(New York) – The Bangladeshi government should review and reform the proposed Digital Security Act (DSA) instead of enacting the law in its current form, Human Rights Watch said today.
On January 29, 2018, the cabinet approved a draft law, intended to replace the much-criticized Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT). The draft is even broader than the law it seeks to replace and violates the country’s international obligation to protect freedom of speech.
After the repeated abuse of section 57 of the ICT Act to prosecute journalists and others for criticizing the prime minister, her family, or her government on social media, Bangladesh authorities committed to repeal the law. Although the proposed new law to replace the ICT Act limits prosecutions for defamation to those that could be prosecuted under the penal code and imposes an intent requirement for certain offenses, it also contains provisions that are even more draconian than those in section 57.
Section 14 of the draft would authorize sentences of up to 14 years in prison for spreading “propaganda and campaign against liberation war of Bangladesh or spirit of the liberation war or Father of the Nation.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a party, has expressly stated that laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are incompatible with a country’s obligations to respect freedom of opinion and expression.
Section 25(a) would permit sentences of up to three years in prison for publishing information which is “aggressive or frightening” – broad terms that are not defined in the proposed statute. The use of such vague terms violates the requirement that laws restricting speech be formulated with sufficient precision to make clear what speech would violate the law. The vagueness of the offense, combined with the harshness of the potential penalty, increases the likelihood of self-censorship to avoid possible prosecution.
Section 31, which would impose sentences of up to ten years in prison for posting information which “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation,” is similarly flawed. With no clear definition of what speech would be considered to “ruin communal harmony” or “create instability,” the law leaves wide scope for the government to use it to prosecute speech it does not like.
Almost any criticism of the government may lead to dissatisfaction and the possibility of public protests. The government should not be able to punish criticism on the grounds that it may “disturb the law and order situation.”
Section 31 also covers speech that “creates animosity, hatred or antipathy among the various classes and communities.” While the goal of preventing inter-communal strife is an important one, it should be done in ways that restrict speech as little as possible. UN human rights experts have stated that:
It is absolutely necessary in a free society that restrictions on public debate or discourse and the protection of racial harmony are not implemented at the detriment of human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
The law’s overly broad definition of “hate speech” opens the door for arbitrary and abusive application of the law and creates an unacceptable chill on the discussion of issues relating to race and religion.
Section 29, like section 57 of the ICT Act, criminalizes online defamation. While section 29, unlike the ICT Act, limits defamation charges to those that meet the requirements of the criminal defamation provisions of the penal code, it is nevertheless contrary to a growing recognition that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment.
Section 28 would impose up to five years in prison for speech that “injures religious feelings.” While this provision, unlike section 57 of the ICT, requires intent, that addition is insufficient to bring it into compliance with international norms. As noted in the seminal Handyside case, freedom of expression is applicable not only to information or ideas “that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” A prohibition on speech that hurts someone’s religious feelings, reinforced by criminal penalties, cannot be justified as a necessary and proportionate restriction on speech.
“The Digital Security Act is utterly inconsistent with Bangladesh’s obligation to protect freedom of speech,” said Adams. “Parliament should reject the bill and insist on a law that truly respects the right of the country’s citizens to speak freely.”
More than 250 organizations and platforms from all over the world have signed a letter expressing their grave concern over the shrinking space for civil society in Hungary. Read the letter here:
On 13 February 2018, the Hungarian government tabled to Parliament a proposed legislative pack of three laws, commonly referred to as “Stop Soros.”.
The newly proposed legislation would further restrict Hungarian civil society’s ability to carry out their work, by requiring organizations that “support migration” to obtain national security clearance and a government permit to perform basic functions.
The proposed legislation would also require organizations to pay a tax of 25% of any foreign funding aimed at “supporting migration”. Failure to do so, would subject them to steps so serious that they could lead to exorbitant fines, bankruptcy, and the dissolving of the NGO involved.
These laws come in a context of already shrinking space for civil society in Hungary and contravene Hungary’s obligations under international law to protect the right to freedom of association, expression and movement.
We believe the new proposals represent the latest initiative in the Hungarian government’s escalating effort to crackdown on the legitimate work of civil society groups in Hungary seeking to promote and defend human rights, provide legal and social services to people in need in the country, and publicly express dissenting opinions in the press and online.
