Tag Archives: freedom of expression

Facebook Feels Heat of Controversies

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook attends a session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/File Photo

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook attends a session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/File Photo

By Kristina Cooke, Dan Levine and Dustin Volz 
Fall, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After Facebook’s removal of an iconic Vietnam war photo stirred an international uproar in September, the social network’s executives quickly backtracked and cleared its publication.

But the image – showing a naked Vietnamese girl burned by napalm – had previously been used in training sessions as an example of a post that should be removed, two former Facebook employees told Reuters.

Trainers told content-monitoring staffers that the photo violated Facebook policy, despite its historical significance, because it depicted a naked child, in distress, photographed without her consent, the employees told Reuters.

The social network has taken great pains to craft rules that can be applied uniformly with minimal discretion. The reversal on the war photo, however, shows how Facebook’s top executives sometimes overrule company policy and its legions of low- and mid-level content monitors.

Facebook has often insisted that it is a technology company – not a media company – but an elite group of at least five senior executives regularly directs content policy and makes editorial judgment calls, particularly in high-profile controversies, eight current and former Facebook executives told Reuters.

One of those key decision-makers – Justin Osofsky, who runs the community operations division – wrote a Facebook post acknowledging that the removal of the war photo was a “mistake.”

“Sometimes,” he wrote, “the global and historical significance of a photo like ‘Terror of War’ outweighs the importance of keeping nudity off Facebook.”

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Facebook spokeswoman Christine Chen declined to comment on the company’s use of the photo in training sessions.

Facebook has long resisted calls to publicly detail its policies and practices on censoring postings. That approach has drawn criticism from users who have had content removed and free-speech advocates, who cite a lack of transparency and a lack of an appeals process for many content decisions.

At the same time, some governments and anti-terror groups are pressuring the company to remove more posts they consider offensive or dangerous.

HIGH-LEVEL REVIEW

Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management, is interviewed by Reuters in Washington DC February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, is interviewed by Reuters in Washington DC February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

The current and former Facebook executives, most of them speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in detail how complaints move through the company’s content-policing apparatus. The toughest calls, they said, rise to an elite group of executives.

Another of the key decision-makers is Global Policy Chief Monika Bickert, who helped rule on the fracas over the war photo.

“That was one we took a hard look at, and we decided it definitely belonged on the site,” said Bickert, a former federal prosecutor.

She declined to elaborate on the decision-making process.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg followed up with an apology to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who had posted the photo on her own account after Facebook removed it from others in her country.

In addition to Sandberg, Osofsky and Bickert, executives involved in sensitive content issues include Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Washington-based government relations chief; and Elliot Schrage, the vice president for public policy and communications.

All five studied at Harvard, and four of them have both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the elite institution. All but Sandberg hold law degrees. Three of the executives have longstanding personal ties to Sandberg.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard drop-out, occasionally gets involved with content controversies, Bickert said.

These executives also weigh in on content policy changes meant to reflect shifting social context and political sensitivities around the world, current and former executives said.

Facebook officials said the five people identified by Reuters were not the only ones involved in high-level content decisions.

“Facebook has a broad, diverse and global network involved in content policy and enforcement, with different managers and senior executives being pulled in depending on the region and the issue at hand,” Chen said.

Chen declined to name any other executives who were involved in content policy.

A WAR OVER FREE EXPRESSION

The company’s reticence to explain censorship decisions has drawn criticism in many countries around the globe.

Last month, Facebook disabled the accounts of editors at two of the most widely read Palestinian online publications, Shehab News Agency and Quds. In keeping with standard company practice, Facebook didn’t publicly offer a reason for the action or pinpoint any content it considered inappropriate.

The company told Reuters that the removal was simply an error.

Some Palestinian advocacy groups and media outlets condemned the shutdowns as censorship stemming from what they described as Facebook’s improper alliance with the Israeli government.

Israel’s government has pushed Facebook to block hundreds of pages it believes incite violence against Jews, said Noam Sela, spokesman for Israeli cabinet Minister Gilad Erdan.

Sela said the Israeli government “had a connection” at Facebook to handle complaints but declined to elaborate on the relationship.

