A violent attack on free speech at Middlebury

Peter Beinart writes: My fellow liberals, please watch the following video. It suggests that something has gone badly wrong on the campus left.

The events leading up to the video are as follows. One of the student groups at Middlebury College is called The American Enterprise Club. According to its website, the Club aims “to promote … free enterprise, a limited federal government, a strong national defense.” In other words, it’s a group for political conservatives.

This year, the AEI Club invited Dr. Charles Murray to speak. That’s crucial to understanding what followed. When leftists protest right-wing speakers on campus, they often deny that they are infringing upon free speech. Free speech, they insist, does not require their university to give a platform to people with offensive views. That was the argument of the people who earlier this year tried to prevent ex-Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley. And it was the argument of those who opposed Murray’s lecture at Middlebury. “This is not an issue of freedom of speech,” declared a letter signed by more than 450 Middlebury alums. “Why has such a person been granted a platform at Middlebury?”

The answer is that Middlebury granted Murray a platform because a group of its students invited him. Those students constitute a small ideological minority. They hold views that many of their classmates oppose, even loathe. But the administrators who run Middlebury, like the administrators who run Berkeley, consider themselves obligated to protect the right of small, unpopular, minorities to bring in speakers of their choice. Denying them that right—giving progressive students a veto over who conservative students can invite—comes perilously close to giving progressive students a veto over what conservative students can say. If it is legitimate for campus progressives to block speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos or Charles Murray, why can’t they block speeches by fellow students who hold Yiannopoulos or Murray’s views? [Continue reading…]

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Criticizing Russian airstrikes in Syria lands blogger in jail

Human Rights Watch reports: A court in Russia has sentenced Alexei Kungurov, a 38-year-old blogger from Tyumen, Western Siberia, to two-and-a-half years in prison for “justification of terrorism.” His crime? A blog post he wrote in October 2015, after Russian warplanes conducted their first airstrikes in Syria.

In the post, Kungurov offered his analysis of the Syria conflict and vehemently criticized Russia’s intervention. In the opening paragraph, he wrote that the post set out to “debunk” several “myths” created by “Putin’s regime” and delivered to the public through “zombie-boxes” by pro-Kremlin media. He strongly disagreed with the official argument that Russia’s involvement in Syria was preventive and aimed at fighting terrorists to stop them from eventually coming to Russia. Rather than fighting terrorists in Syria, Kungurov argued, Russia was “helping them.”

During pretrial investigation, the regional department of the Federal Security Service (FSB) sent requests to journalists and media outlets in Tyumen asking for information on any other “defamatory” or “extremist” materials published by Kungurov. This fall, his family received anonymous threats and his LiveJournal account was hacked. At Kungurov’s trial, the prosecution failed to adequately explain which specific phrases or expressions were “justifying” terrorism.

Under Russian law, the maximum punishment for this offense is five years in prison, but the court took into consideration that Kungurov has two small children and no criminal record.

One can agree or disagree with Kungurov’s opinion. His post, however, contains no calls for violence but is a criticism of Russia’s Syria policy. It is a case of officials attempting to shut down public debate on an important foreign policy issue under the pretext of “combating terrorism.” It is also part and parcel of Russia’s ongoing crackdown on free speech, especially online. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. government begins asking foreign travelers about social media

Politico reports: The U.S. government quietly began requesting that select foreign visitors provide their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts upon arriving in the country, a move designed to spot potential terrorist threats that drew months of opposition from tech giants and privacy hawks alike.

Since Tuesday, foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver program have been presented with an “optional” request to “enter information associated with your online presence,” a government official confirmed Thursday. The prompt includes a drop-down menu that lists platforms including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as a space for users to input their account names on those sites.

The new policy comes as Washington tries to improve its ability to spot and deny entry to individuals who have ties to terrorist groups like the Islamic State. But the government has faced a barrage of criticism since it first floated the idea last summer. The Internet Association, which represents companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter, at the time joined with consumer advocates to argue the draft policy threatened free expression and posed new privacy and security risks to foreigners.

Now that it is final, those opponents are furious the Obama administration ignored their concerns. [Continue reading…]

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Twitter suspends Richard Spencer, other prominent alt-right accounts

The Washington Post reports: Ever since alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous sent actress Leslie Jones a string of deeply offensive tweets, insulting the comedian’s race and intelligence, Twitter has made banning abusive accounts a priority.

At the time, the company offered a statement, which read in part:

. . . our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others . . . we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.

We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it’s happening and prevent repeat offenders

Recently Twitter suspended many more accounts associated with the alt-right, which is the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.”