As defenders of rights and freedoms, we want people everywhere to be able to speak out without being attacked, threatened or jailed. Open debate on matters relating to government policies and practice is necessary in every society, and human rights defenders should not face criminalization for voicing their sometimes dissenting voices.
Countries need to put laws in place which keep human rights defenders safe from harm, rather than introducing repressive laws that aim to silence those who speak out.
Human rights defenders defend the rights of people in their own communities and their countries, and in doing so they protect all of our rights, globally. Human rights defenders are often the last line of defence for a free and just society and undertake immense personal risks and sacrifices to do their work.
We stand in solidarity with civil society and human rights defenders in Hungary.
They are courageous people, committed to creating a fairer society. Without their courage, the world we live in would be less fair, less just and less equal.
We are calling on the Hungarian Parliament to reject the proposed laws in their entirety and let the NGOs and defenders continue their work, instead of defending themselves against such attacks.
The below listed organizations declare their support and solidarity with non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders in Hungary (listed by country):
(Beirut) – The Bahrain High Criminal Court on February 21, 2018, sentenced the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab to five years in prison for criticizing torture in a Bahrain prison and Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. The new sentence is in addition to the two-year sentence that Rajab is already serving on other charges related to peaceful expression.
“The new prison sentence for Nabeel Rajab is only the latest chapter in years of persecution and efforts to silence an activist solely for his efforts to sound the alarm on human rights abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rajab should never have faced such charges or spent one day in prison for them.”
Authorities first arrested Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and deputy secretary general of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), on April 2, 2015, and filed charges based on his allegations on social media of torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison. Authorities released him provisionally on humanitarian grounds on July 13, 2015, but re-arrested him on June 13, 2016, for criticism in television interviews of the Bahraini authorities’ refusal to allow journalists and rights groups into the country.
This criticism led to a two-year prison term that a criminal court imposed in July 2017. The Court of Cassation upheld that sentence on January 15.
The new sentence is based on Rajab’s tweets on the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, which have killed thousands of civilians, and on alleged torture in Jaw Prison.
The BCHR reported that the Bahrain High Criminal Court had convicted Rajab based on article 133 of the Criminal Code for “disseminating false rumors in time of war”; Article 215 on “offending a foreign country” – in this case Saudi Arabia; and Article 216 for “insulting a statutory body,” based on comments to the media in March 2015 about alleged use of excessive force by security forces to quell unrest at Jaw Prison. Rajab can appeal this sentence.
Rajab, who also spent eight months in pretrial detention, appears at times to have been subjected to treatment that may amount to arbitrary punishment. He was held in solitary confinement for more than two weeks after his arrest in June 2016. Rajab’s health also deteriorated while in detention, his family has said. While in detention he has had several surgical procedures, suffered heart palpitations that led to hospitalization, and developed other medical conditions, including a low white blood cell count, his family said.
Rajab is a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee.
A top Kuwaiti court has released on bail 44 people who had been convicted and imprisoned after protesting and calling for the country’s prime minister to resign in 2011—prosecutions that smacked of intimidation and retaliation for criticizing authorities. A detainee’s family member and a defense lawyer confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they had been released Sunday night.
The protesters had been sentenced to between one and nine years in prison.
During the 2011 demonstration, protesters reportedly entered Kuwait’s parliament building as hundreds of people demonstrated outside, calling for Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah to step down over allegations that members of parliament had been paid bribes to support the government. The prime minister and his government ultimately resigned.
The vast majority of defendants received sentences for using force against police, but the court also found 65 people guilty of participating in an unlicensed public assembly or gathering, and 16 of crimes that appear to violate free speech rights, including insulting the emir and offending police. The court sentenced one defendant to an additional two years on charges of insulting the emir and offending police alone. Since their convictions, some of the detainees staged hunger strikes to protest their detention, and family members have held public protests outside of Kuwait’s parliament.
Kuwaiti authorities have long restricted the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. Parliament should repeal laws that criminalize peaceful assembly and expression.
