Investigative media outlet fleeing Russia to escape crackdown, editor says

Roman Badanin, chief editor of investigative news outlet “Proekt,” speaks during an interview with Reuters in New York on Tuesday. (Reuters)
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Updated 29 July 2021

Investigative media outlet fleeing Russia to escape crackdown, editor says

  • Proekt has published a series of deeply researched and unflattering investigations into Russia's ruling elite
  • Russian authorities declared it an "undesirable" organisation on national security grounds

NEW YORK: Roman Badanin, chief editor of investigative news outlet Proekt, has left Russia with no plans to return.
He is evacuating his staff to avoid possible prosecution after Proekt was outlawed in a media crackdown, he told Reuters.
Proekt has published a series of deeply researched and unflattering investigations into Russia’s ruling elite. Russian authorities declared it an “undesirable” organization on national security grounds on July 15, effectively banning it.
The move was part of a widening crackdown ahead of September’s parliamentary election that has targeted media regarded by authorities as hostile and foreign-backed.
Badanin, in an interview in New York, said he had no plans to return to Russia soon since he could face criminal prosecution. Under a 2015 law, members of “undesirable” groups can be fined or jailed for up to six years for ignoring the ban.
The Kremlin denies media are targeted for political reasons and says any action taken against outlets or their staff result from specific circumstances and are motivated by the need to uphold the law.
Badanin said he did not know where he would settle and that he was only in New York temporarily. He was on holiday with his wife and children abroad when Proekt was labelled “undesirable” and he decided on the spot not to return to Russia.
He said staff at Proekt were also exposed due to a criminal investigation into alleged slander against the outlet as well as a push by authorities to label some journalists, including several that work at Proekt, as “foreign agents.”
The term carries negative, Soviet-era connotations and subjects those designated to extra government scrutiny and labelling requirements. Police last month raided the homes of Badanin, his deputy Mikhail Rubin and one of Proekt’s reporters in the slander case. Rubin was briefly detained.
“We are trying to evacuate staff — if the staff members agree, of course — to one of the nearby countries,” Badanin said.
He said Rubin is also in New York and has no plans to return to Moscow. Both have been labelled “foreign agents.”
Badanin said Proekt would continue to function in some form, although details of how that would work in practice remain unclear. “The main difference is that a large part of the team will be out of Russia in order to avoid the possibility of any legal and extra-legal action against them,” he said.
Several other non-state outlets have complained of mounting government pressure though none have been labelled “undesirable.”


US court orders Facebook to release records of anti-Rohingya content for genocide case

Updated 23 September 2021

US court orders Facebook to release records of anti-Rohingya content for genocide case

  • Social media giant had refused to release the data, saying it would violate a US law
  • ‘Facebook taking up the mantle of privacy rights is rich with irony’

A US federal judge has ordered Facebook to release records of accounts connected to anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar that the social media giant had shut down, rejecting its argument about protecting privacy as “rich with irony.”
The judge in Washington, D.C, on Wednesday criticized Facebook for failing to hand over information to investigators seeking to prosecute the country for international crimes against the Muslim minority Rohingya, according to a copy of the ruling.
Facebook had refused to release the data, saying it would violate a US law barring electronic communication services from disclosing users’ communications.
But the judge said the posts, which were deleted, would not be covered under the law and not sharing the content would “compound the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya.”
“Facebook taking up the mantle of privacy rights is rich with irony. News sites have entire sections dedicated to Facebook’s sordid history of privacy scandals,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for Facebook said the company was reviewing the decision and that it had already made “voluntary, lawful disclosures” to another UN body, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.
More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017 after a military crackdown that refugees said including mass killings and rape. Rights groups documented killings of civilians and burning of villages.
Myanmar authorities say they were battling an insurgency and deny carrying out systematic atrocities.
The crackdown by the army, during the rule of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, did not generate much outcry in the Buddhist-majority nation, where the Rohingya are widely derided as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Gambia wants the data for a case against Myanmar it is pursuing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.
In 2018, UN human rights investigators said Facebook had played a key role in spreading hate speech that fueled the violence.
A Reuters investigation that year found more than 1,000 examples of hate speech on Facebook, including calling Rohingya and other Muslims dogs, maggots and rapists, suggesting they be fed to pigs, and urging they be shot or exterminated.
Facebook said at the time it had been “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate” in Myanmar.
In Wednesday’s ruling, US magistrate judge Zia M. Faruqui said Facebook had taken a first step by deleting “the content that fueled a genocide” but had “stumbled” by not sharing it.
“A surgeon that excises a tumor does not merely throw it in the trash. She seeks a pathology report to identify the disease,” he said.
“Locking away the requested content would be throwing away the opportunity to understand how disinformation begat genocide of the Rohingya and would foreclose a reckoning at the ICJ.”
Shannon Raj Singh, human rights counsel at Twitter, called the decision “momentous” and “one of the foremost examples of the relevance of social media to modern atrocity prevention & response.”


