Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: January 2010 (page 1 of 4)

Obituary: Le Journal

Something is rotten in the kingdom of Morocco proclaims Issandr El Amrani in a Guardian piece about the closure of Moroccan magazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire. Though El Amrani notes that the Le Journal case is only one indicator, something is rotten, indeed. The magazine’s offices were liquidated after a commercial appeals court declared that Le Journal‘s former and current publishing companies were bankrupt.

Lest this seem like a simple case of poor leadership or low readership, one must first understand why Le Journal is suffering financially. In 2006, Le Journal was ordered to pay MAD 3 million ($370,000) in damages following a defamation case brought forth by Claude Moniquet of European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. Le Journal had criticized a report by the organization on the Western Sahara for closely toeing the Moroccan government’s official line.

Jamaï had come under fire before; earlier that year, following the publication of the Danish cartoons that negatively depicted the Prophet, Le Journal had issued a special report, re-publishing one of the cartoons, inked out as not to add fuel to the fire. Still, protesters gathered at the magazine’s Casablanca headquarters. Le Journal was also shut down by authorities twice between 2000 and 2005.

Following the 2006 defamation case, Jamaï left Morocco and headed to the United States, where he became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard for a time, completed a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School, served as a visiting scholar at the University of San Diego, and wrote for Newsweek’s venerable PostGlobal. In 2009, he returned to Morocco to rejoin Le Journal. Less than a year later, Le Journal faces closure for its lack of funding, brought about by numerous palace attempts to stifle its voices.

Le Journal, and another Moroccan weekly, TelQuel, are essentially why I learned to read French. Few English-language sources on Morocco are available, and those that do exist tend to follow the government’s official line. The two daring (and often competing) French weeklies do not, which is why they’ve suffered under Morocco’s repressive media environment. Le Journal often took the high road over gossipy TelQuel, however, taking the government to task on its many promises, questioning the government’s stance on the Sahara, and uncovering human rights abuses.

Like Issandr El Amrani points out, the closure of Le Journal does not alone indicate Morocco’s slide backwards. The arrests of bloggers Bashir Hazzem, Mohammed Erraji, and Boubaker Al-Yadib, of Facebooker Fouad Mourtada, of countless journalists, should speak for themselves. Yet, Morocco continues to maintain an appearance of moving forward, especially to the United States, which proudly touts Morocco’s Mudawana and subsequent other new rights to women as evidence.

This is an issue that cannot, must not be ignored. Morocco, in case I don’t say it enough, is a beautiful place. I spent more than two wonderful years there, and would still happily go back, despite its faults. But in order for Morocco, for any country, to continue down the road of progress, free expression is non-negotiable.

Shameless plug: For a collection of essays on press freedom in Morocco, look no further than Talk Morocco’s December issue.

How the U.S. Censors Arabs

In my spare time, I’ve been doing a lot of talking to activists and reporters about two issues that are getting very little coverage in the U.S., despite both being facets of U.S. policy. The first is H.R. 2278, which eatbees has done a better job than I ever could of explaining here. For those of you who are link-lazy, eatbees explains it in one paragraph:

On December 8, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 395 to 3, a resolution specifically naming three Arab TV stations — Al Manar, Al Aqsa, and Al Rifadayn — as “terrorist owned and operated” channels that broadcast “incitement to violence against the United States.” The resolution stated that any satellite provider that broadcasts these stations, or others to be named later, would be considered a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” under the law. The president would be required to report to Congress each year concerning “anti-American incitement to violence” on TV stations across the Middle East, covering 19 nations from Morocco to Iran.

I’m extremely concerned with the greater implications of this bill. Those channels are carried by NileSat of Egypt and ArabSat of Saudi Arabia, two satellite providers widely available across the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. I lived with NileSat for more than two years: it was my entertainment, my news. Beyond those channels, I had access to the MBC and Rotana suites of stations, which encompassed American programming and news, as well as Arab programs and films, often dubbed or subtitled in English. I had access to BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, and France 24, all in English, which is more than I can say for my cable provider here in Boston (I’ve written about the issues surrounding Al Jazeera in the US).

So, the implication of this bill is that, in order for NileSat and ArabSat to avoid being listed as terrorist carriers, they have to stop carrying Al Manar, Al Aqsa, and Al Rifadayn. I’m not going to make this post about defending those channels, which I’ve only briefly flipped past. But regardless of their content, what the House is doing, essentially, is attempting to influence what people watch globally by threatening satellite providers. If those satellite providers decide to comply and rid themselves of those three channels, the United States government will have effectively silenced those voices not just in the United States but in their countries of origin as well. I highly recommend reading eatbees‘ post if you have any interest in going beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the word “terrorism” and learning what the channels actually broadcast.

The second issue is State Department hypocrisy, namely when it comes to sanctions. I’ve written about the sanctions on Syria here, here, and here, and recently gave a quote to the UK’s Times.

My stance is this: The U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Sudan, Cuba and North Korea, in terms of the way they affect software exports and downloads, do little to effect change in those countries’ regimes, harm ordinary netizens, and promote piracy.

