#IMWeekly: July 25, 2014

by mayukh sen

Brunei's recent transition to Sharia law has raised fear in free speech activists at home and abroad. Shortly after the announcement that the country would be adopting Sharia law, netizens who voiced dissent on social media were chided by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who warned critics that they could be prosecuted for what they wrote online. These threats have facilitated a culture of circumvention – this week, TechInAsia reported on the popularity of a recent "guerrilla chatting" application, Chrends, which allows users to chat anonymously with one another. Keeran Janin, the co-founder and CEO of Chrends, imagines that the chatrooms will serve as a sort of alternate public sphere where each netizen is guaranteed the right of anonymity.

On Wednesday, Phnom Penh's Municipal Court convicted British journalist Rupert Winchester of defamation, referring to a post he wrote on his personal blog, "The Mighty Penh." French property developer Etienne Chevenier sued Winchester for a June 4 post that claimed Chevenier's company wanted to build a high rise over a colonial-era building. Winchester swiftly removed the post, but Article 305 of Cambodia's criminal code allowed Chevenier to sue Winchester for defamation. Winchester was punished with over 27,000 USD in fines, causing fear in media activist organizations at home and abroad for the future of free online expression in Cambodia. Earlier this year, the country reportedly drafted a cybercrime law that could criminalize individuals for publishing claims deemed to be non-factual, slanderous, critical of governmental agencies, or damaging to the society's "moral and cultural values."

Citizen Lab's newest report on Iraq's information controls reveals that the central government’s list of filtered websites has been expanded in recent days to include pan-Arab news sites and outlets whose writers are outwardly critical of the government. Citizen Lab's earlier report acknowledged that blocked sites include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Al-Jazeera, and Al-Arabiya, while sites expressing support for ISIS remained easily accessible. The newest report also casts a glance on two messaging applications that have gained popularity in the wake of ISIS’s terror. FireChat, which many users are employing to circumvent Internet filters to chat about hot-button issues, has many sensitive loopholes that would compromise the security of users. Conversely, ISIS-supported Android application Dawn of Glad Tidings is an application that compiles pro-ISIS messages using a relatively simple algorithm.

On July 12, Omani bloggers Noah Saad and Muawiyah Al-Rawahi were arrested for reporting on human rights abuses within the country. Rawahi's blog contained a post about a teacher, Ahmed Al-Bahri, unfairly charged with "disturbing public order" and fined after he participated in a teacher's strike. Rawahi's post noted that Al-Bahri's arrest was one of many similar arrests of targeted activists. No clear reason for Saad's arrest was given, though his blog Al-Moheeb Al-Saadi remains a popular platform for investigating human rights abuses; he was previously arrested in September 2011 for posting content critical of state authorities.

After spending five weeks in jail, Tajik-Canadian academic and former Global Voices Eurasia editor Alexander Sodiqov has been released from detention on bail. In mid-June, Sodiqov was detained in Khorog by the Tajik KGB on the grounds that he was working covertly as a spy. His arrest drew heavy criticism from colleagues and media activist organizations abroad, with the #FreeAlexSodiqov hashtag campaign mobilizing netizens to raise awareness of his arrest. Meanwhile, Tajik authorities blocked access to Russia-based social networking site Odnoklassniki earlier this week on ambiguous grounds, one of the regime’s many routine blockages of social networking sites.