The next court date in this case has been set for March 4, and Kuwait’s judiciary should take the opportunity to vacate any convictions that punished peaceful speech or assembly and demonstrate that there is room for the peaceful criticism of authorities in Kuwait.
Ranada is believed to be the first reporter denied access to Malacañang Palace since the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, who severely curtailed media freedom. It could portend a broader assault on journalists and news organizations, whose critical watchdog role has magnified the government’s poor human rights record, from extrajudicial killings of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users to conflict-related abuses in the south. Filipinos this week celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the 1986 People Power uprising that led to the ouster of Marcos, inspiring the world. They should also take this opportunity to show their support for a free press.
(Berlin) — Three Turkish journalists were convicted on February 16, 2018 on bogus charges related to the failed coup of 2016 and sentenced to life in prison, Human Rights Watch said today. They are the first journalists convicted of involvement in the coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Three other people were convicted on similar charges in the same case.
The journalists are Ahmet Altan, the former editor of the now defunct daily Taraf; Mehmet Altan, an economist and columnist; and the prominent commentator Nazlı Ilıcak. They were sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment on charges of “trying to overthrow the constitutional order.” The evidence against them consisted largely of their journalistic work, none of which advocated violence. The Istanbul area court hearing the case and the authorities both ignored an order by Turkey’s top court in January to release Mehmet Altan.
“The case against the Altan brothers, Ilıcak, and the others has been politically motivated from the very start,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The verdict sets a frightening precedent for the dozens of cases of other journalists, writers, and government critics currently on trial in Turkey.”
The Altans were first detained on September 10, 2016 over alleged links to the movement of United States-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the Turkish government deems a terrorist organization and blames for the violent coup attempt. Ilıcak was detained on July 26, 2016, during an operation that targeted journalists allegedly linked to the Gülen movement, and was formally placed under arrest three days later.
On September 22, 2016, an appeal judge in Istanbul ordered the release of Ahmet Altan while his case continued. But the prosecutor appealed the decision and he was remanded in custody less than 24 hours later on charges including the “attempt to overthrow the government” and “membership in a terrorist organization.” Also on September 22, the same court ordered Mehmet Altan kept in detention pending trial on the same charges.
The evidence cited in the indictment seen by Human Rights Watch appears to consist entirely of their work as journalists: news and opinion articles, as well as phone records and contact with alleged Gülenists. All of the cited journalistic works are expressions of opinions that are critical of the government but do not incite or advocate violence. There appears to be nothing that would indicate any kind of criminal wrongdoing, much less helping terrorism or planning a coup.
The trial of the journalists and four other defendants started on June 19, 2017 in the 26th Istanbul Heavy Penal Court. It was marred by procedural unfairness that undermined the defendants’ right to a defense. On November 13, the trial judge dismissed the Altans’ entire defense team, allegedly for “disorderly conduct in court.” The defense team had protested the judge’s refusal to let them see all the evidence against their clients prior to the prosecutor’s final statement, and subsequently accused the judge of being “partial.”
On February 12, the judge again ordered the lawyers for the Altan brothers and another defendant to be removed from court for “disorderly conduct” after they requested the inclusion of Constitutional Court decision on Mehmet Altan’s detention in the trial records. The trial was subsequently moved to a court in Silivri prison and continued there on February 13.
On January 11, the Turkish Constitutional Court, the highest in the country, had ruled that the pre-trial detention of Mehmet Altan for over a year violated his rights and was not supported by any substantial evidence, and ordered his immediate release. The lower courts refused to carry out this decision, in violation of Article 153 of the Turkish Constitution. The Turkish government backed the lower court’s defiance of the Constitutional Court. Six of the defendants in this case, including the Altan brothers and Ilıcak, were held in extended pre-trial detention of up to 19 months. The sentences handed down today mean that the defendants will have to serve at least 36 years in prison.
The other defendants include Fevzi Yazıcı, visual art director of the now-shuttered daily newspaper Zaman, Zaman’s brand manager Yakup Şimşek, and retired Police Academy lecturer Tuğrul Özşengül. They were also convicted of “trying to overthrow the constitutional order” despite a lack of any substantive evidence connecting them to any advocacy of violence, support of the coup, or other similar criminal activity. Tibet Murad Sanlıman, the owner of an advertising agency, was acquitted. At least ten other defendants listed in the original indictment have fled the country. Their cases have been separated out from the case file.
