March of the censors: France, Turkey and China clamp down on freedom of speech

Written for Global Voices

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Two weeks ago, the French blog AgoraVox, one of the leading European citizen media blogs, warned against what it termed the gradual “berlusconisation” of the French media and the threat posed by the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy, French Minister of the Interior and conservative party head, to freedom of speech in the country.

Yesterday, France’s Constitutional Council passed the Sarkozy law [Fr] ( Loi sur la prévention de la délinquance – Law on the prevention of criminality), which criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. During the parliamentary debate, government representatives said the law is meant to target a practice known as “happy slapping”, defined in Wikipedia as “a fad in which an unsuspecting victim is attacked while an accomplice records the assault (commonly with a camera phone or a smartphone).”

In France, therefore, the filming and broadcasting of acts of violence such as the riots which took place in the Paris suburbs during the month of October and November, 2005, will henceforth be the prerogative of accredited journalists only. Under this new law, any other eyewitness who records acts of violence, or anyone who makes the content available online (the operator of a web site, for instance) could face up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of nearly US$100,000.

In an ironic twist, the law was announced on March 3, 2007, exactly 16 years after amateur videographer George Holliday filmed African-American Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers (see the video on YouTube). The officers’ eventual acquittal in 1992 sparked off riots in the city.

Bientôt la Corée du Nord sera un paradis de liberté comparé au camp de concentration à ciel ouvert du Frankistan.

North Korea will be soon a paradise of freedom compared with the open sky concentration camp of Frankistan”

said Doug on his blog.

“Whipping out your phone and recording footage of someone setting a car on fire – or getting pummelled by police for that matter – could subject you to a five-year prison term and nearly $100,000 in fines,” noted Andy Carvin yesterday.

So “If you’re reporting in France, you’d better get yourself an official press pass”, said David Kaplan.

One has to wonder now what the next move by the French Republic, in its fervor to “prevent criminal behavior”, will be. Will it be the banning of video-sharing sites like YouTube and the France’s Dailymotion, which were widely used by young citizen journalists during the “émeutes de Paris” (Paris riots) two years ago? And will music videos like “Paris Brûle” (“Paris Is Burning” — seen below) be forbidden in France?

Yet it seems like France is not the only country having trouble coming to terms with the tools and trappings of modern technology and the explosion in video-sharing that is empowering citizen journalists. Last year, Jack Straw, the UK’s former home secretary, openly supported a plan to impose controls on YouTube: “There is a very serious issue how such videos should better be controlled,” he said.

And just yesterday, word came from Turkey that the country’s largest telecommunications services provider, Turk Telekom, blocked access to YouTube, following a court decision deeming that videos appearing on the site were insulting to the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, and to the Turkish people. The ban was imposed despite the fact that the video was removed from the site ahead of the court’s decision.

“We are not in the position of saying that what YouTube did was an insult, that it was right or wrong,” Paul Doany, the head of Turk Telekom, is quoted as saying. Users of the country’s leading ISP, found this message when they tried to access YouTube: “Access to http://www.youtube.com site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/384 dated 06.03.2007 of Istanbul First Criminal Peace Court.

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“I’m very sorry that my country will cause such a bad reputation by these censorships, but we are happy to fight against them. I’m running a blog network (the largest and the only one) in Turkey. We are starting a campaign and going to write against these censorships in our blogs until they correct this huge mistake,” said Mert Maviş.

According to Reuters, however, the Istanbul court issued a second ruling lifting the block after YouTube removed the video from its service.

On another continent, in China this time, the online diary and blogging platform Livejournal seems to have been blocked.

“Users who are wondering if the block is on our end can be told “no, we still love you; take it up with your ISP if you have further questions””, said an announcement on the Livejournal community forum.

In an interview with Wired reporter Quinn Norton, the Chinese dissident and founder of China Digital Times Xiao Qiang said that “It could be one of the blogs in Livejournal has the content they want to block.

Norton’s article notes that SixApart — the company that owns Livejournal — claims that China has blocked “roughly 1.8 million of its blogs,” and that it is not the first time that the Chinese government has blocked Livejournal. They did it in March 2004 and again in June 2005. As Xiao Qiang says, “You never know when they are going to block it again.”

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