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Russia Passes Censorship Law Criminalizing News That ‘Disrespects’ Government

New laws passed by Vladimir Putin will make it illegal to spread “fake news” and other content that is considered disrespectful to the Russian government. The passage follows some of the biggest protests Moscow has seen in years over a separate bill that would effectively cut Russia off from foreign internet servers and create a […]

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  • New laws passed by Vladimir Putin will make it illegal to spread “fake news” and other content that is considered disrespectful to the Russian government.
  • The passage follows some of the biggest protests Moscow has seen in years over a separate bill that would effectively cut Russia off from foreign internet servers and create a firewall similar to China’s.
  • All of the laws have been criticized as authoritarian efforts to silence dissent as part of the country’s broader move to increase “sovereignty” over its internet.

Putin Signs New Laws

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two new laws on Monday that will make it illegal to spread “fake news” and information which “disrespects” the state.

The first law says that corporate entities like online news outlets that spread “fake news” will face fines of up to 1.5 million rubles, or $22,900. Citizens who spread “fake news” could receive fines up to 400,000 rubles or $6,090, according to Russia’s state-owned newspaper TASS.

Putin speaking at the First Russian Internet Economy Forum
Source: President of Russia

The second law punishes users and outlets that post content that “shows obvious disrespect for society, the state and official symbols of Russia, the Russian Constitution or other agencies,” according to TASS.

Offenders of the second law face a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,552) for a first offense, and up to 300,000 rubles ($4,656) and 15 days in jail for repeat offenders.

Under these new laws, prosecutors can report online media to the government – which in turn can block access to websites if the content violates the law either by spreading “fake news” or insulting the government.

Significant Changes to Russian Censorship

While these laws might not come as a surprise, many experts have said they represent a significant shift in the censorship of Russia’s internet.

According to Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute:

“Russia has not historically had major constraints on Internet freedom. The Internet has thus been one realm in which full diversity of opinion and free expression, even on the most sensitive political topics, were generally permitted […] The prosecutor general now has essentially unconstrained authority to determine that any speech is unacceptable under the new law.”

Maria Snegovaya, an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, elaborated on that point, saying that the prosecutor’s office can now block news sources before any sort of ruling by a court or a judge.

“In other words, it significantly expands the repressive power of Russia’s repressive apparatus,” Snegovaya said, comparing the legislation to laws implemented by Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

Protests Over Other Internet Bills

These new laws passed by Putin are not the only controversial pieces of legislation that attempt to restrict internet access.

Just last week, demonstrators hosted massive protests in Moscow and two other Russian cities over yet another internet bill. The protests in Moscow were described as some of the biggest protests in the Russian capital in years.

White Counter, an NGO that counts participants at rallies, stated that 15,300 people attended the protest, while Moscow police put the numbers at 6,500.

The bill in question would essentially cut Russia off from the global internet by directing Russian web traffic through servers controlled by the government. It also could create a system that would allow the Russian internet to work without foreign infrastructure.

Supporters of the bill say that it is necessary to protect Russia from foreign meddling, but critics have said the bill resembles China’s internet firewall, calling it an “iron curtain” and arguing it will stifle dissent.

The Trend of Censorship

The law that sparked the protest has not yet been passed by Parliament.

While the laws passed by Putin on Monday will certainly bring considerable change to Russian censorship, these kinds of laws are becoming increasingly common in Russia. The legislation reflects broader efforts by the government to increase “sovereignty” over its internet.

Russia has introduced other internet laws in the last few years.

Last year, a communications oversight agency tried to ban the messaging app Telegram after the company refused to give the government access to encryption tools that would allow them to read users’ messaging data, a move which prompted another wave of protests.

Some have said these tactics are a way of controlling public discourse, especially as Putin’s approval rating has fallen significantly in the last few years.

This last point is significant because some experts have said that the new laws passed Monday could make it almost impossible for individuals or groups to call for public protests because protesting government policies and actions could be considered disrespect of the government under the new law.