“It’s not working as well as we would like,” Sela said. “We have more work to do to get Facebook to remove these pages.”

Ezz al-Din al-Akhras, a Quds supervisor, said that Facebook’s head of policy in the Middle East had gotten in touch after the uproar over the shutdowns and that three of four suspended accounts were restored.

“We hope the Facebook campaign of suspending and removing Palestinian accounts will stop,” he said. “We do not practice incitement; we are only conveying news from Palestine to the world.”

Facebook said the restoration of the accounts was not a response to complaints. It declined to comment on whether top executives were involved.

The company has cited technological glitches in other recent cases where content was removed, then restored, including the takedown of a video that showed the aftermath of a Minneapolis police shooting.

Chen declined to explain the glitch.

She said the company was reviewing its appeals process in response to public feedback. Facebook currently allows appeals of company actions involving entire profiles set up by people or institutions, or full pages on those profiles, but not for individual posts.

THICK RULEBOOK

To manage the huge volume of content complaints – more than a million a day – the company employs a multi-layered system. It starts with automated routing of complaints to content-policing teams in Dublin, Hyderabad, Austin and Menlo Park, who make initial rulings, current and former executives said.

These low-level staffers and contractors consult a thick rulebook that interprets the comparatively spare “community standards” that Facebook customers are asked to follow. The company trains front-line monitors to follow rules and use as little discretion as possible.

When a removal sparks more complaints, regional managers function as a mid-level appeals court. Continuing controversy could then push the issue to top U.S. executives.

Senior executives also weigh in on policy updates. Osofsky and Kaplan, for instance, wrote a blog post last week, in response to “continued feedback” on content removals, explaining that the company would start weighing news value more heavily in deciding whether to block content.

In an earlier post, responding to the Napalm-girl controversy, Osofsky said Facebook’s policies usually work well, but not always.

“In many cases, there’s no clear line between an image of nudity or violence that carries global and historic significance and one that doesn’t,” Osofsky wrote.

The Vietnam war photo – depicting horrors suffered by a girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc – was first removed from an account in Norway by a front-line monitor.

In protest, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten printed the image on its front page and posted it on Facebook, which removed it. That prompted the prime minister to post the photo – only to have Facebook remove it again.

Facebook then issued a statement defending the action, saying it was “difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.”

The next day, executives reversed the call, with Sandberg telling the prime minister: “Even with clear standards, screening millions of posts on a case-by-case basis every week is challenging.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Joseph Menn in San Francisco, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Brian Thevenot)

Related on F&O:

Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race, by Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr., ProPublica

Imagine if, during America’s Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers. That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays. The ubiquitous social network not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “Ethnic Affinities.” Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.

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Suit by Wikimedia and partners targets American mass surveillance

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland. U.S. government photo, public domain

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland. U.S. government photo, public domain

A law suit aimed at mass surveillance was filed Tuesday against America’s  National Security Agency and Department of Justice, by the Wikimedia Foundation and eight other complainants.

“The surveillance exceeds the scope of the authority that Congress provided in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (“FAA”) and violates the First and Fourth Amendments,” stated the suit, filed in Maryland. “Because it is predicated on programmatic surveillance orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (“FISC”) in the absence of any case or controversy, the surveillance also violates Article III of the Constitution.”

 A statement from Wikimedia said the suit challenges the NSA’s large-scale search and seizure of internet communications, and aims “to end this mass surveillance program in order to protect the rights of our users around the world.”

“Surveillance erodes the original promise of the internet: an open space for collaboration and experimentation, and a place free from fear,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in the statement.

“Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information,” said foundation executive director Lila Tretikov. “By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge.”

The joint suit was filed by the Wikimedia Foundation; the U.S. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers;  Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International; PEN American Centre; the Global Fund for Women; the Nation Magazine; the Rutherford Institute; and the Washington Office on Latin America. 

The defendants are the U.S. National Security Agency; NSA director Adm. Michael S. Rogers; the office of the Director of National Intelligence and its director James R. Clapper; U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder.