Facebook spent over $13 bln on safety, security since 2016

Updated 21 September 2021

Facebook spent over $13 bln on safety, security since 2016

  • The social media giant said it now has 40,000 people working on safety and security
  • Facebook played down the negative effects on young users of its Instagram app

DUBAI: Facebook Inc. said on Tuesday it has invested more than $13 billion in safety and security measures since 2016.
This comes days after a newspaper reported the company had failed to fix “the platform’s ill effects” researchers had identified.
The social media giant said it now has 40,000 people working on safety and security, compared with 10,000 five years ago.
Facebook played down the negative effects on young users of its Instagram app and had a weak response to alarms raised by employees over how the platform is used in developing countries by human traffickers, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, citing a review of internal company documents.
“In the past, we didn’t address safety and security challenges early enough in the product development process,” the company said in a blog post
“But we have fundamentally changed that approach.”
Facebook said its artificial intelligence technology has helped it block 3 billion fake accounts in the first half of this year. The company also removed more than 20 million pieces of false COVID-19 and vaccine content.
The company said it now removes 15 times more content that violates its standards on hate speech across Facebook and its image-sharing platform Instagram than when it first began reporting it in 2017.


Netflix offers free plan in Kenya to entice new subscribers

The free plan started on Monday and will roll out across Kenya in the coming days. (File/AFP)
Updated 21 September 2021

Netflix offers free plan in Kenya to entice new subscribers

  • Netflix offers free mobile plan with one-quarter of its TV shows and movies in Kenya to increase frowth
  • The free plan is available on Android mobile phones and will not have ads

LOS ANGELES: Netflix Inc. on Monday began offering a free mobile plan with about one-quarter of its TV shows and movies in Kenya, a strategy aimed at sparking growth in a key African market, the company told Reuters.
The free plan is available on Android mobile phones and will not have ads. It features Netflix movies and TV shows such as dramas “Money Heist” and “Bridgerton” and African series “Blood & Water,” plus some of the programming the company licenses from others. Netflix hopes the free plan will lead to users signing up for a paid option with more content.
The world’s largest streaming video service is looking to add customers outside of more saturated markets such as the United States, where new subscriber signups have slowed at a time when competition for online audiences has intensified.
Executives remain bullish on the long-term future, noting there are large markets where streaming television is just starting to take hold. To attract customers in Africa, Netflix is investing in locally made programming such as “Queen Sono” and “Jiva!” and has partnered with production studios in Nigeria.
“If you’ve never watched Netflix before — and many people in Kenya haven’t — this is a great way to experience our service,” Cathy Conk, director of product innovation at Netflix, said in a blog post. “And if you like what you see, it’s easy to upgrade to one of our paid plans so you can enjoy our full catalog on your TV or laptop as well.”
The free plan started on Monday and will roll out across Kenya in the coming days.
The non-paying Netflix subscribers in Kenya will not be counted in the paid total the company reports each quarter, a spokesperson said.
Netflix has experimented with free offers before. In 2020, it made some episodes of series such as “Stranger Things” and movies including “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” available around the world for no charge via web browsers.
The free plan in Kenya is broader. It will look similar to paid Netflix profiles to give viewers a feel for the service, the spokesperson said. Shows that are not included in the free plan will be marked with a lock icon. Clicking on one of those titles will encourage the user sign up for a paid option.
Anyone 18 or older in Kenya can enroll in the free plan and create up to five profiles. No payment information will be required.
Some functions, such as the ability to download a show or movie, will not be available under the free plan.
Netflix, which streams in more than 190 countries, has taken other steps to boost usage in Africa, including creation of a paid mobile-only plan and partnerships with local telecom operators to ease payments.
The company reported 209 million paying customers worldwide at the end of June. New member pickups slowed in the first half of 2021 after a boom early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Africa currently is a relatively small market for streaming TV subscriptions. Digital TV Research projects Netflix will lead subscription video on demand services on the continent with 6.26 million paying customers in 2026, followed by Walt Disney Co’s Disney+.


Lawyer says US journalist in Myanmar jail seems disheartened

Fenster is being detained in Yangon’s Insein Prison, an overcrowded facility that houses political prisoners. (AFP PHOTO / COURTESY OF THE FENSTER FAMILY)
Updated 20 September 2021

Lawyer says US journalist in Myanmar jail seems disheartened

  • US journalist Danny Fenster appeared disheartened during a court hearing Monday, his lawyer said
  • Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to go to the US