All of these laws have serious implications, but they also seem to show a trend in Russian censorship.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NPR) (Moscow Times)

International

Thousands of Nigerians Continue to Protest for Widespread Police Reforms Following SARS Disbandment

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  • Nigerians are protesting against human rights abuses carried out by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit commonly known as SARS.
  • The police unit has been caught on video multiple times shooting, torturing, extorting, beating, robbing, and kidnapping Nigerians.
  • A video of a SARS officer shooting a young man while confiscating the man’s Lexus on October 3 sparked outrage across the West African nation, leading to protests since October 8.
  • Since then, the government has agreed to some demands and disbanded the unit for the fourth time, only to replace it with a SWAT unit.
  • Still, Nigerians continue to protest, demanding wide-scale police reforms.

SARS Accused of Major Human Rights Abuses

Nigeria has been rocked by ongoing protests over police brutality stemming from the long time corruption and abuse by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

The squad, better known as SARS, has long been embroiled in controversy for engaging in torture, mock executions, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, harassment, and murder. For many Nigerians, the unit is just the worst example of many of the abuses that Nigerian police engage in and is part of a systemic problem.

The most recent anger was sparked by a video that went viral on October 3, which shows a SARS officer was seen shooting a young man in front of a hotel while taking away his Lexus SUV. Adding to the collective anger was news that the phone used to record the incident was quickly confiscated by SARS officers after the video went live.

Following days of simmering, the tensions boiled over on October 8, after activists and social media called for wide-scale protests to demand SARS be disbanded. Like many recent protests worldwide, the message was quickly spread and amplified with the help of social media, prompting tens of thousands of people across Nigeria to take to the streets and make #endSARS trend online.

Wide-Scale Protests Across Nigeria

Since October 8, the ongoing protests have been mainly peaceful, although there have been incidents of police interfering with heavy-handed tactics. Online, hundreds of videos can be found of police using water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds. Others show them wildly shooting into crowds of protesters.

However, these actions often have the opposite of their intended effect and draw out more protesters daily. Additionally, the videos of violent police tactics amplify the message worldwide, especially as members of the Nigerian diaspora push the topic online.

Nigerian actor John Boyega has actively supported the movement on Twitter, calling out Nigerian police corruption. Similarly, Nigerian rapper Burna Boy made serious efforts to spread information about the protests to his global audience.

On October 10, he made a statement, promising to help fund any protester who is harmed and/or arrested by police during demonstrations. He also asked for donations to that fund and promised to make sure people are educated about the situation. To that end, he has been funding billboards with #ENDSARS and relevant information across the United Kingdom.


In North America, multiple artists have come out in support of the cause. Rapper Kanye West tweeted out, “I stand with my Nigerian brothers and sisters to end police brutality, the government must answer to the peoples cries #EndPoliceBrutalityinNigeria”

Meanwhile, fellow artist Drake highlighted a post about the situation on his Instagram story.

SARS Out, SWAT In

As the protests continued, the message and movement evolved. On Sunday, a list of demands began to be circulated on social media.

Beyond wanting SARS disbanded, the demands called for anyone arrested during the protests to be released. It also called for compensation for those killed by police brutality in Nigeria.

It’s unknown exactly how many have died as a result of the protests, but Human Rights Watch estimates that upwards of 10 people have been killed by police while protesting.

Demonstrators are also calling for an independent body be set up within 10 days to investigate and prosecute all reports of police misconduct, as well as psychological evaluations and retraining of SARS operatives before they were moved to other units.

Additionally, protesters want to ensure that Nigerian police are adequately paid, so they’re less willing to engage in corruption.

Protesters got a major victory on Sunday when the government announced that SARS would be disbanding and there would be investigations into the conduct of the officers. Until those investigations were complete, SARS officers would be placed into other units after a psychological evaluation, in line with protester demands.

