Monday, October 01, 2012

Macedonia: Danger of Censorship with the New Law on Insult and Defamation

I relay the reaction by Metamorphosis Foundation and recommend that all bloggers, users of forums, Twitter, Facebook and of internet in general to do the same to create public debate. If the Parliament adopts the Draft-Law on Civil Liability for Insult and Defamation in its present form, it will surely affect all their lives. The Government reacts to negative PR, especially if reactions come from many sides and those who react do not succumb to the unavoidable initial pressures. Such positive example was the dismissal of the process of adoption of Law on Youth in 2011.

The sections of the Draft-Law on Civil Liability for Insult and Defamation related to communication over the internet can lead to a complete termination of the possibilities for public debate through websites registered in Macedonia, and by encouraging censorship these sections violate Article 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia.

The draft-law which is currently in its first reading in Parliament also includes sections related to the work of the "online services providers" explicitly mentioning the portals as such, but the term provider itself is not precisely defined so it can also refer to any other online service: providing access in general, an instant messaging application, forums, content aggregation and forwarding, blogging platforms - especially the ones that allow third-party commenting on posts, etc.

Given the recent experiences of applying vaguely defined concepts in practice, the judge himself will have to decide whether he would consider a blogger to be an “online service provider” or an accomplice who “allowed” a stranger to leave a comment under his post which is offensive for a third party, or to have a link to another blog or website that could possibly contain insults or libels for a third party.

The basic article which refers to the internet is Article 11, which says:

Responsibility of the online service provider
Article 11
(1) The online service provider assumes responsibility, along with the author, to compensate for the damage arising from enabling access to offensive or defamatory information.
(2) The online service provider shall not be liable for an insult or slander as a result of enabling access to offensive or defamatory information provided that:
1) the provider proves that the author of the information posted on the website was not acting under direct or indirect control or influence by the online service provider, and
2) the provider proves that he was neither aware, nor that he should have been aware of the offensive or libelous material posted on the web portal, or that within 24 hours after becoming aware of the offensive and defamatory nature of the published text or information, the provider has taken all the technical and other measures for the removal of such information. A request for removal of information can also be filed by the complainant.

Given that every online service provider or website administrator has the technical capabilities to control all content (the form of control can ultimately be deletion or removal of the website from the internet) contrary to the principle of presumption of innocence, with this article the owners are put in a situation to have to prove that they were innocent, instead of the plaintiff to offer evidence for their guilt or malicious intent.

This law will oblige the portals to censor content posted by their users upon the request of the plaintiff, instead of a court order based on a proven offense. For example, a government official may be offended if someone presents evidence of his corruption. If the provider cannot prove that he has taken all the measures necessary to save his reputation, then he is faced with the same responsibility for the contents as the citizen who had published them.

Having in mind the risk of having to pay fines of up to 27,000 euros, it is very likely that the online service providers, in order to avoid lawsuits will prevent the publication of any content generated by the users or at best they would delete everything that they receive a request for. If not, they will also incur costs because they will be forced to employ moderators (lawyers and fact-checkers) who will be able to assess in advance if any comment is offensive or libelous, and at least three administrators who working in three shifts i.e. 24 hours 7 days a week (including weekends and public holidays) to promptly respond to all requests for deletion within the legally stipulated 24 hours.

The opportunities for arbitrary abuse that would be created with the adoption of such a law, by encouraging the online service providers from all societal sectors, and especially from the private and civil society sector, to introduce procedures for censorship of content generated by their users, make this law contrary to the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and censorship prohibition contained in Article 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia.

Article 16

The freedom of belief, conscience, thought and public expression of thought is guaranteed.
The freedom of speech, public address, public information and the free establishment of institutions for public information is guaranteed.
Free access to information and the freedom to receive and impart information is guaranteed.
The right to a response in the news media is guaranteed. The right to a correction in the news media is guaranteed. The right to protect the source of the information in the news media is guaranteed.
Censorship is prohibited.

Metamorphosis is urging the members of the Assembly of RM to reject the adoption of the law in this form. Passing laws that could literally affect the economic survival of any of the users of online services, which account for more than 60% of the population in Macedonia, due to an opinion they have expressed on the internet and laws that are literally obliging e-publishers to develop censorship mechanisms if they don’t want to be exposed to the threat of huge fines, is in complete contradiction with the basic human right to freedom of expression and the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia.

Due to the complexity and comprehensiveness of the consequences from the adoption of this law, Metamorphosis believes that the process of enactment must be conducted inclusively and in accordance with the Guidelines stipulating the manner of acting in the work of the ministries for the involvement of stakeholders in the process of preparation of laws, enacted with an ordinance of the Government (Official Gazette of RM no. 150 from 27.10.2011) and available on the website of the Deputy Prime Minister for Economy, in accordance with the legal framework for Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA), as well as the Code for consultation with the public during the preparation of the regulation and the Guide for Regulatory Impact Assessment, available on the website of the Ministry of Information Society and Administration. This process must include all stakeholders, starting from online service providers to citizens-users of internet services, bloggers, active users of social networks and readers of media portals who are expressing their views through comments, representatives of the private, civil society and education sector, particularly human rights experts. In order to have a constructive assessment of the effects of the law via comparative analyses with other countries, the process must include relevant international institutions, primarily the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and international organizations dealing with the protection of freedom of speech.

There is no such process in the case with the draft-law on civil liability for insult and defamation, which by the time of publication of this reaction has not been published yet on the official government websites: ENER - the single national electronic register of regulations of RM and the portal for modern public debates If the Government and the Parliament want this law to have a positive impact on the development of democracy and on the improvement of the quality of life in Macedonia, the draft-law must be withdrawn from parliamentary procedure and the process should be implemented from the beginning.

Metamorphosis invites all societal stakeholders, individual citizens, non-governmental organizations, educational and scientific institutions, private companies, especially online service providers, media and e-publishers, as well as the government entities - especially the ones responsible for protecting the rights and freedoms of citizens, to actively engage in the process for preventing the enactment of this and any other legal "solution" that opens even the slightest opportunity for violation of the freedom of expression in the Republic of Macedonia.

Metamorphosis sends this reaction to the competent institutions of the Republic of Macedonia and the general public, to the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Council of Europe and to the international organizations working on human rights protection: EDRi - European Digital Rights, Amnesty International, Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders.

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