Included among them was the verified account of Richard Spencer, which The Washington Post described as a leader of the alt-right and “one of the most media-savvy thinkers in the movement.” [Continue reading…]

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Iranian human rights activist given six years in prison for hand-written unpublished story

IranWire reports: On Tuesday, October 4, writer and human rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi received a strange phone call ordering her to present herself at Evin Prison by noon on Wednesday evening to start serving her prison sentence. By law, authorities much convey such an order by way of a written summons. But that was not the only unusual thing about the call.

“The arresting officer used the phone of Navid Kamran, a codefendant of mine,” Ebrahimi told IranWire hours before presenting herself at Evin. “They had gone to his shop to arrest him and used his phone. When I answered the call, the man who introduced himself as an agent of the Centre for the Implementation of Sentences said that I must present myself to serve the sentence. I said that I had received no official summons or a call from Evin Court. ‘You are using my friend’s phone to call me and it might be a joke,’ I said. ‘I don’t know you and I have no idea who is talking to me.’ He answered back that ‘you might think this is a joke but we are here to arrest your friend and you must present yourself at Evin’s court right away.’ I said that I could not get there by the end of business hours but perhaps I could do it the next day. He said that I would be arrested if I did not present myself by the next day.”

Ebrahimi’s ordeal began when the Revolutionary Guards arrested her along with her husband, Arash Sadeghi, at his workplace in Tehran on September 6, 2014. The Guards had no arrest warrant, but took the couple to their home, ransacked the place, and confiscated their computers, CDs, and notes. Among the confiscated items was a story about the punishment, under Islamic law, of death by stoning. According to a report from Amnesty International, “The story describes the emotional reaction of a young woman who watches the film, The Stoning of Soraya M, which tells the true story of a young woman stoned to death for adultery — and becomes so enraged that she burns a copy of the Quran.” [Continue reading…]

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With Facebook’s flaws in the spotlight, Mark Zuckerberg’s silence is deafening

Espen Egil Hansen writes: In every TV studio where Facebook’s powerful position is being debated, one chair remains empty. In every newspaper article, every blogpost and every Facebook thread that challenges the company, one participant is missing.

Where is Mark Zuckerberg? A man now more powerful than most state leaders.

When I wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg earlier this month, I had three objectives.

First and foremost, Aftenposten wanted to stop Facebook’s censorship of the documentary photo The Terror of War. We did – but our victory was only symbolic. It just made Facebook see what everybody else is seeing: this picture is a documentation of the horrors of war – not nudity.

My second objective was to encourage debate on Facebook’s ever more powerful role as the world’s most important distributor of news and content. We succeeded in this as well, and I am pleased to see that the debate was international.

Most conspicuous, however, is the deafening silence from Facebook. Yes, they distribute written statements, which are dutifully read out by news anchors at the end of reports, but real participation is more the exception than the rule. Here in Scandinavia, Facebook has even gone so far as to leave it to a Swedish PR company to answer inquiries from the media. This company in turn will tell the press to quote “a spokesperson for Facebook”. [Continue reading…]

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Mark Zuckerberg accused of abusing power after Facebook deletes Vietnam War ‘napalm girl’ post

The Guardian reports: Norway’s largest newspaper has published a front-page open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, lambasting the company’s decision to censor a historic photograph of the Vietnam war and calling on Zuckerberg to recognize and live up to his role as “the world’s most powerful editor”.

Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief and CEO of Aftenposten, accused Zuckerberg of thoughtlessly “abusing your power” over the social media site that has become a lynchpin of the distribution of news and information around the world, writing, “I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society.”

“I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way,” he added.

The controversy stems from Facebook’s decision to delete a post by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland that featured The Terror of War, a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut that showed children – including the naked 9-year-old Kim Phúc – running away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war. Egeland’s post discussed “seven photographs that changed the history of warfare” – a group to which the “napalm girl” image certainly belongs.

Egeland was subsequently suspended from Facebook. When Aftenposten reported on the suspension – using the same photograph in its article, which was then shared on the publication’s Facebook page – the newspaper received a message from Facebook asking it to “either remove or pixelize” the photograph. [Continue reading…]

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Chorus of concern over Britain’s counter extremism strategy grows louder

By Steve Hewitt, University of Birmingham

If worries about extremism in 2016 show no signs of abating, then neither does the debate over how to counter it in the UK. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the Labour MP Harriet Harman, is the latest in a long line to raise concerns over government policy to tackle extremism. Although the government has promised to introduce a counter-extremism bill, none has yet been forthcoming.

In a report released on July 22, the committee flagged up a number of concerns about the government’s extremism strategy. These include the lack of a precise definition of extremism, the potential impact on universities, and the potential for religious discrimination. It also criticised the false premise of an “escalator” model in which there is a progression from holding conservative religious ideals to violent extremism.

The committee, made up of MPs and Lords from across the political spectrum, called on the government to “reconsider” its counter-extremism strategy.