“Deniz Yücel’s overdue release does not in any way obscure the farcical situation that he is facing charges at all,” Williamson said. “Together with the verdict against the Altans and Ilıcak, it shows how far the Turkish government is willing to go to pervert justice to snuff out dissenting voices.”
(New York) – The Thai military should immediately withdraw criminal and civil defamation cases against a human rights activist who spoke out publicly about his torture by security forces in Thailand’s southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said today. The military has also brought defamation cases against prominent online media that reported the case.
“The Thai military is retaliating against a torture victim and the media that reported serious rights violations instead of holding its personnel to account,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thailand’s military junta, which controls the armed forces, should order the defamation cases dropped and launch a serious impartial investigation into these ill-advised reprisals.”
On February 14, 2018, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, in charge of the government’s security operations in the southern border provinces, filed criminal and civil complaints with the Muang Pattani police accusing Ismae, the founder of the Patani Human Right Organization (HAP), of defamation. These complaints followed allegations Ismae made on the Thai PBS TV program “Policy By People” on February 5 that he was tortured in military custody in 2008. On February 9, ISOC Region 4 filed another civil defamation complaint seeking 10 million baht (US$286,000) in damages from MGR Online news for its online reports about Ismae’s case.
The Thai military arrested Ismae and held him incommunicado in military detention in 2008 at the Ingkayuthboriharn Camp in Pattani province. Ismae said military interrogators electrocuted, punched, kicked, and beat him with a stick until he passed out. They also poured water on him to make him suffocate. Ismae said the torture was used to force him to confess that he was involved in a separatist insurgency. In October 2016, the Administrative Court ordered the army to pay Ismae compensation of 305,000 baht ($8,700) for emotional distress and physical injuries suffered. No security personnel have been prosecuted for Ismae’s torture and mistreatment.
In June 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) recommended that Thailand “should take all the necessary measures to: (a) put an immediate halt to harassment and attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, and community leaders; and (b) systematically investigate all reported instances of intimidation, harassment and attacks with a view to prosecuting and punishing perpetrators, and guarantee effective remedies to victims and their families.”
The Thai government has yet to prosecute successfully any security personnel for abuses against ethnic Malay Muslims alleged to be involved in the southern insurgency, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives since 2004. Moreover, the Thai penal code still does not recognize torture as a criminal offense.
Besides denying allegations of torture and other serious abuses committed by security personnel, the Thai military has frequently accused those bringing complaints of making false statements with the intent of damaging its reputation.
Attempts by the military to use defamation complaints against torture victims are contrary to Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s so-called national human rights agenda and his numerous promises to criminalize torture.
“Thai military prosecutions of a rights activist and the media for bringing the rampant problem of torture to light only undermines government claims that its actions in the deep south are in accordance with the law,” Adams said. “Its efforts against brutal separatist insurgents are not helped by covering up torture and other heinous crimes.”
(New York) – Cambodia’s parliament enacted amendments to the constitution and penal code that will further consolidate the ruling party’s power and stifle free speech, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia’s donors should publicly state that these continued moves towards a one-party state will have serious political, economic, and diplomatic consequences.
With the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) dissolved, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)-controlled National Assembly unanimously passed the amendments on February 14, 2018, following ratification by the Council of Ministers in early February. The changes next move to the rubber-stamp Senate for approval before being signed into law by King Norodom Sihamoni.
“Piece by piece, Prime Minister Hun Sen has constructed a legal and political system to cement himself as the country’s sole authority, without threat of opposition or dissent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “These amendments are the latest marker of his shift toward barefaced authoritarianism. The mask of democracy is off.”
The National Assembly passed amendments to five articles of the Cambodian constitution that tighten restrictions on voting rights and freedom of association and require every Cambodian citizen to “respect the constitution” and “defend the motherland.” Article 34 was changed to allow new restrictions on the right to vote, while Article 42 now gives the government authority to take action against political parties if they do not “place the country and nation’s interest first,” an amendment designed to target opposition parties. Article 53, which now states that Cambodia cannot interfere in the internal affairs of other countries since it opposes foreign interference in its own affairs, also appears to target the CNRP, which regularly appealed to donors and the United Nations to put pressure on the Cambodian government to hold free and fair elections and impose sanctions.