However, for many protesters, this wasn’t enough. They want widespread police reforms, especially because disbanding SARS isn’t a new thing.

This will be the fourth time the unit has been disbanded, and each time it’s brought back, it faces the same accusations. It’s widely believed that the unit isn’t the problem and instead blame the mindset within Nigerian police that allows a unit like SARS to be so brutal and corrupt.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that police finally agreed to stop using force against protesters. At the same time, President Muhammadu Buhari gave a speech where he promised that widespread police reforms would come.

“I want to use this opportunity to address the recent genuine concerns and agitations by Nigerians about the excessive use of force, and in some cases extrajudicial killings and wrongful conduct, by men of the Nigerian police force,” he said.

The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure the primary of the police and other law enforcement agencies remain the protection of lives.” and added, “We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice.”

Many Nigerians were bitterly disappointed when it was announced that SARS would be replaced with a group known as Special Weapons Assault Team, or SWAT.

With that, protests continued into Wednesday, and demands have been expanded to call for more fundamental changes to the police system. The calls are similar to ones made against police in countries like the U.S. and U.K. following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

See What Others Are Saying: (Reuters) (CNN) (Vanguard Nigeria)

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Cardi B and Los Angeles Times Face Backlash for Perceived Stances on Armenia and Azerbaijan Conflict

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  • Estimates say that the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijani in Nagorno-Karabakh has resulted in more than 1,000 military deaths, on top of dozens of civilian deaths on both sides.
  • It has also hyper-polarized online communities, causing both celebrities and new outlets to become bombarded with backlash for their perceived stances on the situation.
  • Rapper Cardi B, for instance, shared a fundraiser for Armenia on her Instagram Story at the request of a business associate and quickly removed it after facing outrage from Azeri internet users.
  • The artist later admitted she didn’t do enough research on the topic before appearing to take a side and only wants peace.
  • The Los Angeles Times faced similar backlash, but from Armenian activists, after posting an article that featured a quote from an Azeri diplomat.

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Goes Online

Rapper Cardi B and The Los Angeles Times have each found themselves in hot water after receiving backlash from Azeri and Armenian groups over tweets and articles published over the last two days.

On Monday, The Times ran an article about the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and its efforts to help the breakaway region of the Republic of Artsakh.

Armenians felt the article was so poorly done that hundreds showed up at the paper’s El Segundo headquarters on Tuesday to protest. The group blocked access to the nearby Imperial Highway and adjacent streets, shouting “Shame on the LA Times.”

However, many took issue with the fact that it also included a quote from the Consul General of Los Angeles, who provided an unsubstantiated claim.

“The racist and white supremacist propaganda promoted by Armenia and their allies, with which they intend to cash in on the already divisive environment and Islamophobic prejudices, must be condemned by everyone who believe that such dangerous bigotry and intolerance have no place in Europe, U.S. or anywhere else.” The Consul general told the Los Angeles Times

Armenian activists claim that including the quote without any pushback was irresponsible and was spreading disinformation.

The ongoing conflict has proven to be hyper-polarizing for all sides involved, and given that Los Angeles has one of the largest Armenian populations in the world, many felt such a strong local reaction was not unsurprising. To give context, there is only one city in the world with a larger Armenian population that the LA-metro area: Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Worldwide there have been mass protests from the Armenian diaspora. On Wednesday, Brussels had hundreds of protesters outside of E.U. government buildings chanting “Hayastan!”- the Armenian word for Armenia.

“Just Want Peace”

It’s not just Armenians pushing back online. On Monday, Cardi B shared an Armenian fundraiser on her Instagram Story and it turned into a nightmare for the artist. The fundraiser is run by the Armenian government and uses the funds for various projects in Artsakh.

Turkish and Azeri users online pushed back at the artist for appearing to support the Armenian side of the conflict. In fact, some argued that by promoting that fundraiser, Cardi B was supporting terrorism.