But the government may be reluctant to backtrack on an issue it has kept raising over the last few years. Since a 2011 speech in Munich warning against extremism by then-prime minister, David Cameron, the government has repeatedly pledged to target it. This year’s Queen’s speech continued the trend with promises to “tackle extremism in all its forms”, “provide stronger powers to disrupt extremists”, and “enable the government and law enforcement to protect the public against the most dangerous extremists.”

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Erdoğan’s crackdown: ‘Free speech is being rebranded as terrorism’

 

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Mocking Putin got me sent to Twitter gulag

@DarthPutinKGB writes: I run the @DarthPutinKGB “parody” account. The inverted commas are over the word parody for a reason. An account parodying any part of the Kremlin will, by definition, sound almost identical to a verified Kremlin account. From passing homophobic laws while posing for homoerotic photo shoots, to putting dead people on trial for crimes they got murdered for exposing, to denying and then later admitting the presence of their armed forces in numerous conflicts, when it comes to the Kremlin, it can be hard to tell reality from parody.

The account portrays Putin as a maniacal, sinister villain bent on world domination who thinks nothing of murdering those who irritate him while he drops vodka (and real) bombs. He also thinks he is God’s gift to women but is in fact that drunk you can find in any bar on a Friday night who makes women’s skin crawl as he desperately tries to get laid.

Darth Putin is also a pathological liar who would deny it snows in Russia with a straight face if he needed to. Beneath it all, deep down he knows he’s just an emperor currently in the late stages of a massive wardrobe malfunction that he prays no one will eventually notice. Maybe this is why some struggle to tell if it’s parody or not. [Continue reading…]

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Angela Merkel, accused of betraying core values, faces a balancing act with Turkey

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The New York Times reports: Last September, Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely seen as an idealist, charitably welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in the face of stiff opposition at home and from European allies. But the influx swiftly became too much to handle.

Fast forward, and this year it is a rather different Angela Merkel at the helm, with an approach toughened by experience. This is the pragmatic Angela Merkel, who entered a calculated deal with an increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to try to stanch the migrant flow.

Ms. Merkel now stands accused by a new chorus of critics of not only betraying her ideals on immigration but also of jeopardizing core European values, as the costs of doing business with Mr. Erdogan become painfully clearer by the week.

Mr. Erdogan, who has stifled the news media at home and shown little tolerance for criticism, has used his new leverage in Europe to extend his brand of censorship to Germany, employing diplomatic threats, and now a private lawsuit, to try to silence a German comedian who skewered him.

The satirist, Jan Böhmermann, had earned plaudits but also criticism when, on his TV show two weeks ago, he read a crude poem, which he himself labeled “abusive criticism,” and accused Mr. Erdogan of lewd behavior and fierce political repression.

That case has now become Exhibit A in the unpalatable bargains Ms. Merkel has made in pursuit of security and political survival, or what might be known as realpolitik version 2016. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Chancellor Angela Merkel, caught in a bind by Turkey’s bid to silence a German satirist who lampooned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Friday that her government would allow the case to go forward, but that the outdated law that permits it would be repealed with effect from 2018.

Announcing the decision to allow the court case against Jan Böhmermann, the comic, to proceed, Ms. Merkel repeatedly insisted that Germany backs the freedom of press, opinion and culture and believes in the rule of law. “Not the government, but the courts and the legal system will have the last word,” she said.

Pointedly referring to Turkey as a partner and a NATO ally, Ms. Merkel said that Germany expects the government in Ankara to heed democratic norms and that Berlin has observed attempts to restrict freedom of media and the justice system in Turkey “with great concern.” [Continue reading…]

Anna Sauerbrey writes: Though it’s a fact often overlooked by the rest of the world, Germany is a funny place — seriously. Long before Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee redefined topical American humor, comedians here perfected the art of sharp political satire.

For the most part, German politicians get the joke. But now politics and comedy are colliding in a new way — a collision that exposes the tragicomedy of modern European politics in a way that no late-night monologue ever could. [Continue reading…]

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Mass surveillance silences minority opinions, according to study

Karen Turner reports: A new study shows that knowledge of government surveillance causes people to self-censor their dissenting opinions online. The research offers a sobering look at the oft-touted “democratizing” effect of social media and Internet access that bolsters minority opinion.

The study, published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, studied the effects of subtle reminders of mass surveillance on its subjects. The majority of participants reacted by suppressing opinions that they perceived to be in the minority. This research illustrates the silencing effect of participants’ dissenting opinions in the wake of widespread knowledge of government surveillance, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.