Additional election-related amendments were approved which restrict the Constitutional Council’s authority to process complaints from political parties that have been denied registration by the Ministry of Interior.
“These amendments are clearly aimed at shutting up the opposition and imposing penalties on any attempt to appeal for international assistance to reverse Hun Sen’s creation of a new one-party state,” Adams said. “They also open the door to further law-based restrictions on basic rights.”
Revisions to the penal code include a lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) provision that carries a penalty of one to five years in prison and a fine of up to US$2,500 for individuals, and $12,500 for legal entities. The law is an additional avenue for the government to pursue politically motivated prosecutions at the expense of free speech in Cambodia. “We created the law to make people scared,” said Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak, in reference to the new provision.
Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said the CPP drafted the lese majeste law to “prevent and punish, in order to protect the dignity and the fame of the king.” Yet Hun Sen’s own approach toward the monarchy over his 33 years of rule has been one of minimization and contention. Hun Sen declared after his longtime political rival Norodom Sihanouk abdicated that the former king would be better off dead, and has severely restricted the current king’s presence and role to curtail any potential political threat.
The lese majeste law comes on the heels of a defamation case against former Deputy Prime Minister Lu Lay Sreng, who was sued by Hun Sen for comments he made in a leaked phone call criticizing the king and the CPP. He was found guilty in absentia on January 25 and ordered to pay Hun Sen US$125,000.
Thailand’s government has long abused its draconian lese majeste laws to arbitrarily detain critics, journalists, and activists, who often face long prison sentences and denial of bail. This has sharply constrained free expression in the country, including increasing restrictions on social media. Since the May 2014 military coup, at least 105 people have been arrested in Thailand on lese majeste charges.
The UN Human Rights Committee states in its General Comment No. 34 on the right to freedom of expression that lese majeste laws “should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned,” and that governments “should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.” The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, stated in February 2017 that “lese majeste provisions have no place in a democratic country.”
With national elections slated for July 2018, the CPP has increasingly abused the justice system to prosecute opposition leaders and activists and suppress independent voices. The political crackdown reached a new peak in November 2017 with the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), and the ensuing redistribution of its 55 parliamentary seats. The CPP has used its expanded bloc in the National Assembly to pass legislation that shores up its political control. The revisions to the penal code and constitutional amendments were ratified with a unanimous vote from the 123 assembly members, with full support from the royalist party Funcinpec, which took over most of the CNRP’s seats, in addition to the CPP’s majority.
The new amendments suggest the CPP will further its crackdown via legislative means. After a National Assembly meeting on February 13 to discuss the amendments, a CPP spokesperson told reporters: “Cambodia needs to have a law in the future to protect the country’s leaders because since 2012, people have been using social networks to foment a color revolution.”
“As the national elections draw near, Hun Sen is flexing the unchecked power he’s long claimed for himself,” Adams said. “Targeted, concerted efforts from concerned governments are needed for any chance of deterring further repression made easier through these new provisions.”
(Berlin) – The new German law that compels social media companies to remove hate speech and other illegal content can lead to unaccountable, overbroad censorship and should be promptly reversed, Human Rights Watch said today. The law sets a dangerous precedent for other governments looking to restrict speech online by forcing companies to censor on the government’s behalf.
“Governments and the public have valid concerns about the proliferation of illegal or abusive content online, but the new German law is fundamentally flawed,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch. “It is vague, overbroad, and turns private companies into overzealous censors to avoid steep fines, leaving users with no judicial oversight or right to appeal.”
Parliament approved the Network Enforcement Act, commonly known as NetzDG, on June 30, 2017, and it took full effect on January 1, 2018.
The law requires large social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, to promptly remove “illegal content,” as defined in 22 provisions of the criminal code, ranging widely from insult of public office to actual threats of violence. Faced with fines up to 50 million euro, companies are already removing content to comply with the law.
At least three countries – Russia, Singapore, and the Philippines – have directly cited the German law as a positive example as they contemplate or propose legislation to remove “illegal” content online. The Russian draft law, currently before the Duma, could apply to larger social media platforms as well as online messaging services.
