Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers censorship in China, Iran’s National Internet Project, Vietnam’s blog crackdown, and more.
On March 30, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court sentenced Nguyen Ngoc Gia, a prominent Vietnamese blogger, to prison in Hanoi for disseminating “propaganda against the state.” Gia was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of probation under article 88 of the Penal Code, which prescribes maximum penalties of 20 years in prison for “propagandizing” against the state. Gia’s conviction comes just a week after bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were convicted under article 258 of the Penal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms.” Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior Southeast Asia representative, was disappointed to see Vietnam clamp down on free speech. “The conviction of blogger Nguyen Ngoc Gia underscores the extraordinary lengths Vietnam’s leaders will take to suppress any criticism of their rule…rather than imprisoning journalists on trumped up charges, Vietnam should instead strive to abolish the various laws that are habitually used to suppress free speech and independent journalism,” Crispin said.
ERDOGAN’S ATTEMPT TO SUPPRESS GERMAN SATIRE HAS THE OPPOSITE EFFECT, THE NEW YORK TIMES
Turkish President Recep Erdogan summoned the German ambassador to Turkey on March 22 and again on March 29 to demand that he take down the YouTube clip, “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan,” by the German satire program extra3. The clip mocks Erdogan for his antidemocratic measures, such as cracking down on journalists and attacking Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Erdogan’s characteristic response boosted online interest in the video clip, which by March 31 had over four million views. According to Sawsan Chebli, spokeswoman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry, in his correspondences with Erdogan, Ambassador Erdmann “made clear that political satire in Germany is, of course, protected and therefore there is neither a necessity, nor a possibility, for the government to take action.” According to Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, Erdogan’s attempt to silence German satire “is an indication of a clear misunderstanding of Western press freedoms.”
ETHIOPIA’S ZONE9 BLOGGERS GO BACK TO COURT, GLOBALVOICES
On March 29, four members of the Zone9 blogging collective were brought to court for a second time. The group tried to stimulate political debate on their blog, because most professional media outlets in Ethiopia are heavily censored by the government. The bloggers, Abel Wabela, Atnaf Berahane, Natnael Feleke, and Befeqadu Hailu, were originally arrested in April 2014 under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act. They were acquitted in October 15, yet this new court mandate signals the possibility of a long-term prison sentence. When the bloggers were acquitted their passports had been confiscated and they had a difficult time finding work. Blogger Atnaf Berahane told Voice of America, “after my release I basically do nothing, because I know that every move I make will be traced. I am afraid that I may go to prison…. the appeal is like a chain to me right now. I am preparing myself for prison.” Their March 29 court appearance was brief and ended with a postponement to May 25.
On March 29, the freedom of expression group Article 19 published “Tightening the Net: Internet Security and Censorship in Iran,” a report detailing the implications of Iran’s National Internet Project. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the National Internet Project in 2006 and it is due for completion in 2019. The project aims to improve current communications infrastructure and boost ICT development by bringing 20 Mbps broadband to main cities and expanding coverage in rural areas. However, with these technical developments comes increased censorship and filtering aimed at isolating Iran from the global internet. Reza Taghipour, Minister of Information and Communications Technology from 2009-2012, told Mehr News Agency that “[i]solation of the clean internet from the unclean portion will make it impossible to use the internet for unethical and dirty businesses.” According to Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, 40% of content visited by Iranians is hosted inside the country, but the government’s intention is to double this to at least 80%. David Diaz-Jogeix, director of programmes at Article 19, believes that the National Internet Project will severely limit freedom of speech for Iranians. “The completion of this project in its current form would have a devastating impact on internet users, and severely limit freedom of expression for people inside Iran,” Diaz-Jogeix stated.
On March 28, Yu Shaolei, an editor at the Chinese newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, posted a resignation note online, stating that he could no longer tow the Communist Party line. Yu posted a photo of his resignation form on his Sina Weibo microblog, citing “unable to bear your surname” as his reason for resignation. This refers to President Xi Jinping’s announcement in February that journalists must “bear the surname of the Party” to demonstrate absolute loyalty. His resignation note was quickly removed by censors to which Yu sarcastically replied, “To the person responsible for watching my weibo feed and notifying their superiors about what to delete, you can heave a sigh of relief now, apologies for causing you stress over the last few years, and I sincerely wish your career will head in a new direction.”
CHINA SEEKS MORE LEGAL MUSCLE TO BLOCK FOREIGN WEBSITES, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
On March 28, China released new guidelines on internet regulations, including a rule that would prohibit Chinese internet service providers from allowing access to sites with domains registered outside China. If fully implemented, violators would face fines of up to 30,000 yuan ($4,621) and public notices exposing their failure to comply. These regulations would ultimately isolate China, the world’s most populous country, from the global internet. According to Lokman Tsui, an expert in media and technology policy at Chinese University of Hong Kong, it is unclear whether these regulations will be strongly enforced as similar rules in the past have been applied weakly. “They can always backtrack since it’s vague and enforcement is sometimes lax, but given the current climate, it seems to be in line with the increasing crackdown on press and Internet freedom,” said Lokman. Many foreign business groups fear that these new regulations will further isolate China in the global marketplace. Jake Parker, Vice President of China Operations for the U.S.-China Business Council said, “China’s government is seeking more opportunities for Chinese companies to develop markets overseas…policies of this sort will do nothing to advance that goal and will instead make its economy and businesses less integrated into the global marketplace.” These regulations are open for public comment online until April 25.