Netizen Report: Journalists are under fire from Cambodia to Cuba — and beyond

A newsstand advertising The Citizen, an independent newspaper in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo by Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from July 20 – August 9, 2019.

Journalists working online across the globe face legal threats all too often. While state authorities will sometimes press charges against journalists in direct response to their work, other times they will pursue a criminal case or accusation against a journalist without explicit reference to the person’s reporting, accusing them of crimes like tax evasion. Here are a few recent examples from Cuba to Cambodia and beyond.

Cambodian journalists face espionage trial

On July 25, trial proceedings began for two Cambodian journalists who were arrested in 2017 and charged with espionage. Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin had worked for the US government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA), which left the country shortly before the arrests, due to rising pressure against media outlets in Cambodia. The two were held in detention for nine months until they were released on bail and placed under a travel ban.

Much evidence brought forth by the state in the journalists’ trial has come from Uon Chhin's computers and phones, which authorities confiscated when making their arrest. Prosecutors have focused on evidence that both journalists continued sending information and videos to RFA, despite no longer formally working for the media organization.

Cuban journalists detained, threatened with university expulsion

A reporter and photographer for Periodismo de Barrio, a web-based independent media outlet in Havana, and media partner of Global Voices, were detained by police in Holguín province who claimed to be investigating a nearby robbery. The two journalists were taken to a nearby police station, where they were not asked about the robbery, but instead were interrogated about their media work. The police confiscated the journalists’ laptops and cameras and erased several of their files.

The journalists later reported that the officers told them that they did not have permission to work as journalists in the province and that their work was “giving ammunition to the enemy.” They threatened the photographer, who is a student at the University of Havana, with expulsion.

The case is one among various instances in which independent media workers in Cuba have faced questions or threats from police regarding their accreditation to practice journalism. Web-based media outlets in Cuba are facing new levels of pressure from the state since early July, when a decree was issued that prohibits Cuban citizens from running websites hosted outside of the country. Nearly all locally-run media sites and blogs use foreign hosting services, as Cuba’s only local hosting service (provided by the state) does not allow publications that constitute “news media.”

Bulgarian officials target investigative news site editor in hacking case

The government of Bulgaria issued a European investigation order against Atanas Tchobanov, the editor-in-chief of Bivol Bulgaria, an investigative news website. The order connects Tchobanov with a computer crime investigation, about which he says he has no knowledge.

Over the past year Bivol Bulgaria has published several reports of corruption and one of its reports deals with the acquisition of a posh villa by the prosecutor general at half price. On August 1, the chief of the anti-corruption body of Bulgaria resigned following Bivol’s investigative report.

Tanzanian journalist jailed on spurious tax evasion charges

On July 29, police forcibly removed journalist Erick Kabendera from his home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and took him into police custody. Police say Kabendera had failed to obey a summons to investigate the status of his Tanzanian citizenship.

By August 5, authorities had changed course and instead decided to charge Kabendera with money laundering, tax evasion, and criminal racketeering. Kabendera has been critical of President John Magufuli’s administration and often speaks out in favor of press freedom. He has reported on Tanzania’s divisive politics for international and local media such as The Guardian,  African Arguments and The East African.

Ugandan feminist who criticized president is sentenced for cyber harassment

High-profile feminist scholar Stella Nyanzi was found guilty of cyber harassment for a poem she wrote criticizing Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in 2018. On August  2, a Kampala court sentenced Nyanzi to 18 months in prison for cyber harassment, under the Computer Misuse Act. Nyanzi, known for using “radical rudeness” as a form of political protest, has been awaiting trial in prison for nine months after publishing her poem, which makes several graphic references to Museveni's deceased mother's vagina.

Indonesian YouTuber censored for ‘vulgar’ content

YouTube locally censored or “geoblocked” three videos made by popular game vlogger Kimi Hime in response to a removal request filed by Indonesia’s Ministry of IT. The Ministry claims the videos violate the Information and Electronic Transactions Act (UU ITE), which critics have described as a tool for censorship, and YouTube, which is owned by Google, appears to have geo-blocked the videos as a result. The company says it typically requires governments to present a court order before it will locally block content, but in this case the order of the Ministry appears to have done the job.

As internet opens up in Ethiopia, disinformation runs rampant

As part of its democratic reforms, Ethiopia’s relatively new government stopped blocking websites from Ethiopian diaspora opposition groups and ended politically-motivated content filtering that had been imposed for years. But in the absence of developed local media institutions, Facebook has become the primary portal for news and information for Ethiopian internet users. “For every political development, a fresh set of broadcasts appears,” writes media studies scholar Endalk Chala.

Formerly fringe Ethiopian social media figures have benefited from Ethiopia’s new opening. They are mostly diaspora-based monologuists broadcasting from their living rooms, complaining vigorously about the Ethiopian government, and attacking each other. Facebook is their headquarters…

Many of these content creators share inaccurate and blatantly false reporting. They run Facebook pages populated by people who share similar political views, hardening political differences by creating echo chambers, information-cascade and filter bubble effects among Ethiopia’s diverse ethnolinguistic groups.

Mass shootings in the US trigger calls for censorship

Legal protections for free speech and internet companies’ abilities to moderate user activity are in focus this week in the US, following multiple mass shootings that were announced by perpetrators on the web platform 8chan.

The website, a forum heavily associated with hateful activism and child pornography, has been floundering since August 4, when the DDoS protection service CloudFlare spontaneously decided to terminate service for 8chan, leaving it vulnerable to attack. This move, and the broader challenge of responding to violent speech under a free speech regime as far-reaching as that of the US, has been the subject of heated discussion among experts and lawmakers.

Amazon is helping US police departments conduct warrantless surveillance

VICE’s Motherboard blog reported that at least 200 police departments in the US are working with Amazon to promote its surveillance hardware and neighborhood watch app, Ring. The Ring app allows police to easily request and collate video footage from residents’ doorbell cameras. Residents must give their permission before police can obtain video, but police have no obligation to seek or present a warrant when asking for camera footage.

Under some of these partnerships, police who encourage local residents to buy and install Ring doorbell cameras (small, cloud-based surveillance cameras that affix to the front door or doorbell of a person’s residence) are given discounts on Ring products. One such agreement, made with a police department in the state of Florida, was discontinued after the Motherboard story went public.

New research

Digital Safety Kit – Committee to Protect Journalists

Big Data, Not Big Brother: New Data Protection Laws and the Implications for Independent Media Around the World – Ayden Férdeline, Center for International Media Assistance


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