Two key aspects of the law violate Germany’s obligation to respect free speech, Human Rights Watch said. First, the law places the burden on companies that host third-party content to make difficult determinations of when user speech violates the law, under conditions that encourage suppression of arguably lawful speech. Even courts can find these determinations challenging, as they require a nuanced understanding of context, culture, and law. Faced with short review periods and the risk of steep fines, companies have little incentive to err on the side of free expression.
Second, the law fails to provide either judicial oversight or a judicial remedy should a cautious corporate decision violate a person’s right to speak or access information. In this way, the largest platforms for online expression become “no accountability” zones, where government pressure to censor evades judicial scrutiny.
At the same time, social media companies operating in Germany and elsewhere have human rights responsibilities toward their users, and they should act to protect them from abuse by others, Human Rights Watch said. This includes stating in user agreements what content the company will prohibit, providing a mechanism to report objectionable content, investing adequate resources to conduct reviews with relevant regional and language expertise, and offering an appeals process for users who believe their content was improperly blocked or removed. Threats of violence, invasions of privacy, and severe harassment are often directed against women and minorities and can drive people off the internet or lead to physical attacks.
Criticism of the new law has intensified over the past six weeks after content from some high-profile users was blocked or their accounts were temporarily suspended, even though some of those actions were due to violations of the company’s user rules rather than NetzDG.
Four of the larger political parties now oppose the law: The Left, which voted against the law; the Free Democrats and the Alternative for Germany, which were not in parliament when the law passed; and the Green Party, which abstained in parliament’s vote. A senior official of the Christian Social Union, which was part of the government that proposed the law, has also come out against it.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended the need to regulate the internet but said “it may be that we also have to make changes” to the law. The coalition agreement between her Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union, and the Social Democratic Party for a new government, released on February 7, calls the NetzDG law a “correct and important step” but says the government will evaluate ways to “further develop” the law.
The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said the draft law was at odds with international human rights standards. The government defended the law, citing changes to the draft that Kaye reviewed, such as more flexibility on deadlines to remove content and the introduction of an authorized body to review complex cases, but failed to address Kaye’s key concern that the law places responsibilities on private companies to regulate the exercise of freedom of expression.
“With the NetzDG law, Germany has undermined free speech at home and set a troubling example for other countries that want to block artistic expression, social criticism, political activism, or independent journalism online,” Michalski said. “Forcing companies to act as censors for government is problematic in a democratic state and nefarious in countries with weak rule of law.”
A Flawed Law
Under the NetzDG law, companies with more than 2 million registered users in Germany are required to establish an effective and transparent procedure to receive and review complaints of allegedly illegal content. They must block or remove “manifestly unlawful” content within 24 hours of receiving a complaint but have up to one week or potentially more if further investigation is required. In especially complex cases, companies can refer the case to an industry-funded but government-authorized body that is required to make determinations within a seven-day window. The government has not yet produced the criteria for authorizing such a body, and it can change the criteria at will.
Companies must inform users of all decisions made in response to complaints and provide justification, but the law does not provide for meaningful judicial oversight or a process of judicial appeal when users want to contest a corporate or industry body decision to block or remove a post.
Under the law, the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection can fine a responsible individual up to 5 million euro and the company up to 50 million euro for failing to establish a compliance system or for failing to issue a public report on their actions related to the law every six months. The amount of the fine depends on the gravity of the offense and the number of users on the platform, but the ministry has not yet produced the fine structure.
To comply with the law, social media companies have created new mechanisms to report allegedly illegal content and hired reviewers to analyze those reports. These reviewers join the teams these companies already had in place to monitor compliance with their user agreements.
Both of these companies, as well as Twitter, have reporting forms specifically for NetzDG, which helps them to assess potential violations of the law and to collect data for the required six-month reports.
A significant difference between reporting a violation of community standards and a violation of NetzDG is the right to appeal. For the former, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all offer the chance for users to challenge a decision to block or remove content. For the latter, the law does not require the company to offer an appeals process and the companies have not done so.