Excerpt of the statement:

Privacy is the bedrock of individual freedom. It is a universal right that sustains the freedoms of expression and association. These principles enable inquiry, dialogue, and creation and are central to Wikimedia’s vision of empowering everyone to share in the sum of all human knowledge. When they are endangered, our mission is threatened. If people look over their shoulders before searching, pause before contributing to controversial articles, or refrain from sharing verifiable but unpopular information, Wikimedia and the world are poorer for it. …

Our case today challenges the NSA’s use of upstream surveillance conducted under the authority of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act (FAA). Upstream surveillance taps the internet’s “backbone” to capture communications with “non-U.S. persons.” The FAA authorizes the collection of these communications if they fall into the broad category of “foreign intelligence information” that includes nearly any information that could be construed as relating to national security or foreign affairs. The program casts a vast net, and as a result, captures communications that are not connected to any “target,” or may be entirely domestic. This includes communications by our users and staff.

References:

Read the full Wikimedia Foundation statement here: http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Press_releases/Wikimedia_v._NSA:_Wikimedia_Foundation_files_suit_against_NSA_to_challenge_upstream_mass_surveillance

Read the legal suit, Case 1:15-cv-00662-RDB Document 1 filed in U.S. District Court, District of Maryland, here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/foundation/4/44/Wikimedia_v._NSA_Complaint.pdf

Q&A: Why is the Wikimedia Foundation suing the NSA? ACLU blog post: https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/qa-why-wikimedia-foundation-suing-nsa

Reports elsewhere, by Reuters; Politico; Guardian;  PC Magazine; Time Magazine

Related stories on F&O:

Spy scandal confirms Germans’ growing mistrust of Washington, July, 2014, Jonathan Manthorpe column (paywall)

Privacy Tools: Encrypt What You Can, May 2014

What Edward Snowden said to European Parliamentarians,  March 2014

Privacy Tools: How to Safely Browse the Web, January, 2014

Evidence lacking in U.S. claim that NSA thwarted attacks, October, 2013

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

 

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Freedom of the press ain’t so free anymore

TOM REGAN  
February 20, 2015 

journalists

Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents, said Reporters sans Frontieres.

Many years ago, when I was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, a colleague and friend from Uganda, Charles Unyongo-Obbo, and I were the last two people to leave a function. As we walked out into the crisp fall air of Cambridge I noticed that Charles was scanning up and down the street. I asked him what was wrong.

“I’m just looking for the police car,” he told me. “I know there won’t be any police cars here but I can’t afford to let my guard down because when I go back home they will be there.”

Charles’ comments had a profound effect on the way I saw the world of journalism. In the United States (and in Canada, where I was working at the time) freedom of the press is taken for granted. Basically we can say and write whatever we like, without fear of the kind of consequences that my friend from Uganda worried about. And I think because of that illusion of press freedom, first world journalists often lose sight of the fact that reporting is a dangerous, often thankless business for most journalists in the world. 

I thought of Charles once again as I read Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres’ latest report on world press freedoms. The picture that the report paints is not a cheery one.

“According to the Paris-based watchdog’s latest World Press Freedom Index, published Thursday, two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed performed less well than in 2013, while there was an 8 percent increase in the number of violations of freedom of information in 2014 compared to the year before,” Agence-France Press reported.

There were the usual suspects of course. China, Vietnam, North Korea, Iran, and Cuba were all near the bottom of the rankings. After a relatively short flourishing, press freedom in Russia is almost gone. All the countries in the Middle East did poorly.

But it was this comment that really caught my eye.

“Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents,” said RSF.

That’s a pretty alarming statement: “In retreat on all five continents.” And that includes the one on which I live, North America.

Because as much as we would like to believe that we have unlimited free press in the U.S., that’s often not the case. In fact, in terms of the RSF world rankings, the United States fell 3 spots last year to 49th place out of 180. Some of the countries that finished ahead of the United States: Namibia, Costa Rica, Ghana, Uruguay, Cyprus, Tonga, El Salvador (which is truly stunning) and Malta.

Freedom of the press in North America, and in the United States in particular, faces numerous threats: economic censorship where businesses of all sizes threaten reporters with economic and legal retaliations for unfavorable stories; increasing concentration of control of the media in a handful of huge corporations and a few dozen media executives; police actions against reporters such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police rounded up numerous members of the media in order to prevent them from covering the polices tactics in that racially torn city; and most important, government actions against the media like the many ones undertaken by the Obama administration.

