.
Two-thirds of all internet users -- 67 percent -- live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or
ruling family are subject to censorship.
Social media users face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year. Globally, 27 percent of all internet users
live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely "liking" content on Facebook.
Governments are increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which can spread
information quickly and securely.
Internet freedom has declined for the sixth consecutive year, with more governments than ever before targeting social media and communication apps as a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information, particularly during
The increased controls show the importance of social media and online communication for advancing political freedom and social justice. It is no coincidence that the tools at the center of the current
crackdown have been widely used to hold governments accountable and facilitate uncensored conversations. Authorities in several countries have even resorted to shutting down all internet access at politically contentious times, solely to prevent users
from disseminating information through social media and communication apps, with untold social, commercial, and humanitarian consequences.
Some communication apps face restrictions due to their encryption features, which make it
extremely difficult for authorities to obtain user data, even for the legitimate purposes of law enforcement and national security. Online voice and video calling apps like Skype have also come under pressure for more mundane reasons. They are now
restricted in several countries to protect the revenue of national telecommunications firms, as users were turning to the new services instead of making calls through fixed-line or mobile telephony.
There is no question that governments worldwide are wielding the tools of censorship, warns the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, in a report on the widespread global assault on the freedom of
expression to be presented to the UN General Assembly. Kaye said:
Governments are treating words as weapons, adopting vague laws that give officials massive discretion to undermine speech and opinion. They are punishing
journalists for their reporting, silencing individuals for posting opinions on social media, shutting down debate and the flow of information on grounds of counter-terrorism, protecting public order, sheltering people from offense.
Censorship in all its forms reflects official fear of ideas and information, the expert noted. And it not only harms the speaker or reporter or broadcaster, it undermines everyone's right to information, to public participation, to
open and democratic governance.
The report involved a survey of hundreds of official communications the rapporteur has issued to governments, which resulted from allegations of violations of well-established international human rights
law received from individuals and non-governmental organizations worldwide. The trend lines are stark, Kaye said:
I am especially concerned that many governments assert legitimate grounds for restriction, such as
protection of national security or public order or the rights of others, as fig leaves to attack unpopular opinion or criticism of government and government officials, he stated. Many times governments provide not even the barest demonstration that such
restrictions meet the legal tests of necessity and proportionality.
The Special Rapporteur drew attention to increasing instances where governments assert rationales having no basis in human rights law. He said:
For example, it has become routine for governments to explicitly target political criticism, journalism, and the expression of singled-out groups such as LGBTI communities and artists.
Those who carry out
physical threats, particularly to journalists and writers and bloggers, are rarely held accountable, Mr. Kaye added. Online, threats to expression are getting worse. Advances in technology have triggered new forms of repression and censorship that
undermine everyone's ability to hold opinions or seek, receive and impart information and ideas.
One of the biggest threats to online expression is the use of Internet kill switches. More than a dozen network shutdowns have
been recorded in the last year. Internet shutdowns are just one form of digital censorship among many adopted by governments today.
The report notes areas of positive developments as well. The Special Rapporteur welcomes, for instance, examples
where governments, legislatures, and domestic and international courts have taken strong steps to promote freedom of expression or carefully evaluate restrictions.
In his study, the human rights expert urges all governments to review their
national laws to ensure strong protection and promotion of the freedom of expression, in particular to limit the discretion officials may enjoy to restrict the flow of information. He stressed:
The approach that many
governments adopt towards freedom of expression today is abusive and unsustainable. Governments must not only reverse course, but also take the lead in ensuring its protection.
Chinese real estate giant Dalian Wanda Group will purchase Europe's largest movie theater operator, expanding its already vast cinema network in China and the U.S.
American unit AMC Entertainment Holdings, the second largest movie theater operator in
the U.S, said it will acquire Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group of the U.K. for £921 million. Wanda's cinema network is already the biggest in the world, with more than 7,500 screens.
