De-indexing and silencing, a trial to watch, persecuted journalists and a perverse technology
November 2021 in the Americas: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Paula Martins, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
De-indexing and silencing Uruguayan investigative journalism
Google recently de-indexed from its search results two important pieces of investigative journalism published by Uruguayan online news portal Sudestada. The removal was the result of two different requests, and was based on alleged violations of US copyright legislation (DCMA) and European data protection norms (GDPR).
Latin American groups, including IFEX-ALC, are concerned. According to them, the complaints, presented by anonymous third parties, are an attempt to hide information of significant public interest about the participation of Uruguayan law firms in corruption cases.
The organizations also called attention to faulty procedural safeguards. According to them, Google’s notifications do not provide a sufficient description of the grounds for considering the content illegal. Additionally, avenues for appeal were inadequate and/or abusive, since content moderation rules force the journalist and the outlet to accept that any judicial remedy should take place in a jurisdiction outside of Uruguay.
The imposition of US and EU legislation to users based outside these jurisdictions is also problematic, impacting their right to complain and defend themselves.
Nicaragua leaving the OAS
The international community strongly criticized the presidential electoral process in Nicaragua. According to reports by local and international media, security forces imprisoned seven potential opposition candidates and banned three political parties from the polls. The Organization of American States (OAS), along with the EU, discredited Daniel Ortega’s election victory on 7 November. IFEX-ALC and partners had been calling attention to the serious human rights situation in Nicaragua in the run up to the elections, including significant restrictions on press freedom. According to the groups, the minimal conditions for free, fair, and transparent elections were not met.
After the polls, the OAS adopted a resolution stating that Nicaragua’s election lacked “democratic legitimacy”. Twenty-five nations voted in favour and seven abstained, including Mexico, Honduras and Bolivia.
In response to the criticism, Nicaragua started the process of withdrawing from the OAS.
Human rights organizations say that this decision means Nicaragua will move even further away from the possibility of finding a democratic solution to the serious socio-political crisis the country has been immersed in since 2018.
Elections in Venezuela
Venezuela held elections in November — the first time in four years that the main opposition parties participated, after boycotting presidential elections and parliamentary elections in 2018 and 2020 respectively, accusing Maduro’s government of fraud.
Electoral observers pointed out that, despite some improvements, there were arbitrary bans on candidates for administrative reasons, delays in opening voting centres, and “extended use of state resources in the campaign”.
According to IFEX-ALC member Espacio Público, threatened media outlets, limited pluralism, opacity in the public administration and controlled political debate were all observed in the Venezuelan media ecosystem in the run-up to the elections, and most private media in the country operate in accordance with the interests of the governmental elite, either because they are inhibited from covering political, social or economic issues, or because they identify politically with the government.
Another IFEX member, IPYS Venezuela, monitored press freedom violations on election day. They report that the polls were marked by irregularities, low voter turnout, and denials of access to information that were constantly imposed by the military personnel guarding the voting centers.
Attacks against journalists in Bolivia
In early November, six Bolivian journalists were abducted and assaulted by a group of armed men while covering the occupation of disputed land by protesters in the municipality of Guarayos. They were held and threatened for hours and, according to testimonies collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “forced to lie face down, and were kicked and stepped on ‘as if we were a rug’”.
Days after the attacks, Bolivian journalists protested inadequate measures by local authorities to investigate the case and to hold those responsible accountable. The regional association of journalists said they will call on the UN human rights authorities to look into the incident. On 25 November, one person was detained in relation to the case. International and national groups continue to ask for further investigations.
Foreign agents in El Salvador
El Salvador President Bukele has defended the adoption of a law that requires people and organizations who receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”. According to Civicus, “if passed, the law would limit legitimate activities of organisations and individuals who receive funding or support from abroad. It would require them to register as a ‘foreign agent’ with the Interior Ministry and would impose a 40% tax on some international funding.”
IFEX member Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that such ‘foreign agents’ might face criminal responsibility for actions that threaten national security or for “other duly proven” actions.
According to reports by the media outlet El Faro, the chair of the legislative bloc Nuevas Ideas publicly admitted that the bill is aimed at independent journalism. In an interview, he affirmed that “Those journalists’ juicy salaries are over.” He also called out Open Society Foundations, which partially funds El Faro. According to rights advocate Ruth López, a lawyer from Salvadoran human rights organization Cristosal who was interviewed by CPJ, the law aims to limit efforts to increase anti-corruption accountability, and will stigmatize those who receive international funding for their projects.
In Nicaragua, the adoption of similar legislation was criticized by IFEX-ALC and many other groups. It later led to the cancelling of the registration of at least 45 NGOs for allegedly not fully reporting their activities to the government.
Chile’s efforts to regulate digital platforms
A proposed bill in Chile to regulate content provided by digital platforms is currently under review by legislators. One of the alleged objectives is to protect vulnerable groups against harmful content. It seeks to provide guiding principles, rights, and duties for parties involved. It touches on issues such as net neutrality, non-discrimination of users, protection of the image and integrity of vulnerable persons, among others.
Despite the important concerns that led to the current draft, freedom of expression and digital groups have raised concerns about the wording. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) finds the “newfound liability risks for digital platforms for user-generated content and sweeping and vaguely worded obligations for content moderation, which are paired with significant penalties for noncompliance” to be problematic.
