Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers Twitter’s controversial China director, Germany’s challenges with free speech, Whatsapp surveillance in Kashmir, and more.
CHINA SECURITY: TWITTER’S FIRST CHINA DIRECTOR SIGNALS CENSORSHIP AND STATE CONTROL, EPOCH TIMES
On April 15, Twitter appointed Kathy Chen as its first China managing director, which sparked concern due to her controversial background. In her new role Chen is expected to help secure Chinese advertisers for Twitter, however her background in China’s People’s Liberation Army has led many social media users worldwide to question her underlying motives. According to Chinese-language news sources, one of Chen’s goals at Twitter is to tell the “China story,” which worries Washington-based Chinese activist Yaxue Cao. “All this may sound innocuous to untrained ears, but it’s alarming to mainland Chinese Twitter users and seasoned China watchers,” said Cao. Jim Prosser, a Twitter spokesman, explained that the goal of Chen’s appointment is to expand business operations in China, however many suspect that Twitter hired Chen to encourage Chinese authorities to lift the block. Prosser denied these claims and said, “We have no plans to change anything about our service in order to enter the market.”
UN RIGHTS EXPERT SEES THREATS TO PRESS INDEPENDENCE IN JAPAN, THE NEW YORK TIMES
On April 19, U.N. Special Rapporteur David Kaye called upon the Japanese Government to bolster protection of the media. Kaye visited Japan to interview journalists and government officials and found that many Japanese journalists feared reporting on sensitive topics and criticizing politicians. “The independence of the press is facing serious threats — a weak system of legal protection, persistent government exploitation of a media lacking in professional solidarity,” Kaye said. He also criticized the Specially Designated Secrets Act law, which allows the government to revoke broadcasting licenses over perceived violations. Although the penalty has never been carried out, Kaye worries it is so broad that the law inhibits journalists from reporting on controversial matters. He also advocated for passing an anti-discrimination law prior to addressing hate speech, which he fears, without necessary protections, can backfire and curb freedom of expression. Despite Kaye’s criticisms of Japan’s press, he commended the nation for its commitment to internet freedom, stating: “I want to emphasize as well how important a model Japan presents in the area of freedom on the Internet. The very low level of Government interference with digital freedoms illustrates the Government’s commitment to freedom of expression.”
GERMANY’S MERKEL CRITICIZED FOR ALLOWING PROSECUTION OF COMEDIAN WHO MOCKED ERDOGAN, JAKARTA GLOBAL
On April 15, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to allow prosecutors to pursue a case against Jan Boehmermann after he mocked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on television, suggesting that Erdogan hits girls, watches child pornography and engages in bestiality. Erdogan accused Boehmermann of violating a German statute from 1871 that prohibits insulting a foreign head of state. Merkel authorized the prosecution stating that, “in a state under the rule of law, it is not a matter for the government but rather for state prosecutors and courts to weigh personal rights issues and other concerns affecting press and artistic freedom.” Many suspect that Merkel caved to Erdogan in order to secure Turkey’s cooperation on a deal halting refugee migration to Europe. Kai Diekmann, publisher of Germany’s mass-selling newspaper Bild responded critically, asking, “has Germany, with the Turkey deal, made itself susceptible to blackmail?” Many members of Merkel’s own cabinet opposed her decision, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Justice Minister Heiko Maas, both Social Democrats. In a joint statement they said, “We are of the view that the authorization for prosecution … should not have been granted.”
US, RUSSIAN OFFICIALS MEET ‘PERIODICALLY’ TO DISCUSS CYBERSECURITY, SPUTNIK
US and Russian officials met in Geneva on April 21-22 to discuss cyber security and counterterrorism issues. Officials reviewed “confidence-building” agreements signed in 2013 by the two governments and renew relations to prevent a cyber war. “This meeting is not a restart of the Bilateral Presidential Commission working group, but it is in our interest to discuss cybersecurity issues with Russia, including to review the 2013 Bilateral U.S.-Russia Cyber [confidence-building measures],” said one senior U.S. official. The 2013 confidence-building measures were suspended in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, however officials have still held occasional meetings. “We meet periodically with Russia on cyber issues and such other core national security issues as counterterrorism,” the official added. This meeting comes just after the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, released a proposal detailing measures to counter the US and its allies in an information war. In the proposal released on April 18, Bastrykin calls for censorship of electronic media that is fully or partially owned by foreign residents. According to Bastrykin, these measures would reduce extremism in Russia, however Pavel Chikov, head of the Russian human rights group Agora, doubts that this proposal would have any impact on rates of Russian extremism.
2016 WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX–LEADERS PARANOID ABOUT JOURNALISTS, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS
On April 20, Reporters Without Borders released its 2016 World Press Freedom Index which ranks countries based on journalistic freedoms. This year’s index reflects several changes in the global media landscape as certain countries have risen and declined in the rankings. For example, Africa was ranked more free than the Americas this year, where violence against journalists is increasing. Tunisia and Ukraine improved significantly due to reduced conflict, while Poland, Tajikistan and Brunei fell furthest due to tight government control of the press. “The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately-owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. “Guaranteeing the public’s right to independent and reliable news and information is essential if humankind’s problems, both local and global, are to be solved.”
EGYPT PARLIAMENT WARNS MEDIA AGAINST ‘EXCEEDING LIMITS’ OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH, AHRAM ONLINE
On April 18 Egypt’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Abdel-Al, announced that parliament is prepared to take legal action against MPs who defame parliament as well as television shows that, “direct criticism at MPs in a way which exceeds the limits of freedom of expression.” Parliament released an official statement titled “Freedom of Expression Should Not Be Used to Justify Slandering and Insulting Institutions,” which instructs MPs who write articles or speak on television to be careful not to tarnish the image of parliament. Although articles 65 and 70 of Egypt’s new constitution protect freedom of expression this statement differentiates between exercising free speech and defaming state institutions. “The first is an allowed form of political criticism, while the second only aims at tarnishing the image of state institutions and disparaging them,” the statement said. This statement was released after parliament voted to expel independent MP Samir Ghattas in the same morning session on April 18. “This MP is fond of defaming parliament in every possible way and I urge all MPs who like to talk to TV programmes to be careful and read very well legal articles about the crime of slander,” said Abdel-Al about Ghattas. According to Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi El-Agati, three new media laws are being drafted by the justice department to regulate free speech.
ALL WHATSAPP GROUPS TO BE MONITORED IN JAMMU & KASHMIR’S KUPWARA, TIMES OF INDIA
On April 18 the district administration of Jammu and Kashmir issued a circular demanding that admins of news-sharing WhatsApp groups in Kashmir register with the district. “The creator of any particular WhatsApp group will have to fill in a form at the District Magistrate’s office. In the form, he will have to provide names, mobile numbers and location of all the members of that group,” said a spokesperson at the National Informatics Centre in Kupwara. The admin of each group will be held responsible for all posts made in the group and must register within 10 days of the announcement. This announcement comes after authorities had suspended internet access in Kashmir to prevent rumors from spreading after five people were killed during violent protests in Handwara and Kupwara the week prior. Tehseen Poonawalla, a Delhi-based entrepreneur and activist, plans to file a writ petition before the Supreme Court to challenge the government order. Poonawalla said, “This is really bizarre. How can they invigilate what is being circulated in text message groups. This is similar to imposition of e-curfew.” Others, such as businessman Fayaz Ahmad, support the directive. “Irresponsible posts can cause mayhem with lives of the people — as we saw in some cases like Handwara — and also with the economy of Kashmir,” said Ahmad.