The precedent that the NetzDG has set deserves special attention, as governments around the world increasingly look to restrict online speech by forcing social media companies to act as their censors, Human Rights Watch said. Some examples include:
In Singapore, a country with a record of using overly broad criminal laws to chill free speech, the government is citing the German law as a positive example as it proposes ways to tackle “fake news.”
In the Philippines, the Act Penalizing the Malicious Distribution of False News and Other Related Violations was submitted to congress in June, referencing the German law. The bill proposes fines for social media companies that fail to remove false news or information “within a reasonable period” and imprisonment for responsible individuals. It is currently with the Committee on Public Information and Media and is one of the measures being discussed in a Senate hearing on ways to tackle fake news.
In Russia, the ruling United Russia party submitted two draft laws to the State Duma in July to regulate online content. Citing the German law, one of them requires social media platforms with more than 2 million registered users and other “organizers of information dissemination” in Russia to remove, within 24 hours of receiving a complaint, certain types of illegal content, such as information that propagates war; incites national, racial, or religious hatred; defames the honor, dignity, or reputation of another person; or is disseminated in violation of administrative or criminal law. The other law levels fines for failure to remove illegal content (from 3 to 5 million rubles (US$53,220 to $88,700) for individuals and from 30 to 50 million rubles (US$532,200 to $887,000) for legal entities. The first law has entered the first hearing stage and the second law is still under review.
In Kenya, the Communications Authority issued guidelines in July that oblige social media platforms to close accounts that have been used to disseminate “undesirable political contents” within 24 hours after it is brought to the platform’s attention, though no one is known to have been punished yet. Undesirable content includes political messages that are “offensive, abusive, insulting, misleading, confusing, obscene or profane language.”
In Europe, the European Commission has called for social media platforms to assume greater responsibility for identifying and removing illegal online content, including a code of conduct for IT companies. The UK and French governments have been developing a joint action plan to improve the identification and deletion of online material that state authorities find terrorist, radical, or hateful. Their proposals include pressing companies to automate the detection and speed up the suspension or removal of illegal content, as well as provide access to encrypted content.
(Bishkek) – Uzbek authorities should ensure a thorough, impartial, and independent investigation into the alleged torture and other ill-treatment of a detained independent journalist, 12 human rights groups said today. Uzbek authorities should immediately release Bobomurod Abdullaev and other people detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, the groups said.
Abdullaev, a freelance reporter, worked for Fergana news agency and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), among other publications.
Bobomurod Abdullaev was detained on September 27, 2017 in Tashkent by officers in Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (known as the “SNB”) on charges of “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime” (Article 159(4) of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code), which carries up to 20 years in prison. His relatives told representatives of several human rights groups on February 3, 2018 that he had been tortured and otherwise ill-treated since his detention. Uzbek authorities should immediately release Abdullaev and other people detained on similar grounds, the groups said.
“At a time when the Uzbek government appears to be taking steps to reform the country’s feared security services, reports of a journalist’s torture in their custody should prompt an immediate investigation and decisive, public condemnation,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The 12 human rights groups are Amnesty International, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Civil Rights Defenders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom Now, ARTICLE 19, and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
On February 8, a Tashkent-based human rights defender, Surat Ikramov, reported that following media reports of Abdullaev’s torture, two SNB officials implicated in abuses had been suspended from the case and had been told not to leave the city pending an investigation. On January 31, the Uzbek government announced the resignation and replacement of Rustam Inoyatov, the 73-year old chief of the SNB for 22 years, during which there were constant reports of torture and other ill-treatment carried out by SNB officials.
Authorities accused Abdullaev of writing “extremist” articles and of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government, along with Hayot Nasriddinov, a well-known economist and blogger, Akrom Malikov, an academic, and others.
Abdullaev’s relatives and other Uzbek human rights defenders told Human Rights Watch that since his arrest, security services have repeatedly tortured him and denied him his right to a legal counsel of his choosing and restricted visits with family members.
Abdullaev’s wife, Kattiqiz Balkhibaeva, told Human Rights Watch about her first meeting with her husband in October:
When I met my husband for the first time [at the SNB pre-trial detention center Gvardeiskaya in Tashkent], I brought him some warm clothes. The detective told me that I better not give any interviews to reporters or speak with anyone about the case. When I saw my husband, we were surrounded by five SNB officers and not able to speak freely. He looked at me, paused, and then told me not to speak to the press or hire a lawyer. Then an SNB officer told me that if I spoke with anyone about this, ‘it would be very bad for Bobomurod.’