By Tuesday morning, she took down the post and issued an apology on Twitter. She explained that she shared the fundraiser as a favor to her Armenian real-estate consultant after a quick conversation.

“He’s saying there’s a lot of terrible genocides going on in his country,” she wrote. “And he says, ‘Can you please post something for a cause, a good cause for Armenia?’”

“And we said, ‘sure, why not?’ you know? We love to support everybody. And I wake up and I see a lot of people from Azerbaijan is writing me things, writing me stuff, and I did not know that this is a war between two countries.”

The rapper went on to talk about her positive experience in Armenia but tried to distance herself from the situation by adding that both countries seem to be filled with history and are interesting.

“I did a little bit of research today since you guys left me so much [comments]. My wish is that both the countries would just be at peace. Know what I’m saying?” She added. “There’s no little land. You guys already have big pieces of land. There is no little tiny land that is worth chaos death fighting, especially in this year.”

She also responded to a user who was trying to push the hashtag #CardiBSupportsTerrorism, writing, “Stfu I don’t support terrorism.I literally posted it for my friend with out doing no research on what’s going on .Im sorry about that .I don’t like war .I don’t like conflicts between two countries period cause I hate innocent people being affected by it.”

Fighting On the Ground Continues

In Nagorno-Karabakh, fighting has continued since September 27. Over the past week, Azerbaijan claims to have captured some towns in the south of the region. If true, this marks a pretty significant advancement into the territory for Azeri troops.

While the fighting has escalated, so have the casualties, though exact numbers are hard to determine on both sides. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are reporting how many military deaths have occurred since fighting began. Only the breakaway Republic of Artsakh has given any numbers, claiming it has lost 280 soldiers since the fighting began.

Total military deaths are thought to be over a thousand currently.

Even though the combatants are slow to reveal military casualties, they are more open about civilian deaths. Azerbaijan has hit multiple cities in Artsakh with missiles and drone strikes, leading to reportedly over two dozen civilian deaths.

On the other side, Armenian forces are accused of targeting Azeri cities like Ganja with their own attacks, leading to about a dozen deaths.

See What Others Are Saying: (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times) (Reuters)

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Brutal Fighting Continues Between Azerbaijan and Armenia Over Breakaway Region

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  • On Sunday fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, who is supporting the breakaway Republic of Artsakh in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
  • The territory, known as Artsakh to Armenians, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has a majority ethnic-Armenian government.
  • The region is recognized by all United Nations members as being part of Azerbaijan, although Armenia’s long-standing support of the breakaway Republic of Artsakh has consistently escalated tensions.
  • Turkey promised to support Azerbaijan, while other nations around the world have asked for de-escalation.

Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh?

Long-standing tensions between Armenia, the de-facto independent Republic of Artsakh, and Azerbaijan erupted into fighting Sunday in the highly contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The region is known as Artsakh to ethnic Armenians.

Sunday’s fighting broke out across the entire Line of Contact, which is a network of military fortifications that separate forces in the region. The region’s capital, Stepanakert, has also been subject to military actions such as shelling and drone strikes.

In addition to fighting on the ground, the conflict has played out online as well. Shortly after fighting began, Hikmet Hajiyev, the head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department in Azerbaijan, accused Armenia of starting the fighting, saying that on Sunday, the armed forces of Armenia“blatantly violated the ceasefire regime and, using large-caliber weapons, mortar launchers and artillery have launched an intensive attack on the position of the armed forces of Azerbaijan along the frontline.”

“The armed forces of the Republic of Azerbaijan are undertaking necessary counter-offensive measures to prevent Armenia’s another military aggression and ensure the security of the civilian population,” he added. “The responsibility for the present situation and future developments lie squarely with Armenia’s political-military leadership.”

However, subsequent statements from President Ilham Aliyev suggest that the entire conflict is part of an effort to “retake” the region.

On the Armenian side, Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, tweeted out, “Azerbaijan has launched a missile & aerial attack against #Artsakh. Peaceful settlements including Stepanakert have been attacked.”