Chilean IFEX-ALC member Derechos Digitales says that the bill actually works against human rights.
On 24 November, more than 30 international and regional organizations and experts released a statement detailing ten reasons why Bill Nº 14.561–19 is dangerous for the exercise of fundamental rights on the internet. Check their detailed arguments here.
Canada and the coverage of protests and environmental issues
Two Canadian journalists, Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano, were illegally arrested on 19 November while reporting on the construction of a contentious natural gas pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia.
They were covering a blockade of protesters restricting access to a road that Coastal GasLink workers need to construct the pipeline. According to the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stated the reason for the arrests was that they were “embedded” among the protestors.
The journalists have been released; however, they are required to return to court on 14 February 2022 for a hearing related to allegations of civil contempt of court.
In condemning the case, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated that Canada is part of “a disturbing trend of arresting journalists covering environmental issues.”
More than 40 groups expressed concerns. In an open letter to Canada’s public safety minister, they affirmed that “[a]s Canada and its democratic and civic institutions contend with and promise to redress their roles in the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous people on their land, journalists have a unique and express duty to bear witness to and comprehensively cover news events of consequence.”
Who controls the controllers?
In 2019, media outlets Ojo Público and The Intercept Brasil published an investigation into the framework of the Lava Jato case [Operation Car Wash — read more here] , with audio that revealed irregular coordination between the defendant (Martín Belaunde Lossio), accused of money laundering and illicit association, and two prosecutors from the Peruvian anti-corruption system.
Now, an investigation has begun against journalist Ernesto Cabral from Ojo Público for allegedly having incurred an ‘undue disclosure’ — a crime that carries penalties of up to six years in prison. According to Peruvian IFEX-ALC member Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), the journalist was notified last October. In addition to the investigation, the prosecutors have also demanded access to the journalist’s communications. IPYS sees this as an attack against press freedom, and hopes that the investigation will be shelved.
Ecuador — A trial to watch
Ola Bini was detained in April 2019 as he left his home in Quito for a vacation in Japan. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), his detention was full of irregularities. He was not read his rights, allowed to contact his lawyer, or offered a translator.
At the time, Ecuadorian authorities claimed that a group of Russians and Wikileaks-connected hackers were in the country “cooperating with attempts to destabilize the government” in retaliation for the eviction of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and withdrawal of his asylum.
There were no formal charges against Bini at the time of his arrest. Later, the Prosecutor’s Office charged him under article 234 of the Ecuadorian Criminal Code with “unauthorized access to an information system,” which criminalizes mere access to computer and telecommunications systems, regardless of intent.
According to Access Now, apart from the legal proceedings, Bini has also been the victim of extralegal forms of harassment throughout the duration of his case.
Bini had worked on several key open source projects, as well as on secure and open communication protocols. He has also contributed to tools that have provided strong encryption for millions of websites around the world, and co-founded Centro de Autonomía Digital, a non-profit organization devoted to creating user-friendly security tools.
In 2020, Ecuadorian and international civil society organizations set up a mission to observe the preparatory hearing and trial evaluation.
Derechos Digitales report that a recent investigation by digital portal La Posta suggests Bini was arrested because then Minister María Paula Romo was looking for a culprit for the INAPapers leak, which included emails, chats, photographs and other information obtained from the phone of (former) President Moreno. According to the investigation, it was known that Ola was not behind this leak, but the minister needed a name to give to the president.
Despite the many times it has been postponed, Bini’s case should soon be decided, and rights groups are calling for close monitoring. According to HRW, “[h]is trial may have profound implications for the development and use of secure digital communications, which people rely on around the world to exercise their human rights.”
Persecuted journalists: Three Venezuelan journalists discuss the consequences of being displaced, harassed, censored, and threatened for their work. In “Persecuted Journalists,” a series of audiovisual testimonies produced by the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela, Félix Amaya, Roberto Deniz, and Germán Dam talk about how they were forced to flee their country in the face of pressures arising from exercising their profession.
A perverse technology: IFEX members Fundación Karisma, R3D and Derechos Digitales, along with other organizations that form the consortium Al Sur, released “Facial recognition in Latin America: trends in the implementation of perverse technology” — a mapping of 38 facial recognition systems deployed in nine countries in the region. The research is available in Spanish, Portuguese and English, and is accompanied by the launch of a mini website, which can be accessed at https://estudio.reconocimientofacial.info/
Protests and repression in Cuba: Police harassment, illegal summons by telephone and interrogation, as well as arbitrary arrests. These are some of the events that, according to ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America, intensified against independent journalists from different media outlets in Cuba on the eve of the protests called for on 15 November.
A new guide for demonstrators: The Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC) launched its first guide for protesters — to share information about the technological tools that security forces can use to monitor and identify people. You can access the Guía de Protesta here.
Stop discriminatory, out-of-control police surveillance: A year-long public records investigation by the ACLU has exposed California Highway Patrol aerial surveillance of racial justice protesters in dozens of California communities. According to EFF, “the U.S. government has been spying on protest movements for as long as there have been protest movements. The protests for Black Lives in the summer of 2020 were no exception.” The group also stressed that dragnet aerial surveillance is often unconstitutional. People can sign the ACLU’s petition opposing this surveillance here.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on December 3, 2021.