The group is also extending its reach in film production. This
year, it acquired U.S. studio Legendary Entertainment, which produces popular titles like the Godzilla movies. Wanda Chairman Wang Jianlin has openly declared his ambition to break the dominance of the six major global film studios including Walt Disney
and to make his company the king of movies.
There have been concerns about censorship or promotional opportunities now available to China. It was noted for example that Transformers: Age of Extinction, released in 2014 by
Paramount Pictures received significant advertising income from product placement of Chinese products. Nikkei.com comments about the possibilities for political influence:
Wanda likely will be able to wield heavier
influence on film production and distribution with its expanded cinema network. But if it tries to censor anti-Chinese content or promote overly pro-China content, audiences in mature, advanced economies would not tolerate that, says Kent Wertime of
advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.
Scripts for movies are sometimes altered to reflect Chinese interests. But if movies are exploited as a political tool, that would obviously drive away consumers in Europe and the U.S.
Should that happen, Wanda's massive spending on acquisitions would be in vain. As Wanda's involvement in movie businesses deepens, the group has to manage its operations with Western values in mind.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has passed a non-binding resolution that states that public access to the Internet should not be disrupted by any government or government agencies. Specifically, the statement says the same rights that
people have offline, including freedom of expression, should also be protected online.
The resolution doesn't quite come out and say that open access to the Internet is a basic human right but it serves as a slap on the wrist for some of the worst
abusers of people's rights.
While the resolution had overwhelming support from most countries, the usual suspects opted to vote no. In addition to Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, South Africa and India also failed to offer their support.
no voters even had the nerve to ask the UNHRC to strike a passage that condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online. That effort was thankfully rejected by at least 70
No one is expecting a non-binding resolution to make any real difference in some of the countries where public Internet access is often censored, but at the very least this sends a message that most of the world is against such
The United Nations Special Rapporteurs on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, and on freedom of expression, David Kaye, have called on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release musicians Mehdi Rajabian and Yousef Emadi, and filmmaker
Hossein Rajabian, who were imprisoned and heavily fined earlier this month. Ms. Bennoune said.
These three artists were sentenced for exercising their right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity, which in
turn results in unjustifiable restrictions on the right of all persons in Iran to have access to and enjoy the artsArtistic expression is simply not a crime.
The human rights experts contacted the Iranian authorities
on these cases earlier this year, including on the use of torture against Mr. Rajabian, musician and founder of Barg Music, an alternative music distributor in Iran.
Barg Music was the main medium broadcasting alternative music in
the country and had introduced more than 100 music albums and thousands of single records by Iranian alternative musicians, as well as female singers, to Iranian audiences, before being shut down by Revolutionary Guards in 2013.
In May 2015, and, according to the Government's answer to the UN experts, the three artists were sentenced to six years in prison and a fine of 50 million Rials each (some 1,658 USD) for
insulting Islamic sanctities , propaganda against the State and conducing illegal activities in the audiovisual affaires including through producing prohibited audiovisual material and performing an illegal and underground music site
. On appeal, the prison sentence was reduced to three years. Mr. Kaye said:
We take note that the sentence of the artists was reduced by the appeal court However, this verdict is still unacceptable: detaining someone
on the grounds of 'insulting the sacred' and 'propaganda against the state' is incompatible with international human rights standards.
Ms. Bennoune added:.
I am particularly
dismayed that Mehdi Rajabian, Yousef Emadi and Hossein Rajabian were allegedly forced to make self-incriminating televised 'confessions' to the charges of having produced prohibited audiovisual materials, to express regret for their work and to apologize
for broadcasting the voice of female singers, This amounts to an extraordinary attack against these artists, and one which has serious repercussions for others in Iran.
The arrest, conviction and sentencing of artists is entirely
unacceptable and in complete violation of international human rights law binding on Iran. The three artists should be released immediately and all charges dropped.
The expert's call has also been endorsed by the UN
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Mr. Juan E. Mendez.