Armenian side has shot down 2 helicopters & 3 UAVs, destroyed 3 tanks. We stay strong next to our army to protect our motherland from Azeri invasion.”

Initially, there was some skepticism that the fighting escalated to such a point that large munitions were being used on targets, but as the weeks progressed, more footage and images from the fighting show that tanks, aircraft, drones, and artillery have all been deployed.

Fighting, From Bad to Worse

Both sides have announced military and civilian deaths. Armenia claims over 100 military personnel and 23 civilians have died. The Armenian Ministry of Defense added that 230 Azeri soldiers have been killed.

Azerbaijan defense officials claimed on Wednesday to have killed thousands of Armenian and Artsakh troops and to have “destroyed 130 tanks, 200 artillery units, 25 anti-aircraft units, five ammunition depots, 50 anti-tank units, 55 military vehicles.”

The conflict seems to have escalated beyond the disputed region itself, with evidence that Azerbaijan has used drones to strike targets within Armenia.

Beyond direct military actions, each government has drawn up more troops. On Sunday, Armenia declared martial law and called for a general mobilization. That same day, the Republic of Artsakh announced all able-bodied men would be drawn into service, while Azerbaijan declared a partial-mobilization.

2020 has seen tensions in the region drastically escalate. Earlier in the year during fighting that broke out in July, 14 people died, including two senior Armenian officers who were killed in a drone strike.

Longstanding, Divisive History

There has been long-standing conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh. For thousands of years, Armenians have been the ethnic-majority in the mountainous region. During it’s various stints as part of other empires, the area was normally ruled by Armenian princes, or outside rulers from occupying powers.

In the 1800’s, both Armenia and Azerbaijan became part of the Russian Empire, where Nagorno-Karabakh was administered in the same zone as Azerbaijan and other Caucus territories, while Armenia was administered as its own polity. When the empire dissolved during World War I, both nations gained their independence and promptly went to war over who controls Nagorno-Karabakh.

During that war, the Soviets took over both nations and made forcefully brokered a peace that eventually saw Stalin putting the region under the administrative control of the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, despite its Armenian majority.

For many Armenians, especially those living in the Nagorno-Karabakh, this was unacceptable and the catalysts for the modern conflict. Census data from the time shows it was roughly 90% Armenian.

Open conflict didn’t occur again until the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. In the late ’80s both Armenia and Azerbaijan, while still nominally part of the same country, went to war over the territory.

When they both declared independence in 1991, so did the Armenians within Nagorno-Karabakh, calling themselves the Republic of Artsakh. The war devolved into Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh fighting Azerbaijan. All sides accused the others of ethnic cleansing in the region. Leading to Armenians leaving Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh, while Azeris fled to other parts of Azerbaijan.

Now the region is nearly 100% Armenian. 

A ceasefire was signed that left all sides unhappy. Azerbaijan refused to give up any claims to the land, while Armenia has stationed troops in the region to reinforce the Republic of Artsakh. However, the entire region is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Source: BBC

No UN-member state, not even Armenia, officially recognize the Republic of Artsakh as independent. 

Calls for Peace

Around the world, countries have come out in various ways to show support or call for peace. On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Erdogan sent out a series of tweets not only blaming Armenia for the attacks but also saying “it is the biggest threat to peace and tranquility in the region.”

He went on to call on Armenian to resist their government “who use them like a puppet.

Most countries took a more neutral stance, asking that the two sides deescalate the situation. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson told state TV on Sunday, “Iran is closely monitoring the conflict with concern and calls for an immediate end to the conflict and the start of talks between the two countries.”

French, Russian, and U.S. officials also called on both sides to stop fighting, along with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). the OSCE, who France, Russia, and the U.S. are all a part of, was responsible for mediating the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan back in the ’90s.

Call for peace haven’t made much headway, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan have rejected any calls for another ceasefire.

See What Others Are Saying: (BBC) (CNN) (Reuters)

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