“More harm than good” — Attempts to regulate disinformation and an increase in gender-based violence
June in the Americas: A free expression roundup produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Paula Martins, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Brazil’s Senate approves problematic ‘fake news’ bill
“We want a law that assists us in addressing disinformation, but that does not violate the rights of users.”
On 30 July, the Brazilian senate approved bill 2630/20, which became known as the ‘fake news bill’. The proposal was hastily presented to Congress, mainly as a reaction to increased circulation of disinformation over social media in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress’s review of the bill was marked by a lack of transparency and participation, and the text that was ultimately approved, despite late modifications, is considered highly problematic by Brazilian groups.
Local fact-checkers told Poynter that the bill will do “more harm than good”, mainly by creating a massive surveillance network and “making it more difficult to do their work”. Forbes affirmed that the “proposal does little to track the individuals and organizations financing the spread of false content across social media platforms and introduces red tape as well as threats to user privacy and freedom of expression”.
The local network Rights Online Coalition (Coalizão Direitos na Rede), in which IFEX member Artigo 19 Brazil participates, called attention to the last-minute removal of articles that made excessive use of criminal provisions and adopted a definition of disinformation that was vague and ambiguous. These modifications were introduced only after great civil society mobilization.
The text headed to the Chamber of Deputies, however, retains provisions that promote vigilantism and exclusion. The head of the house, Deputy Rodrigo Maia, has already commented on the need to quickly vote on the bill, stating that it is amongst his priorities. He also argued that social media platforms are hiding from the debate about the bill, because they ‘profit from radicalism’. The Rights Online Coalition has been pointing out that, if poorly regulated, efforts to curtail disinformation may end up putting Brazilians’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy at risk.
The bill’s main problems are provisions that require mandatory identification for the creation of accounts, as well as massive collection of users’ data; that force social media and messaging application companies to track and retain extensive logs of user communications; that impose limitations on the number of times a message can be forwarded in messaging applications; that compel companies to provide access to their users’ databases and logs to staff based in Brazil, with impacts on security and privacy; and that impose certain unclear content moderation rules, including, for example, requiring companies to enforce a ‘right of reply’ in certain circumstances, under vague definitions and poor due process provisions.
Bia Barbosa, from Intervozes (also a member of Coalizão Direitos na Rede), says that it is still unclear how the review will take place at the Chamber of Deputies. “President Rodrigo Maia said he wants to ensure public debate, at the same time that he affirms that he wants the bill to be quickly voted on”. Barbosa stressed to IFEX that the Coalition will continue working to see that important successes achieved during the review by the Senate, such as the inclusion of transparency obligations concerning automated accounts, for example, remain in the final text. On the other hand, the network will continue to call for the removal of key threats, such as the provisions allowing for massive identification and traceability of users. “We want a law that assists us in addressing disinformation, but that does not violate the rights of users”, she added.
Laura Tresca, coordinator of the digital program at Artigo 19 Brasil, told IFEX that “the bill remains far from being a solution to fight disinformation. Although many provisions that were a threat to freedom of expression were eliminated during the review by the Senate — such as the criminal sanctions — the review by the Chamber of Deputies should be slowed down to allow for necessary public debate”.
After the bill’s adoption by the Senate, President Bolsonaro said that he believes the bill will not be approved by the Chamber of Deputies. Without commenting on the goal or provisions of the bill, he threatened to veto the law, if passed by Congress. Bolsonaro and his supporters have been under investigation by different authorities for the coordinated use of disinformation during his electoral campaign and while in office.
Despite serious concerns in relation to the spread of disinformation in Brazil, experts have raised the risks of seeking fast solutions to such a complex issue. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, reacted to the Brazilian bill by affirming that a piece of legislation of such importance, if not adopted through a legitimate and meaningful discussion process, could end up jeopardizing democratic debate.
IFEX member EFF also reacted to the bill: “Shutting down bad actors cannot come at the expense of silencing millions of other users, invading their privacy, or undermining their security. To ensure that human rights are preserved, the Brazilian legislature must reject the current version of this bill.”
Criminalisation of free expression in Puerto Rico
IFEX-ALC, Fundamedios, and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) have called for the elimination of laws penalising the dissemination of information that the Puerto Rican government could classify as “fake news”.
Two recently approved laws allow for fines of USD $5,000 and up to three years in jail for those accused of publicising “fake news” items. The laws do not require the government to demonstrate that the individual responsible for disseminating purportedly “fake news” knew that the information was false. The laws also provide citizens with very little guidance regarding what may constitute a crime and give the government too much discretion to decide who should be prosecuted.
Puerto Rico is the only US jurisdiction with laws on its books that criminalise commentary.
Mexican news agency director and staff accused of attacking journalists and critics
Aristegui Noticias, ARTICLE 19 and Signa_Lab ITESO got hold of evidence demonstrating that the director of the Mexican state news agency Notimex (Agencia de Noticias del Estado), Sanjuana Martínez, orchestrated stigmatization attacks against critics and former workers of the agency using official and false social media accounts.
According to witnesses, WhatsApp groups were used to coordinate who and when individuals should be targeted. High level civil servants sent detailed instructions to their supervisees in order to orchestrate the hatred campaigns. Testimonies also describe intimidation and threats against employees who would not adhere to instructions.
ARTICLE 19 has asked relevant authorities to investigate these reports, which they consider to be abuse of power and undue use of public funds.
Women human rights defenders targeted in El Salvador
Over 100 organizations, including IFEX-ALC, have warned that measures to tackle COVID-19 taken by the El Salvador government have created a violent and hostile environment that hinders the work of women human rights defenders in the country. Online attacks have been of particular concern.
According to data collected by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders and the Salvadoran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders, there has been an increase in cyber-harassment, defamation, threats and public discrediting cases during the pandemic.
Women human rights defenders and journalists (primarily those critical of the government’s management of the health crisis) have reported that they are being targeted by smear campaigns with a high component of gender violence. They have also pointed out that some of the messages come from social media accounts belonging to public officials, persons who are close to the current government, or the official party.
IFEX-ALC and partner organizations have called on the El Salvador government to stop publishing messages that stigmatize human rights defenders and journalists and puts them at risk, and called for investigations on reported cases of intimidation and threats.
Protests under repression in Cuba
At least 132 people, including artists, journalists, and activists, were victims of arrests, restrictions on leaving their houses, and internet service cuts when they participated in or reported on protests against police violence. The violations occurred after a call was shared over social media to protest, on 30 June, against the murder of Hansel Ernesto Hernandez Galiano, who was killed on 24 June by officers of the National Revolutionary Police.
Organizations called on the Cuban government to allow peaceful protests to take place, refrain from continuing to harass and interfere in the communications of those who participate in or report on them, and release without any charge or punishment all those who have been arrested.
The call to protest follows the publication, earlier in June, of a new report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that presented an overview of the human rights situation in the country between 2017 and 2019.
In the report, the Commission expressed concern with groups particularly exposed to risk, especially human rights defenders, who are allegedly victims of short-term arbitrary detentions, processes of criminalization, and judicial persecution, and also suffer continual restrictions on international travel or retaliations on their return to the country after traveling abroad.
It emphasized that “Cuba continues to be the only country in the Americas in which there are no guarantees of any kind for exercising the right to freedom of expression” and that the Commission remains concerned about the serious limitations on freedom of opinion, expression, and the imparting of information and ideas.