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The various paths of Internet censorship in Latin America

The latest news in Latin America demonstrates that attacks on freedom of expression in the region have many facets and those in power use a variety of tools to curtail critical debate on the Internet. The situations in Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil are just a few examples.

The Internet poses a problem for those who wish to hold power without being audited by citizens. If impunity and lack of transparency are the rule, then "regular citizens", journalists and activists who use the Internet to denounce, report and bring to light information are now the enemy. Silencing their discourse becomes the goal. And the methods used? They are many. All with the same alarming result: censorship and obstruction of democracy. Following are some recent Latin American examples.

Removal of content based on copyright

Several weeks ago, Claudio Ruiz of Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights) wrote about the suspicious case in Ecuador where copyright laws were used as the reason for removal from the Internet of content criticizing the government of Rafael Correa.

Based on copyright laws and the famous "all rights reserved" there is an underlying logic that everything that circulates on the Internet requires permission from the owner, even in situations where it is the desire of the creator or owner to share it. This logic is often used to request the removal of content that is "uncomfortable" for those in power. As such, the copyright excuse is, sadly, used for the purpose of censorship, in recent years resulting in ever increasing restrictions on the circulation of content.

The Ecuadoran case, unfortunately, is not unique in Latin America. Two other recent examples demonstrate this dangerous trend against freedom of expression in the region. One is in Brazil, where it was reported that a request was received for removal of videos critical of former Brazilian presidential candidate, Aécio Neves, from Youtube. In Mexico, the news site Sin Embargo has received threats at its offices telling it to remove a photo from its site that appears to have made a Partido Verde (Green Party) politician "uncomfortable". The excuse used in both cases? Bingo! Copyright.

Content blocking

In early October 2014, the Venezuelan government blocked access to the Argentine news site, alleging "serious violations" of local laws following the publication of images of the body of National Assembly member Robert Serra, who was assassinated on 1 October.

The underlying question is whether a measure like the blocking of an entire media outlet is a proportionate and reasonable response for having "tainted the honour of the young National Assembly member Robert Serra and disrespected the integrity of his family" (as stated by the Minister of Communication and Information), or whether there are other avenues that could be pursued using due process. Perhaps the latter was lacking.

For the director of the Instituto Internacional de Prensa (International Press Institute), Barbara Trionfi, the decision does not appear to serve any legitimate interest. She characterised it as "prior censorship", which "is clearly prohibited under the American Convention on Human Rights that Venezuela has ratified."

Detentions and disappearances

The repercussions of Serra's death, however, go further. Global Voices has reported that Twitter users have been detained, although little is known about their whereabouts or current conditions. Ruling party parliamentarian, Christian Zerpa, has confirmed that there have indeed been detentions involving people who "made fun" of the assassinated politician.

In Mexico, in addition to the horror of the kidnapping of students in Ayotzinapa, there is also the disappearance and possible assassination of María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, an activist and contributor to the Facebook page "Valor por Tamaulipas" (Valour for Tamaulipas). Everything in her case points to her disappearance being connected to her work in this citizen's network, which uses the Internet to denounce organized crime in Mexico and collusion with public officials. In addition, to date 27 assassinations of Twitter users and bloggers have taken place in the state of Tamaulipas alone. This apparently is affecting other citizens as well, as they are opting to "self-censor" out of fear and due to a lack of protection.

And this perhaps is the outcome that most affects democracy, when these attacks on free expression are carried out with impunity: the threatening environment looms like a shadow over the heads of citizens, who then, understandably, prefer to remain silent, leaving those in power with free reign and no supervision.

Within this context, the role of democratic states is fundamental in order to protect and strengthen freedom of expression. For this reason, we welcome the recent audience obtained by a number of civil society organisations (among them Derechos Digitales) before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in order to present the ways in which fundamental Internet rights are being affected in Latin America. This could be a key factor in pressuring our governments to understand that Internet censorship activities will be pursued and citizens will be protected.

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