Media Law Roundup: January 19, 2016

Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers Al Jazeera America’s closing, Poland’s contentious media law, India’s net neutrality battle, and more.

Al Jazeera America Terminates Operations, Close Down in April

On Wednesday, January 13, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) announced that the company would terminate all news and digital operations by April 30. AJAM CEO Al Anstey claimed the decision, “was driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. marketplace.” AJAM explains that the decision to close down coincides with a decision by its global parent company, Al Jazeera, to expand worldwide digital Al Jazeera English content into the U.S. market.  AJAM won several awards for excellence in journalism including Peabody and Emmy awards. However, according to Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent, Jordan Weissman, AJAM was destined to fail. Weissman criticizes AJAM’s low viewership, which he attributes to its Qatari origins. He also believes that AJAM’s mission to report unbiased news was flawed from the start, because American viewers gravitate towards more biased and sensationalist reporting. AJAM fans can still watch Al Jazeera English content online after the television station closes in April.


India Rejects Free Internet from Facebook’s Free Basics Initiative

At the end of December, India’s telecom regulator asked Reliance Communications to suspend the Free Basics app, Facebook’s initiative to provide free basic Internet services in developing countries. Through Free Basics users can access roughly 80 sites, including the BBC, Wikipedia, and Facebook, on their smart phones without a data plan. Free Basics launched in India on the Reliance Communications network in late November and was quickly met with backlash by net neutrality advocates. They argue that Free Basics gives preferential treatment to the few sites incorporated into the platform, such as Facebook, BBC News, and Wikipedia. A grassroots open Internet group,, has asked users to send letters to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) protesting Free Basics’ violation of net neutrality. In response to the resistance towards Free Basics, Facebook started an aggressive ad campaign, including a form on the Free Basics page urging users to voice their support to TRAI. Facebook claims that more than 11 million users voiced support, whereas the government reports that it had only received 1.89 million responses as  of January 6th. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed on December 28 in the Times of India advocating for Free Basics and claiming it will help “achieve digital equality for India.”


Poland Introduces Controversial Media Law, Sparks International Response

On January 7, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a media law granting the government control over appointments in public broadcasting. His spokeswoman, Malgorzata Sadurska, told reporters that, “it is important to President [Duda] that public media should be impartial, objective, and reliable…For this matter the president signed a law on radio and television.” This law inspired the Association of European Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists to issue a complaint stating: “The law on Public Service Media governance which has been hurriedly adopted by the Polish parliament proposes the removal of guarantees for the independence of public service TGV (TVP) and Radio (PR), in breach of Council of Europe norms.” Over 20,000 people participated in a rally in Warsaw opposing the new law, which has also received criticism from many EU leaders. In light of the law, Poland may not be allowed to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest, which is run by the European Broadcasting Union, one of the organizations strongly opposed to the new media law.


Wikipedia Celebrates 15th Birthday

January 15 marked Wikipedia’s 15th birthday, prompting a review of Wikipedia’s accomplishments and speculation about the website’s future. When Wikipedia began in 2001 it only had articles in English, German, Catalan, Swedish, French, Spanish and Russian. Now the encyclopedia is available in 280 languages, however the English version gets more than six times as many views as the next largest language, Japanese. Wikipedia has also played a role in politics—in 2004, China blocked access to the Chinese version of the site on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. In 2006, it was revealed that U.S. congressional staffers had edited political biographies, inciting debates about partisanship on Wikipedia. Most notably, on January 18, 2012, the site went dark for 24 hours to protest the two anti-piracy laws in Congress, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT IP Act). Some, however question the longevity of the website. According to Matthew Ingram of Fortune magazine, sustainable funding will be a major issue for the crowdsourced encyclopedia, as well as a lack of strong leadership.


Ghana Looks to ICTs to Improve Universal Healthcare

Ghana’s 67th Annual New Year School Conference contemplated the theme “Promoting Universal Health for a sustainable development in Ghana: Is ICT the Game Changer.” Professor Richard Adanu, Dean of the School of Public Health of the University of Ghana, explained that application of ICT could be widely influential if targeted at civilians, because they make decisions on whether or not a particular ailment needs medical attention. Knowledge sharing via voice and text SMS, and cell phone linkages between rural medical responders and specialists in cities could greatly improve healthcare in Ghana. He also highlighted Ghana’s reliance on paper based medical records as another area for application of ICT. Alex Segbefia, Ghanaian Minister of Health, said that ICT products in healthcare can improve diagnosis of ailments like malaria, which would ultimately cut costs of misdiagnosed treatments. He believes that Ghana and Africa must employ ICT in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.


Pakistan Unblocks Access to YouTube

More than three years after banning YouTube, on January 18th Pakistan unblocked the video sharing site. The initial ban was in response to the US-made film Innocence of Muslims, a 14-minute anti-Islamic video uploaded to YouTube in 2012. According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology, the ban has been lifted because “Google/YouTube will accordingly restrict access to… offending material for users within Pakistan.” However, YouTube claims that videos cannot be automatically filtered and are subject to thorough review before they are removed or restricted. Many young Pakistanis are excited to have access to YouTube, but some are skeptical of the deal between Google and the government and request greater transparency.


Canadians Consider Internet Services Amidst Legal Battle Over Infrastructure

Public consultations seeking consumer feedback about internet services have begun in Canada in anticipation of public hearings set for April. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is asking consumers what telecom services they feel are necessary, whether costs should be the same everywhere, and who is responsible for providing a minimum standard of Internet services—market forces, government, the CRTC or a combination of the three. These consultations come at a tumultuous time for the Canadian Internet industry as Bell Canada, a major Internet service provider, seeks to appeal a 2015 CRTC ruling stipulating that large telecom providers, like Bell, must share their high-speed infrastructure with other carriers on a wholesale basis. According to Josh Tabish of OpenMedia, “it’s tricky to make arguments about the type of services Canadians have and will have available to them while Bell is trying to restrict the range of services that will be made available and reshape the marketplace in their favour as this consultation is going on.” Bell’s appeal raises concerns about investment and whether telecom giants like Bell should have the exclusive right to their technology or will have to share. Bell spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis said in an email statement on January 14th that “it’s long been federal policy to encourage investment and we don’t agree that companies that plan to invest little or nothing should simply be allowed to ride on the networks we and other committed companies have built.” Large technology groups such as Cisco and BlackBerry support Bell’s appeal as well as the cities of Toronto and Ottawa, while independent Internet service providers, consumer groups, and the mayor of Calgary oppose it.

Featured photo credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Joi

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