BANGKOK: US journalist Danny Fenster, imprisoned in Myanmar for almost four months while awaiting trial, appeared disheartened during a court hearing Monday, his lawyer said.
Fenster has been charged with incitement — spreading inflammatory information — an offense for which he could be sentenced to up to three years’ imprisonment. The charge does not specify what he is accused of doing.
The military-installed government that took power in February has sought to curb independent news media by canceling their licenses and arresting dozens of journalists.
Fenster is being detained in Yangon’s Insein Prison, an overcrowded facility which for decades has housed political prisoners.
Lawyer Than Zaw Aung said Fenster seemed demoralized when he spoke with him in a video conference during Monday’s court hearing, his first opportunity to do so in more than a month. Hearings are conducted by video at a township court instead of in a special courtroom at the prison because of the coronavirus, which in the past few months has severely impacted Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
“His hair grew longer. He seemed disappointed and he told me in a frustrated tone that ‘I have nothing to say,’” the lawyer said. “I asked him if he had been vaccinated by the prison authorities, and he said no. His words showed that he is not feeling well. He didn’t request anything.”
Fenster said in mid-July that he believed he had contracted COVID-19 and was not given medicine he had requested. Prison authorities denied he was infected.
Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family. He is the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent online news outlet based in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
“We are very concerned about Danny’s physical and mental health, particularly given his demeanor at today’s hearing,” said Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of Frontier. “It’s totally understandable that he would be frustrated and disappointed -– he should never have been detained in the first place. Danny is now approaching four months in Insein Prison and there is no reason for the authorities to hold him a single day longer. He should be released immediately so he can go home to his family.”
Monday’s hearing was held to extend Fenster’s pre-trial detention, and set Oct. 4 for his next appearance. It was not clear if it could include allowing an application for release on bail.
Press associations and free speech organizations around the world have called for Fenster’s release, as has the US government.
“We remain deeply concerned over the continued detention of US citizen Danny Fenster who was working as a journalist in Burma,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier this month after Fenster marked his 100th day in detention. The United States refers to Myanmar as Burma, its name before a military government changed it in 1989.
“Journalism is not a crime. The detention of Daniel Fenster and other journalists constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Burma,” Price said. “We continue to press Burma’s military regime to release Danny immediately. We will do so until he safely returns home to his family.”


Navalny allies accuse YouTube, Telegram of censorship in Russian election

Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed. (File/AFP)
Updated 19 September 2021

Navalny allies accuse YouTube, Telegram of censorship in Russian election

  • Navalny’s allies already accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of buckling under Kremlin pressure
  • Russia has for years sought sovereignty over its part of the Internet

MOSCOW: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s allies accused YouTube and Telegram of censorship on Saturday after the video platform and messaging app restricted access to their anti-government voting recommendations for Russia’s parliamentary election.
Navalny’s allies already accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of buckling under Kremlin pressure on Friday after the companies removed an app from their stores that the activists had hoped to use against the ruling party at the election.
Voting began on Friday and runs until late on Sunday.
The app gives detailed recommendations on who to vote for in an effort to challenge the party that backs President Vladimir Putin. It is one of the few levers Navalny’s allies have left after a sweeping crackdown this year.
Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov, who has carved out a libertarian image and resisted past censorship, said the platform would block election campaign services, including one used by Navalny’s allies to give voter recommendations.
He said the decision had been taken because of a Russian ban on campaigning once polls are open, which he considered legitimate and is similar to bans in many other countries.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh condemned the move.
“It’s a real disgrace when the censorship is imposed by private companies that allegedly defend the ideas of freedom,” she wrote on Twitter.
Ivan Zhdanov, a political ally of Navalny, said he did not believe Telegram’s justification and that the move looked to have been agreed somehow with Russia’s authorities.
Late on Saturday, Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed.
“The video presentation of the smart voting recommendations for the constituencies with the nastiest (United Russia candidates) has also been removed,” they wrote.
Navalny’s camp said it was not a knockout blow as their voting recommendations were available elsewhere on social media.
But it is seen as a possible milestone in Russia’s crackdown on the Internet and its standoff with US tech firms.
Russia has for years sought sovereignty over its part of the Internet, where anti-Kremlin politicians have followings and media critical of Putin operate.
Navalny’s team uses Google’s YouTube widely to air anti-corruption videos and to stream coverage and commentary of anti-Kremlin protests they have staged.
’Dangerous precedent’
The ruling United Russia Party is widely expected to win the election despite a ratings slump. The voting, which opened on Friday and runs through Sunday, follows the biggest crackdown on the Kremlin’s domestic opponents in years.
The Navalny team’s Telegram feed continued to function normally on Saturday, and included links to voter recommendations available in Russia via Google Docs.
On a separate Telegram feed also used by the team, activists said Russia had told Google to remove the recommendations in Google Docs and that the US company had in turn asked Navalny’s team to take them down.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his statement, Durov said Google and Apple’s restrictions of the Navalny app had set a dangerous precedent and meant Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, was more vulnerable to government pressure.
He said Telegram depends on Apple and Google to operate because of their dominant position in the mobile operating system market and his platform would not have been able to resist a Russian ban from 2018 to 2020 without them.
Russia tried to block Telegram in April 2018 but lifted the ban more than two years later after ostensibly failing to block it.
“The app block by Apple and Google creates a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of expression in Russia and the whole world,” Durov said in a post on Telegram.