In a process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the United Nations Human Rights Council reviews the human rights situation on the ground in each of the 193 member states. Last week, Access Now and our civil society partners around the world submitted joint reports on five of the 15 countries who will appear in front of the Council for review in May 2019 (Session 33).
Our reports provide an overview of each country’s human rights obligations under international and domestic law, the most important developments related to digital rights since the last review, and the most pressing examples of where rights have been violated or put at risk. For example, we note that in Nicaragua, DRC, Qatar, and Ethiopia, intimidation and threats against journalists and human rights investigators lead to self-censorship, violating people’s rights to receive and impart information. We provide recommendations for opportunities to strengthen human rights protections, and where existing protections are not being properly respected, identify gaps in implementation.
Around the world, it is important to take note of the deep impact of surveillance technologies and laws on the rights to privacy and free expression, and in particular their effect on journalists, human rights defenders, artists, and other dissident voices. Likewise, laws targeting the restriction of “fake news” pose a serious threat to free expression and access to information, and in many cases are being used to strengthen governments’ capacity for censorship.
Highlights and a link to the complete report for each country are below:
The human rights situation in Nicaragua has declined rapidly since the government violently cracked down on peaceful protests beginning in April 2018. Free expression has been restricted in every measure, from police brutality against peaceful demonstrators; to censorship of television, radio, and online media; to intimidation and outright violence against journalists, activists, and community leaders.
In July 2018, NetBlocks detected a series of regional internet outages and intentional disruptions to connectivity, coinciding with attacks on civilians during demonstrations in several major cities. This strongly suggests a regime of internet controls is being deployed to restrict the flow of information in and out of protest zones at critical moments. Further, Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline has reported on a range of online attacks targeting opposition voices by pro-government paramilitary actors. Owners of Facebook pages and other social media accounts have seen their personal information like addresses or phone numbers published online — leading to cases of online harassment, intimidation, and physical acts of violence. In extreme cases, Facebook pages designed to appear like official government accounts have reportedly posted the personal information of activists or journalists calling for their assassination in exchange for a reward. As of September 2018, the Nicaraguan government has also started to arrest individuals who administer opposition Facebook pages on charges of terrorism and threatening national security.
Key recommendation: The government of Nicaragua must immediately move to restore rule of law and respect for human rights in the country by, among other things, releasing those who have been detained for voicing their dissent; lifting censorship and network disruptions; properly investigating and prosecuting acts of violence carried out against peaceful demonstrators, journalists, and members civil society; and broadly ensure fundamental human rights to expression, association, and privacy are respected.
Co-Signers: Derechos Digitales, IPANDETEC, NetBlocks, Redes Ayuda, Sulá Batsú
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has repeatedly deployed internet shutdowns, including blocks to social media sites and SMS network disruptions, to silence its critics and to prevent dissemination of information regarding other human rights abuses. Further, reports indicate that the Congolese government extensively monitors telecommunications traffic and social media activity, particularly targeting journalists, activists, and politicians. This monitoring is carried out through both intelligence agents and informants, and mass surveillance tools such as RANDOM and SWITCH. Together, these conditions serve to seriously undermine fundamental rights of expression, association, and privacy.
These violations have often coincided with moments of political tension in the country, including the end of President Kabila’s second term in 2016 when he refused to leave office. As the moment for his third term to end approaches, it is especially critical for DRC authorities to take all necessary measures to ensure access to information, journalism, and free expression are not restricted.
Key recommendation: Pass the pending amendment to the law currently used to justify network disruptions, without using the amendment to expand the government’s surveillance powers.
Co-Signer: Rudi International
While Qatar has made some improvements since its last UPR cycle, including the implementation of a new data protection law with important user-focused protections and forward progress toward the reduction of certain restrictions to online media, the country’s overall human rights situation is still highly concerning. Media outlets and journalists are subject to significant restrictions, and the legal landscape encourages much self-censorship. Journalists are subject to prosecution for criticizing the government, ruling family, or Islam, and many have faced a variety of threats, intimidation, and persecution for investigating sensitive topics, such as the widespread abuse of migrant laborers.
Reports also indicate Qatar has invested in a cyber-surveillance system with the capacity to conduct mass surveillance of electronic communications, and that it has required telecommunications operators to allow the government direct access to their networks to intercept communications. These actions infringe on the fundamental right to privacy, and put human rights defenders, journalists, and other dissident voices at heightened risk of further human rights abuses.
Key recommendation: To improve its compliance with its human rights obligations under international law Qatar should immediately restore arbitrarily banned media outlets such as Doha News, encourage independent press, and end all judicial harassment, surveillance, and other forms of reprisal against journalists, academics, human rights defenders, and other civil society actors, including those monitoring migrant labor abuses.
Additional recommendations: The government should ease any unlawful mass or targeted surveillance using cyber tools that infringe on the right to privacy. Further, legislators should remove language criminalizing “false news,” speech that harms state security, or other broad provisions that restrict peaceful free expression.
Co-Signers: Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Recently, positive reforms in internet freedom and digital rights have swept through Ethiopia. Over the past decade, the government has dropped the charges against many bloggers, journalists, and opposition groups, and has freed thousands of prisoners. On June 22, 2018, it was announced that the government has unblocked 264 websites and TV broadcasters. The recent internet shutdowns in August and September 2018, however, signal a return to old habits, particularly in moments of political tension.
In recent years, there have also been troubling reports regarding the Ethiopian government’s widespread surveillance activities, including the implementation of centralized systems to monitor internet traffic and mobile phone networks; intercept emails, online messaging, SMS, and phone conversations; and target individuals of interest abroad for remote hacking. Widespread public knowledge of this surveillance has led to a culture of self-censorship.
For Ethiopia’s newly formed government to continue the positive momentum of reform, it is critical to refrain from any further network disruptions or acts of censorship, and to halt all unlawful and unwarranted large-scale surveillance of citizens and targeted surveillance of activists, journalists, and dissenting voices.
Key recommendation: Looking forward, the government should implement a robust data protection framework that will protect Ethiopians’ privacy rights, improve transparency, and ensure data security.
Co-Signer: Small Media
Costa Rica is widely regarded as a champion for human rights among the international community, and is a member of the Freedom Online Coalition working to “support internet freedom and protect fundamental human rights — free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online — worldwide.”
It has consistently ranked among the top ten countries in the world in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. However, concerns regarding the spread of misinformation online have led to a series of dangerous proposals regarding the regulation of journalism and online speech. So far these measures have largely been prevented from passing into law, but Costa Rica’s government should proactively work together with stakeholders to implement rights-respecting processes for ensuring access to information, particularly during elections and other critical moments, as well as for addressing online harassment and discrimination.
We also recognize the work of Costa Rica’s Supreme Court in upholding the fundamental right to internet access, first recognized by the court in 2010. We encourage the national telecommunications authority SUTEL to proactively align its policies, particularly those that most heavily impact rural and underserved communities, to ensure the internet is readily and affordably accessible throughout the country.
Key recommendation: Costa Rica’s government should collaborate with civil society and other stakeholders to ensure access to information, particularly during elections and other critical moments, and preventing and mitigating online harassment and discrimination.
Co-Signers: Derechos Digitales, Fundación Acceso, IPANDETEC, Sulá Batsú