For all of its liberal policies on issues like immigration, gay marriage, contraception and similar progressive issues, no administration in recent memory has been so unfriendly to the media nor has taken so many legal actions meant to silence the press – such as suing reporters who have written about important leaks that have embarrassed the government – nor has carried out so many illegal actions itself in order to spy on the media. (See the many reports from WikiLeaks and on Edward Snowden.

One might argue that the proliferation of media sites on the Internet and social media would counteract this development to some degree. And it has, but not by very much. With one or two notable exceptions (ProPublica in particular), most well-known Internet media sites in the US spent far too much of their time concentrating on click-bait stories, celebrity news, and water cooler tidbits. 

A country often gets the press it deserves, particularly in the Western world. While we have no dictatorships in countries like the United States, Canada, Britain, France or Australia, we do have governments which will do everything in their power to reduce the importance of media and any unfavorable coverage of their actions.

And most Americans have grown fat, lazy and complacent about freedom of the press because of the illusion that it is unlimited. While we may have more talking heads giving their opinions on the air, in print and online than Medusa had snakeheads, important stories like government abuse of privacy in the name of a nebulous security are in danger of being silenced before they can even be reported.

“The press doesn’t stop publishing, by the way, in a fascist escalation; it simply watches what it says,” American author Naomi Wolf wrote. “That too can be an incremental process, and the pace at which the free press polices itself depends on how journalists are targeted.”

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com 

Notes:

Reporters Sans Frontieres report: http://index.rsf.org/#!/presentation

Mass Internet Surveillance Unlawful: Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/06/gchq-mass-internet-surveillance-unlawful-court-nsa

Wikileaks report by the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/29/world/29cables.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Democracy Now, on Edward Snowden

 

 

 

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

 

 

 

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Paris attack brings focus to French author Michel Houellebecq

LOUIS BETTYUniversity of Wisconsin-Whitewater
January 16, 2015

French author Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq, memorialized, in 2011. THIERRY EHRMANN/Flickr

When gunmen (thought to be radicalized Muslims) burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the morning of January 7, the front page of the satirical newspaper’s most recent edition featured a caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq. The same day, his new novel Soumission (Submission) had been released – a fictionalized account of France’s election of an Islamist president in 2022.

“In 2022, I’m observing Ramadan!” the cartoon of a ragged, cigarette-smoking Houellecbecq exclaims.

Submission had generated controversy even before its publication. Many on the Left worried that its depiction of an Islamicized France would be a boon for Marine le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front party. And while François Hollande, France’s socialist president, has promised to read the novel, many have condemned it as Islamophobic.

Who is Michel Houellecbecq? Though largely unknown in the United States, Houellecbecq (pronounced well-beck) is one of France’s most popular and commercially successful living authors. Many consider him to be France’s most significant literary export in decades.

Even before Submission, the author was no stranger to controversy. Houellecbecq first came to prominence on the French literary scene in 1998 with the publication of Les Particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles), a novel that describes the collapse of Western civilization from the point of view of two disaffected half-brothers.

The major point of contention in the novel was its disparaging treatment of post-60s culture in France (like the U.S., France was marked by anti-establishment protests in 1968) and its scathing criticism of sexual liberalism. The novel depicted a post-60s France awash in depression, social and sexual isolation, as well as moral and religious decay. From the point of view of the Left, it was read as an indictment of the values of a whole generation.

At the same time, the novel was equally unsympathetic to free-market capitalism, which caused a significant clamour in the right-wing media. In this respect, Houellebecq perplexed both the Left and Right in France: the media had difficulty determining where to place him along the traditional ideological spectrum. The novel also prominently featured the sexual exploits of its characters (one of the half brothers, Bruno, is a frequent visitor of nudist colonies) so many in the press criticized the novel for celebrating the very moral decadence it seemed to condemn.