In January, Abdullaev met with his mother and wife again and told them that he had been tortured since his arrest in September. He said that on the day he was arrested four SNB officers approached him near his home in Tashkent without explaining they intended to arrest him or showing any identification. As they approached he asked, “What happened?” and began to resist. The men then put a bag over his head, beat him all over his body, and stuffed him into a car. Abdullaev said that nearby residents witnessed the abduction.
Abdullaev said that in the days after his arrest he was kept in a freezing jail cell naked and forced to remain standing. He said he was given nothing to eat for five days and was only given food after he collapsed from exhaustion. He said that SNB officers denied him food on several occasions and threatened to destroy him and his family. He said he was repeatedly tied for several hours at a time to a bed in his cell for several hours at a time.
His mother, Gavkharjon Madaminova, has written numerous appeals to government bodies about her son’s detention and posted videos online appealing to the president for help, but received no meaningful responses.
SNB officials intimidated Abdullaev’s first attorney and would not let her meet with him, relatives said. Abdullaev hired Sergey Mayorov, a human rights lawyer, in November and was allowed to meet him on December 14 in the presence of the SNB detective overseeing the case. Eight days later, the SNB detective summoned Mayorov. SNB guards brought in Abdullaev, who said in their presence that he had decided to fire Mayorov and would be represented by a state-appointed lawyer. The SNB official showed Mayorov a statement firing him that was allegedly signed by Abdullaev ten days earlier. Before being forced to leave, Mayorov asked whether Abdullaev’s pre-trial detention had been extended, for how long, and when the investigation would be completed. The SNB officer refused to answer.
At a subsequent meeting with his wife later in December, Abdullaev asked her to pass on the message to Mayorov that he still wanted him to act as his lawyer at his trial. Authorities have not yet announced a trial date.
“Abdullaev’s torture allegations demand a thorough and independent investigation and prosecution of anyone found responsible,” said Umida Niyazova of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. “Reports that SNB officials who tortured him could face justice are encouraging signs if true, but Abdullaev, Nasriddinov and other detainees should be immediately released as authorities get to the bottom of what has occurred.”
In a related case, on or around October 20, authorities arrested Nasriddinov, a blogger and economist, on or around October 20, also on extremism charges (Article 159(4)) that appear to be related to the conspiracy charges against Abdullaev. Nasriddinov similarly faces up to 20 years in prison. As of late 2017, his relatives had not been informed of the grounds for the arrest, and there are fears that they are under pressure not to talk to journalists and human rights groups. He is being held in a SNB pre-trial detention center in Tashkent, and there are serious concerns that he may have also been tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention.
Akrom Malikov, a researcher at Uzbekistan’s Institute of Handicrafts of the Academy of Sciences, has also been implicated and questioned in Abdullaev’s case. He was detained in July 2016 on extremism charges for allegedly writing articles for the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan under a pseudonym. He is serving a six-year sentence in Navoi prison.
“There is a real opportunity for change in Uzbekistan – and yet we hear of journalists and bloggers still being detained and tortured,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of IPHR. “This case is a test of whether Uzbekistan’s human rights situation is really improving or not.”
Over the last 15 years, the UN special rapporteur for torture, the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Human Rights Committee, the US State Department, and the European Court of Human Rights, in a number of its rulings, and a number of national and international human rights groups have highlighted the widespread torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons and detention sites.
On November 30, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree prohibiting the courts from using evidence obtained through torture, and forbidding legal decisions based on any evidence not confirmed during trial. The decree, which comes into force in March, states that prosecutors will be required to check whether physical or psychological pressure was exerted on a defendant or their relatives. If enforced, the decree could help prevent torture and other ill-treatment in detention in Uzbekistan.
“This case is yet another reminder that the Uzbek government should also allow for regular, unfettered, independent, expert monitoring of prison conditions,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “It should invite the UN special rapporteur on torture and other experts to visit the country and bring its laws and practices in line with international law and standards to help prevent torture in the future.”