Media Law Roundup: November 16, 2015

Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news from around the world. This week’s issue covers the Russian service laws, Syrian connectivity, Freedom of Expression in Turkey, Asia, and more.

Egyptian Human Rights Activist Detained, Released

This week, Egyptian military prosecutors released Cairo-based journalist Hossam Bahgat, who was arrested on November 9 for publishing false news related to an article about an allegedly-foiled military coup.  Bahgat is one of Egypt’s most prominent human rights figures and was investigated solely for his work as a journalist, according to international group Human Rights Watch (HRW). On the morning of November 8, Bahgat reported to military intelligence headquarters in Cairo after receiving a summons three days before. While he was held by prosecutors, his location was not disclosed, even to his lawyers. HRW called on Egyptian military prosecutors to release him immediately, saying “no civilian should face military prosecution.” On the morning of November 10, Bahgat was released from holding after signing a statement written by military personnel agreeing to abide by legal and security procedures when publishing written material. It is still unknown whether the charges against him were dropped at the time of his release. According to HRW, the incriminating article “detailed the military prosecution of 26 officers and two Muslim Brotherhood members for allegedly planning to overthrow the government.” HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson says that the way Egypt continues to handle Bahgat’s case is a defining moment for repression in the country.


ITC’s Internet Regulation Power Restricted

Open-internet advocacy groups applauded a decision by the US Court of Appeals that ruled the International Trade Commission (ITC) does not have the authority to regulate information on the internet, according to The Verge. Although the ITC’s powers were traditionally established to govern physical goods as they cross borders, the organization’s significant power has often been extended to digital goods as well, particularly copyright and patent technology. The recent decision is the result of a case initially opened by Invisalign, a company that holds a patent on software that models clear dental braces for adults. ClearCorrect, another company manufacturing the same basic product, was able to “skirt normal legal mechanisms” for the patent by running the software used to servers in Pakistan. Judge Sharon Prost said that the ruling intended to realign the ITC’s powers with the original intent of Congress, which centered on securing the ITC’s place as a regulator of physical, not digital, goods. Internet advocacy groups including Public Knowledge, have called the ruling a big win for open internet.  Charles Duan, Director of the Patent Reform Project at Public Knowledge says that “by rejecting the ITC’s attempt to expand its jurisdiction, the Federal Circuit helps to ensure that Internet users have unfettered access to the free flow of information.”


Rouhani Advocates for Transparent Media Regulations, Freedom of Speech

This week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke out in support of freedom of the press amid a rising number of detained journalists in Iran and elsewhere in the region, NBC News reports. Rouhani emphasized in his statement this week the difference between criticism and ‘smearing’ or ‘insulting.’ In Iran alone, five journalists and activists have been arrested by the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A number of human rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have routinely called on government authorities to release journalists in countries where journalists are frequently arrested. Keeping in line with his typically-moderate voice on matters of national importance, Rouhani also called for ‘transparent media regulations’ and a reform in the way government-run news agencies operate. “The government must be criticized,” said Rouhani, “but criticizing does not mean lying.”


Twitter, Facebook to be Held to Russia’s Data Localization Law

This week, Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor stated that Twitter will now need to abide Russia’s new data localization law. In 2014, Moscow passed a law “that demands internet services which store Russian citizens’ personal data must do so using Russia-based servers [starting] September 2015,” the BBC reports. Initially, Roskomnadzor said the law would not apply to Twitter because it believed the company did not store personal data. According to the regulator, a recent change in Twitter’s terms and conditions has made the US company subject to Russia’s new data localization laws. Roskomnadzor Head of Federal Service Alexander Zharov told the Financial Times that Twitter, “…changed their user agreement some months ago. People must provide a set of metadata, which counts as personal data and [makes it possible] to identify an individual.” Facebook is also now being targeted by Roskomnadzor, as the social media giant was initially exempt from the law but now falls under its regulations. Supporters of Russian data localization highlight the rule’s national security benefits, saying that it will help protect the public’s data. Critics however have been quick to call it another thinly-veiled attempt by the Russian government to tighten its control over the internet. Roskomnadzor has the ability to fine and block sites in Russia that refuse to comply.


Aleppo Sees First Internet Connectivity in 7 Months

This week authorities detected the first signs of the internet returning to Syria’s largest city, which has been without service since March 24, 2015. According to research group Dyn Research, internet connectivity, and the lack of it, has been a continuing subplot to the civil war, now in its fifth year. Many factors of the war have dictated exactly how internet service in Aleppo is maintained, including its route. Because the Syrian government no longer has control of the ground between northern Syria and Turkey, internet here will no longer be routed through Turkey via Türk Telecom. Dyn points to recent Russian and Iranian engagement in the area as the catalyst for internet restoration. The first internet shutdown in Syria occurred in 2011 during Arab Spring protests and lasted for only 48 hours. Since the initial outage, Syria has seen multiple service blackouts amid its ongoing civil war. On November 5, Syrian press outlets began publishing articles about the rumored return of internet service, sparking conversation on Twitter and other social media sites.


EU Report Reveals Little Progress in Turkish Online Freedoms

On November 10, the European Commission released a delayed progress report outlining and evaluating Turkey’s current management of national issues to be addressed before its EU bid. The report highlighted issues of media freedom and freedom of expression in particular, Today’s Zaman reports. In the text, EU leaders appear concerned with Turkey’s negative trend in these freedoms, which the EU holds as fundamental rights for citizens of all EU nations. In reaction to the report, Economic Development Foundation (İKV) Secretary-General Çiğdem Nas spoke out stating that, “power struggles in Turkish politics should not result in a regression of principles such as freedom of expression,” says Nas. She claimed that if Turkey is going to accelerate its accession process into the European Union, it should change the perception that it is a country outside of EU standards.  In her own critique, Nas underlined the importance of internet freedom and tolerance against criticism. She also asserted that “hindering expressions encouraging violence.” EU Commissioner Johannes Han said in a statement that hesitation in Turkey’s EU bid is not limited to the country’s treatment of online freedoms. Other issues such as energy and foreign security have contributed to the friction between those vying for Turkey’s inclusion.


Freedom of Expression to be Addressed at ASEAN Summit

This week, international human rights group Amnesty International called on leaders of Southeast Asian countries to address issues of freedom of expression during the November 18 Association of Southeast nations (ASEAN) Summit. The summit, which will take place in Kuala Lumpur for 5 days, will convene government leaders from Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia, all countries facing official repression of freedom of speech. In a statement online, Amnesty International calls for these governments to “respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and repeal or amend laws that violate this right.” The organization cites specific examples of threats to freedom of expression in each country and what can be done in order to address these shortcomings. Many countries in this region, have seen an increase in the numberof journalist arrests in 2015. With many laws in place to criminalize journalists and activists for posting content critical of their national government, these types of arrests have become routine. Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Interim Director for South East Asia and Pacific regional office, says that national leaders must not leave the summit without committing to end the ongoing assault of human rights defenders.


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