Subsequent novels such as Plateforme (Platform), La Possibilitié d’une île (The Possibility of An Island) and La Carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) also garnered their fair share of controversy. Platform, for example, recounts the attempt by several French citizens to create a sex resort in Thailand, which ends in tragedy when Muslim terrorists attack the resort and kill or maim most of the vacationers. It’s worth noting that Platform was released during the fall literary season of 2001, just before the attacks of 9/11.

La Possibilité d’une île (2005) tackled the issue of glorifying youth culture and the physical and moral neglect of the elderly. It explicitly evoked the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which claimed the lives of thousands of elderly people who died in nursing homes while their families were away on vacation. In 2010, Houellebecq won the prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, for La Carte et le Territoire, but more controversy arose when journalists discovered that Houellebecq had lifted brief passages from Wikipedia articles.

In translation, Houellebecq has enjoyed broad popularity in Europe, though in the United States he remains relatively unknown. Much of this is due to negative reviews his novels have received in left-leaning intellectual publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times. But there’s also the perception that the author’s work is somehow “too European” to appeal to a broad American audience. His novels are filled with themes of cultural and economic decline, psychological stagnation, sexual desperation, and rampant materialism. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that Houellebecq’s work feeds brilliantly off the decline of European civilization in the 20th century. This message, if it is not lost on Americans, is at least antithetical to their cultural myth of progress and the American dream.

But American readers may now take notice of Houellebecq’s most recent novel: Submission deals with the pan-western concern of a globalized Islam, and in the wake of Wednesday’s shootings will certainly receive even greater scrutiny. One can only wonder how prescient it will be: how will the role of Muslims in politics change? And how will the far-right respond to – or even exploit – the tragedy?

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Louis_BettyLouis Betty is an assistant professor of French at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has published numerous scholarly articles on Houellebecq and is preparing the final draft of a book-length work on Houellebecq’s fiction.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

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The hidden complexity of simplicity

 

TOM REGAN 
January 16, 2015 

It’s been a tough couple of weeks. I’ve had a terrible flu. Lost my voice for days and generally felt crappy. Then my wife caught the same bug. Having one parent down is bad. Having both parents sick is a nightmare.

Maybe it was my illness that darkened my mood as I watched the events in Paris unfold over the past two weeks. Glued to France24’s TV channel for hours on end, my depression and anger grew with each passing moment. As a journalist, I was outraged at this assault on freedom of the press. As an atheist, I was outraged that, once again, a group of religious extremists who felt their religion has been offended killed the offending parties.

The answer to me was simple.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just do away with religion all together, I asked in several Facebook posts. No more extremism. No more weird beliefs that defy science. No one getting homicidally offended because their version of a mythical “ghosty in the sky,” as one of my daughters phrases it, got their divine nose out of joint. No more anti-women rules. No more hatred against those who were different than you. No more hatred because of a person’s sexual preferences. And on and on. Basically, Nirvana in my view.

And I wasn’t the only one saying the problem was simple. Far-right pundits, liberal atheist comedians, politicians of all stripes and nationalities, security ‘experts,’ journalists from all corners of the left-right divide, news channel’s talking heads, all offered ‘simple’ answers. “We must promote free speech above all.” “Radical Islam is the problem.” “Islam itself is the problem.” “There are too many Muslims in Europe.” “It us against them.” “Islam’s not the problem, it’s the French government’s war on religion and free speech that is the issue.” “What the terrorists did was wrong, but Charlie Hebdo offended millions of people with their work.” And on and on.

But there were a couple of people who did not go down that road. Hari Kunzru, in particular, wrote a piece in the Guardian that, in many ways, sent me down the rabbit hole. His view on the events of the past week challenged my simplistic view, and those of almost everyone else I had read or watched or heard.

There are no blacks and whites, he argued. There is only gray.

But we want black and white as a species, I thought. We demand it. We want our to know what to think based on 600 word opinion pieces, from 140 characters in a tweet, in a minute and a half news segment. We want online quizzes to tell us our personality type, what rock star we most resemble, what state we should be living in.

And we want these things to fit our comfort zones, our conventional biases. So we only watch the TV stations, read the newspapers, listen to talk show pundits who tell us what we want to hear. Who tell us our simplistic answers are the right ones.