I’ve done a lot more reading on the Syrian sanctions than on the other countries, admittedly, so I’ll use that as a test case to explain my point. Last year LinkedIn, for whatever reason (my suspicion is a State Department memo) realized they were in violation of the sanctions and that they needed to block Syrian users, by IP address, from accessing their software downloads (software that is designed for networking, job-searching, and resume-building). They errantly overblocked, cutting off all access to their site (read: software is prohibited, but site use is fine, by law). We complained, they restored access (though apparently not to Sudanese users). They still block the software, of course. If they chose not to, they would likely be saddled with a $500,000 fine. The penalty could be worse.

Can someone please tell me how prohibiting average Syrians from accessing networking software will help topple an authoritarian regime, or stop Syria from funding terrorism? No, you can’t. Because it won’t. Instead, it will prevent some average guy from doing something useful. It will make him angry toward the U.S. or its policy (as well he ought to be!). It will alienate him. It will likely lead him to find another way of getting the software, through a mirror site or a friend’s USB key. He’ll get the software anyway, but he won’t pay for it.

If the hypocrisy isn’t apparent yet, how’s this? Last summer, during the alleged “Twitter revolution” in Iran, the State Department sent Twitter a memo asking them to change their hours of maintenance for the sake of the Iranians. Twitter complied. On the surface, it was a very cool example of technology aiding dissidents, and a “free” government stepping in to help. But let’s remember, Iran is also under sanctions, which means ordinary Iranians cannot download software from U.S. hosts and servers. Which theoretically includes anonymity and circumvention tools. Which are exactly what Hillary Clinton promoted in her speech last week.

My guess is, nobody’s cracking down on those tools. And there are legal exemptions to the sanctions. But how is it just to pick and choose what Iranian or Syrian, or Sudanese citizens have access to? How is it okay to hand them “democracy tools” but refuse them Adobe Photoshop?

My conclusion? It isn’t.

Stay tuned for the next edition of “how the U.S. censors Arabs” for an analysis of Bing‘s filtering of search results in what they call the “Arabian countries.”

Net freedom for all? Not so much…

I’m a bit late to the party with comments on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Net freedom speech last Thursday; I was deep in work that day and spent the weekend doing fun things (like visiting with friends and finally seeing Avatar). Still, though there have been plenty of excellent analyses of the speech (check out Ethan Zuckerman‘s or Marc Lynch‘s), I’m finding that there’s one topic everyone seems to have left out: sanctions. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

As Ethan said, “It was encouraging to hear Secretary Clinton sounding like a dyed in the wool cyberutopian.” Agreed; the fact that this administration is giving this much attention to any free expression issue makes me happy, but especially that they’re on the ball with issues of online expression. And of course, I liked the fact that Clinton took notice of how the Internet truly is connecting people.

Clinton also weighed the challenges of hate speech online, intellectual property theft, and anonymity, but claimed that “these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.” Good again.

And like Lynch, I noticed that the most attention was paid to the usual suspects (Iran, China, Egypt), and so-called “enemies,” while Jordan (which last week decided to apply its press law to online speech) and other “friends” were ignored.

But what I noticed the most is what was missing. Ethan commented briefly on what he called the “export control issue,” saying that it’s possible that the recent Google/China controversy could revive discussion of using export bans to “prohibit American companies from doing business with countries that censor” (mentioning also that a better idea might be trade sanctions instead).

But absolutely no attention has been paid to the countries where citizens’ online activities are heavily restricted by US economic sanctions: Syria, Iran, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea (though the latter two are so bogged down in their own countries’ censorship that I’ll focus on the first three).

Though I’m less schooled in the nuances of each country’s restrictions, the basic gist is this: Syria, Iran, and Sudan are affected by sanctions that place those countries’ markets off-limits to US software companies. When it comes to physical software (operating systems, for example), there seem to be plenty of ways around it–obviously, none of those countries have built their own OS just yet, and there is an exemptions process. But when it comes to software downloads, US companies are pressured to reverse-block (using geolocational filtering) users from Syrian, Sudanese, and Iranian IP addresses, so that the users can’t download.

Frequently, however, this results in the companies overblocking access, and preventing users from accessing their site altogether. I wrote about this last year after LinkedIn blocked access to all Syrian users (they restored it, but Sudanese users still can’t get there). Hosting services have done the same, and most recently, open source software site SourceForge blocked access to users in those countries (an act that has been greatly questioned, given the nature of the software SourceForge hosts). It’s been pointed out that part of the Open Source Initiative’s credo ironically reads: “No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.”

Obviously, there’s a lot at stake when it comes to sanctions, and I’m not making the case either way (in this post) for removal of general trade or export restrictions. But I fail to see how software restrictions affect the behavior of states; in my view, they only seek to harm the very citizens the U.S. portends to be interested in helping. And I find it extremely ironic that last summer, the State Department urged US company Twitter to hold off on maintenance to help the Iranian people communicate, yet continues to restrict those same Iranians from buying US-made smart phones, or downloading essential software and applications (which could potentially include circumvention and anonymity tools).

If Clinton means it when she says, “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas” then such policy ought to be changed. Simple as that.

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