Google has appealed to France's highest court after the country's internet censor ordered it to delete some of its search results globally.
In 2015, the Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) said Google should respect French right to be
forgotten rulings worldwide. Companies offering services to European citizens must comply with the ruling, even if their websites are not hosted in Europe.
But Google said the ruling could lead to abuse by less open and democratic countries. The company is now appealing against a 100,000-euro (£76,000) CNIL fine. Google says results can end up removed
even when those links point to truthful and lawfully published information like newspaper articles or official government websites .
Google currently blocks all right to be forgotten content from all searches for users with a European IP
address. Viewers from outside the EU and Europeans using non European proxies or VPNs can still access that links censored in Europe.
Google argues that a French authority such as the CNIL should not impose measures outside of the nation's
borders . Kent Walker, the company's general counsel said:
For hundreds of years, it has been an accepted rule of law that one country should not have the right to impose its rules on the citizens of other
In an open letter published in French newspaper Le Monde, Google said it had already received requests from countries to block content worldwide that was illegal locally. The letter said:
If French law applies globally, how long will it be until other countries - perhaps less open and democratic - start demanding that their laws regulating information likewise have global reach?
This order could lead to a global
race to the bottom, harming access to information that is perfectly lawful to view in one's own country.
This is not just a hypothetical concern. We have received demands from governments to remove content globally on various
We have resisted, even if that has sometimes led to the blocking of our services.
According to AFP, Google expects the Council of State, France's highest court, will take at least a year to review its
An Aleppo-based journalist training women to report on the crisis in war-torn Syria, an Indonesian comic who jokes about Islamic extremism and a 19-year-old campaigner against repression in Eritrea are among those shortlisted for the
2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards .
Drawn from more than 400 crowdsourced nominations, the Index awards shortlist celebrates
artists, writers, journalists and campaigners tackling censorship and fighting for freedom of expression. Many of the 20 shortlisted nominees are regularly targeted by authorities or by criminal and extremist groups for their work: some face regular
death threats, others criminal prosecution.
Judges for this year's awards are Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, pianist James Rhodes, tech entrepreneur Bindi Karia, Colombian journalist Maria Teresa Ronderos, human rights
lawyer Kirsty Brimelow QC and Bahraini campaigner Nabeel Rajab.
Censorship is not something that happens 'somewhere else. It occurs on a daily basis in every country, in every part of the world. The shortlist honours those who are among the bravest and most creative in tackling such threats.
Awards are offered in four categories: journalism; arts; campaigning; and digital activism.
Nominees include Good Chance Theatre who work in the infamous "Jungle" refugee camp in
Calais, France; imprisoned Bahraini academic and blogger Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace, who has continued to protest in prison despite being subjected to torture and abuse for daring to speak out on human rights abuses in his country; GreatFire, an anonymous
group that battles China's severe web censorship; and Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran reporter who was arrested, interrogated and forced out of his job for criticising Thailand's military government.
Other nominees include Zaina
Erhaim, who returned to her native Syria to report on the conflict and train women to tell unreported stories; Sakdiyah Ma'ruf, a female Muslim stand-up comedian from Indonesia; and campaigner Nkosilathi Emmanuel Moyo, a Zimbabwean who fights corruption
in his country, currently in hiding after sending Robert Mugabe a prison uniform for his 92nd birthday this month.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has ludicrously called for films showing smoking to be given an adult rating.
Movies showing use of tobacco products have enticed millions of young people worldwide to start smoking , the WHO claimed in a
statement. Dr Douglas Bettcher, WHO's director for the department of prevention of non-communicable diseases, added:
With ever tighter restrictions on tobacco advertising, film remains one of the last channels
exposing millions of adolescents to smoking imagery without restrictions. Smoking in films can be a strong form of promotion for tobacco products.
Of course WHO is unconcerned by the effects of film censors being forced to award
blatantly stupid ratings and the effect that this would have on parents' trust and support of movie ratings.