But after the past week, I have come to realize that simplicity is much more complicated that we want it to be.

Yes, I wish there were no religions. But that is like wishing for flying horses. The world bulges with religious beliefs. And while most people live their religious beliefs peacefully, ALL belief systems – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, you name it – contain elements that can be used by extremists and fundamentalists to justify their violent actions. I can rant and rave about the stupidity of it all, the destructiveness of so much of religion. Or I can try and find good people of faith who want to work with others to make the world a better place. It will not be easy. We will be constantly overcoming obstacles. It will be much more complex and hard than singing “Kumbaya” together. But we must try.

I want there to be absolute freedom of speech. I believe that freedom of speech means the freedom to offend everyone. But I can’t ignore that millions of good religious people, and not just Muslims, find the works of publications like Charlie Hebdo offensive, though they’re not going to kill anyone. Is there a way to protect freedom of speech and yet work to find a way not to needlessly offend? I don’t know. It’s complex. It will take hard work solution to find a solution. But try we must.


I wish everybody in the world thought like I did. But they don’t. We don’t live in a world anymore where we can just hang out with people who look the same, think the same, talk the same language, eat the same foods, worship the same gods. And people are scared at this complexity. They fear this grayness.

But we cannot go back. All our other choices lead only to hatred, death and destruction. This is the world we have, and we have to work through these complexities to make it better.

I find comfort in the words of two men. One a great religious leader. One a renown atheist.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

The other, from Carl Sagan: “The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning … If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Copyright Tom Regan 2014

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Tom Regan

Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, Facts and Opinions performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. We appreciate and need your support: please click here to purchase a $1 day pass, or subscribe.   Sign up using the form on the right side of our Frontlines blog to receive posts by email. Contact us at Editor AT factsandopinions.com.

 

 

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Islam, blasphemy and free speech: a surprisingly modern conflict

Tomb of 13 Century poet Rumi in Konya, Turkey. Photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

“It might be shocking for many to look back at the words of 13th-century Muslim scholar Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, who had a strong theological and jurisprudential background,” writes Ali Mamouri. “He said: “Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved! In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.” Above, Rumi’s tomb in Konya, Turkey. Photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

ALI MAMOURI, Australian Catholic University 
January 10, 2015

From the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie to the attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the phenomenon of anti-blasphemy actions continues to be prominent in the Muslim world.

At first glance, the problem appears to be quite simple. For many years, there has been much talk about the conflicts between blasphemy and free speech within Islam. Some go further and argue about the “intrinsic hostility between two civilisations: Islam and Europe”, as the philosopher Talal Asad puts it.

It is quite easy to say that Islam suffers from a lack of tolerance and that Muslims are anti-freedom, anti-democracy, pro-despotism and pro-fanaticism. However, this generalisation ignores not only the number of branches of Islam and diversity of views among Muslims, but also the sociopolitical foundation of the problem.

Asad highlighted the big difference between the notion of talking against the religion in Christianity and Islam. It is difficult to find a specific idea rooted in the Christian historical background of blasphemy in the history of Islam.

However, there are a variety of equivalents that each overlaps a part of blasphemy. The most commonly used phrase by Muslims today is “isā’ah”, which has a range of meanings, including “insult, harm and offence”. But this term is not associated with a certain jurisprudential punishment in a way that makes all Muslims feel obliged to attack the actors.

Therefore, many writers throughout different parts of Islamic history have criticised Islamic belief, including the prophet Muhammad and the Quran, without facing persecution. A quick look at the books about sects and creeds in Islam shows a great variety of discussions and debates between Muslims and non-Muslims about the essential parts of Islam. Many include sarcastic language.

For instance, when defending his non-belief in religions, renowned Arab philosopher Abul al-Ala al-Ma’arri said, “If you ask my religion I would say I am not dumb.”

Ibn al-Rawandi also dedicated sections of his books to countering the Quran in Baghdad. Furthermore, in the contemporary era, Iraqi writer and poet Maarouf al-Rasafi disputed the religious aspect of the prophet Muhammad’s life in his book The Muhamadiyan Personality.