The “spiral of silence” is a well-researched phenomenon in which people suppress unpopular opinions to fit in and avoid social isolation. It has been looked at in the context of social media and the echo-chamber effect, in which we tailor our opinions to fit the online activity of our Facebook and Twitter friends. But this study adds a new layer by explicitly examining how government surveillance affects self-censorship. [Continue reading…]

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Israel: State terror has seeped inside the Green Line

David Shulman writes: Israeli human rights activists and what is left of the Israeli peace groups, including joint Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations, are under attack. In a sense, this is nothing very new; organizations such as B’Tselem, the most prominent and effective in the area of human rights, and Breaking the Silence, which specializes in soldiers’ firsthand testimony about what they have seen and done in the occupied territories and in Gaza, have always been anathema to the Israeli right, which regards them as treasonous. But open attacks on the Israeli left have now assumed a far more sinister and ruthless character; some of them are being played out in the interrogation rooms of Israeli prisons. Clearly, there is an ongoing coordinated campaign involving the government, members of the Knesset, the police, various semiautonomous right-wing groups, and the public media. Politically driven harassment, including violent and illegal arrest, interrogation, denial of legal support, virulent incitement, smear campaigns, even death threats issued by proxy — all this has become part of the repertoire of the far right, which dominates the present government and sets the tone for its policies.

There is now a palpable sense of danger, and also an accelerating decline into a situation of incipient everyday state terror. Palestinians have lived with the reality of state terror for decades — it is the very stuff of the occupation — but it has now seeped into the texture of life inside the Green Line, as many on the left have warned that it would. Israelis with a memory going back to the 1960s sometimes liken the current campaign to the violent actions of the extreme right in Greece before the colonels took power, as famously depicted in the still-canonical film Z.

The witch-hunt began this time with a targeting of the ex-soldiers’ organization Breaking the Silence by a strident chorus on the right, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and other members of the cabinet, but also including prominent politicians and journalists from the wishy-washy center, including the highly popular Haaretz correspondent Ari Shavit. There have been calls to outlaw the organization entirely. [Continue reading…]

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Takeover of opposition newspaper is a death warrant for free speech in Turkey

By Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, University of Ljubljana

On Friday March 4, a Turkish court ruled that the country’s biggest daily newspaper, Zaman, would be run by appointed trustees – ostensibly because of its so called “terrorist” activities, but more likely because the publication was linked to US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, an opponent of the government.

Shortly after the court’s decision, police stormed the paper’s Istanbul headquarters in a dramatic midnight raid, firing tear gas and water cannon at the hundreds-strong crowd that formed outside.

The new administrative members dismissed the editor, executive editor and other senior staff, transforming the newspaper’s editorial line, in less than 48 hours, from a rigorous opposition voice into a propaganda mouthpiece for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Full disclosure: I have written oped pieces for Zaman for the past two years or so – at a rate of about two or three per month. Never at any time was there any attempt to dictate my angle or censor my work, even when – as I did several times – I wrote articles that were critical of Gulen or his movement. Now I feel that the doors of this newspaper are closed – not only for me but also for most of the other academic writers who had used the paper as a vehicle for their opinions.

This episode has not come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been following Turkey’s political scene. While Erdoğan and his AKP party enjoyed close relations with Gulen and his Hizmet educational and religious movement when the party first emerged – and observers believe that Hizmet used his enormous popularity to help Erdogan secure his first term as prime minister in 2002 – things have gone bad between them since 2013.

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Russian atheist faces year in jail for denying existence of God during webchat

AFP reports: A man in southern Russia faces a potential jail sentence after he was charged with insulting the feelings of religious believers over an internet exchange in which he wrote that “there is no God”.

Viktor Krasnov, 38, who appeared in court Wednesday, is being prosecuted under a controversial 2013 law that was introduced after punk art group Pussy Riots was jailed for a performance in Moscow’s main cathedral, his lawyer Andrei Sabinin told AFP.

The charges – which carry a maximum one-year jail sentence – centre on an internet exchange that Krasnov was involved in in 2014 on a humorous local website in his hometown of Stavropol.

“If I say that the collection of Jewish fairytales entitled the Bible is complete bullshit, that is that. At least for me,” Krasnov wrote, adding later “there is no God!”

One of the young people involved in the dispute with Krasnov then lodged a complaint against him accusing him of “offending the sentiments of Orthodox believers”. [Continue reading…]

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Crackdowns on free speech rise across a Europe wary of terror

The New York Times reports: A puppet show at an open square in Madrid during Carnival festivities this month featured a policeman who tried to entrap a witch. The puppet officer held up a little sign to falsely accuse her, using a play on words that combined Al Qaeda and ETA, the Basque separatist group.

Angry parents complained, and the real police stepped in. They arrested two puppeteers, who could now face as much as seven years in prison on charges of glorifying terrorism and promoting hatred.

Paradoxically, the puppeteers say in their defense, the police proved their point: that Spain’s antiterrorism laws are being misapplied, used for witch hunts.

Far from an isolated episode, the arrests on Feb. 5 are part of a lengthening string of prosecutions, including two against a rap musician and a poet, that have fueled a debate over whether freedom of protest and speech are under threat in Spain and elsewhere in Europe because of fears of terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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