Netizen Report: Ethiopia Cracks Down on Free Expression


Ellery Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Alex Laverty, Hae-in Lim, and Sarah Myers contributed to this report.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in digital rights around the world. This  week's report begins in Ethiopia, where, on April 25, six members of the Zone Nine blogging collective, known for their critiques of government policy and political repression, were arrested in Addis Ababa. One journalist suspected of association with the group was also taken into custody. The next day, two more journalists were arrested on similar grounds. According to local sources, the bloggers have since been issued charges of  “working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and…receiving finance to incite public violence through social media.” Various members of the group have worked with Global Voices as authors and translators. In 2012, Zone Nine worked in partnership with Global Voices to create Global Voices in Amharic. In a post about the arrests, Zone Nine member Endalk explained the origin of the group’s name:

“In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents.

When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.”

Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have called for their release.

Free Expression: Saudi to ensure “quality content” on YouTube

Saudi officials recently announced plans to take on the burden of ensuring “quality content” for its citizens on video platforms such as YouTube. Under the proposed plan, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media will soon tasked with issuing licenses to YouTube channels that pass the “quality” check. Saudi officials have been taken aback by the dozen or so Saudis who in recent weeks have uploaded YouTube videos criticizing the royal family and/or bemoaning their low salaries or unemployment.

A new law passed by Russia’s Duma requires bloggers with over 3,000 daily visitors to register with state media regulator Roskomnadzor. All registered bloggers then will face the same legal responsibilities as media outlets — including required blackout dates approaching elections — but with none of the same protections.

In a shrewd response to the policy shift, LiveJournal Russia rewired public-facing subscriber widgets so that any blog with over 2,500 subscribers will simply show a “2500+” symbol, rather than its true subscriber total. Leading search engine Yandex elected to discontinue its blog ranking service, once a popular feature.

Thuggery: US police raid home of Twitter user over parody account

Parody accounts are officially sanctioned by Twitter, but government officials don’t always get the joke. Mayor Jim Ardis of Peoria, a small city in the US state of Illinois, recently made an official police complaint against parody account @peoriamayor, in spite of first amendment protections for parody. Police obtained search warrants, raided the account holder’s home, and arrested the account holder’s roommate for unrelated marijuana possession. Ultimately, the state prosecutor declined to press charges on the grounds that state laws criminalizing impersonation of a public official do not cover electronic media. In previous cases, the defense has argued that parody accounts should be exempt from defamation charges if their false nature is plainly obvious. In the case of an account like @peoriamayor, which routinely tweeted messages referencing drug use and prostitution — such as “who stole my crackpipe?” — it seems likely that this standard would apply. Twitter has suspended @peoriamayor.

Chinese blogger Qin Zhihui received a three-year prison sentence by a Chinese court for “slander” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” according to CCTV. Qin is the first person among hundreds arrested in the government’s “anti-rumor” campaign to be sentenced.

Privacy: Experts say Canada’s new “privacy” law is bad for privacy

A Canadian law called the Digital Privacy Act (Bill S-4) intends to implement long-overdue data breach disclosure requirements in order to protect Canadians from identity theft. S-4 opponents like University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist say that it would lead to a host of privacy-reducing outcomes, including full legal immunity for any organization disclosing private user information to law enforcement—or any other organization claiming to investigate “an actual or potential [privacy] breach”—all without having to go to court.

Internet Governance: Kiwis to embrace Internet freedom?

New Zealand MP Garth Hughes introduced an Internet Rights and Freedoms Bill into Parliament to protect the right to Internet access, free expression and association, net neutrality, protection of anonymity, right to privacy and freedom from surveillance. The proposal includes a crowd-sourced consultation process that would enable New Zealanders to discuss the formulation of the bill.

Governments, civil society, companies, and academic and technical communities gathered in Sao Paulo last week to debate the future of Internet governance at NETmundial. Participants hotly debated net neutrality, mass surveillance and “permissionless” innovation, culminating in the Multistakeholder Statement of Sao Paulo, a non-binding document that did not pack the punch on surveillance issues that many civil society groups had hoped for. In a remote appearance at the Arena NETmundial, the official side venue for the event, Julian Assange spoke on digital sovereignty, calling on civil society to “produce a different system” with “new networks of association, new defined principles and values.” Watch Advox members Ellery Biddle, Marianne Diaz and Ben Wagner discuss NETmundial on last week’s GV Face here.

Industry: Net neutrality’s last gasp in the US

The US Federal Communications Commission announced it will propose new rules to allow content producers, like Netflix and Disney, to pay Internet service providers for faster service, effectively killing off net neutrality once and for all. Guardian columnist Dan Gillmor writes that under the proposed rules, “Verizon and Comcast will have staggering power to decide what bits of information reach your devices and mine, in what order and at what speed.”

Netizen Activism: Mexico City residents protest telecom law with human chain

Thousands of protesters linked arms last Saturday to form a human chain, beginning at the headquarters of broadcasting giant Televisa and stretching across the city, in protest of amendments to the nation’s telecom law that could endanger online speech. Organizers intended for the chain to reach the home of President Enrique Pena Nieto, the bill’s chief proponent, but police forced protesters to alter its trajectory. Voting on the bill has been postponed until June.

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