The reality is that the persecution of blasphemers as it is done currently is a very recent phenomenon. Generally, one could say that the Rushdie fatwa was the beginning of this trend.

The founders of Political Islam are known as the innovators of this trend. That is why we can see many secular scholars, writers and poets at the start of the 20th century writing against Islam in many different dimensions, such as Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, who is known for advocating positivist philosophy in the Arab world, and Najib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The notion of religious actions is more problematic than is popularly supposed. It is not merely a divine spiritual matter which is separated from social political actors. Rather, it is nested within and shaped by other human dimensions.

As a result, the sociopolitical background can change any religion – to be more tolerant or more fanatical, for example. Sociologist Bryan S. Turner describes this situation in Christian society, “Given the growth of parliamentary institutions, welfare legislation and commitment to egalitarian ideology, it is small wonder that contemporary Christians cannot accept a description of God as an autocrat. Jesus, once our lord and master, has become Superstar.”

This process took a long time in western societies to become today’s accepted nature of great tolerance and co-existence. The west paid the price through centuries of religious, sectarian and political wars.

Meanwhile, the status of the Muslim world has declined continuously in the contemporary period. This is due to various reasons, including ongoing political instability, the failure to build a state of institutions and a real civil society and destructive imperialist interventions.

Western colonial powers handed the Middle East to a series of tyrannical governments. Failed attempts at building a nation-state have led to the rise of Chauvinism and military regimes which mostly have been supported by the great western powers.

The recent popular revolutions have resulted in the rise of criminal Salafi gangs. Many were supported by the west for different reasons, such as confronting the Soviet Union in al-Qaeda’s case, or anti-Israel regimes in Islamic State’s case.

It might be shocking for many to look back at the words of 13th-century Muslim scholar Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, who had a strong theological and jurisprudential background. He said: “Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved! In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.”

One can see pluralistic thoughts, such as the aforementioned works of many Muslim scholars in the past, which have been influencing Muslim societies widely.

A long distance has passed to see Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in place of al-Rumi, but this underscores the argument that mainstream Muslims remain against the barbaric actions of fundamentalists. It must not be forgotten that many Muslims are suppressed in their countries for the same reasons that Charlie Hebdo was attacked.

Let’s help Muslims to represent “a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, compatible with respect for human rights and peaceful co-existence”, as Pope Francis said in a recent phone call with Iraqi Christians.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Ali Mamouri

Ali Mamouri

 Ali Mamouri is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University.   A researcher and writer in the Middle East religious and cultural crises, particularly Iraq and Iran, he raduated from PhD study in Islamic Philosophy & Theology in 2008 and Master in Islamic Philosophy in 2000. He is a columnist at Al-Monitor, writes for Iraq and Iran pulses, and focuses on religious and cultural issues.

He  does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

You can read his bio on his page at The Conversation.

 

 

 

 

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Je Suis Charlie

charlie

The web site of Charlie Hebdo was draped in a virtual black flag Wednesday, with a link to a pdf file displaying the words “I am Charlie” in numerous languages.

Scorecard, Wednesday, Jan. 7: Pen – 0. Sword – 12, and counting.

Masked gunmen with AK47s and a rocket launcher killed at least 10 journalists and two police officers early Wednesday at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that had been under police protection since extremists firebombed it in 2011.

 French leader François Hollande  declared a national day of mourning for Thursday. The hashtag #jesuischarlie flooded social media. World leaders spoke out in solidarity.

Crowds flocked to Place de la République in Paris in the evening, many people holding up pens. The web site of Charlie Hebdo was draped in a virtual black flag Wednesday, with a link to a pdf file displaying the words “I am Charlie” in numerous languages.

World leaders expressed outrage, support for France, and in some cases, also support for press rights. It was a rare outpouring of support for journalists and freedom of expression which, literally and metaphorically, have been under fire on all fronts and in most countries lately.
 
“This is an attack against freedom of expression and freedom of the press – the two pillars of democracy,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who, ironically, was in the midst of a New Year visit to the UN Correspondents Association.
 

From the United States, Barack Obama called  the shooting “horrific” while Secretary of State John Kerry said, in French, “Tous les Américains au côté de la France.” British prime minister David Cameron tweeted, “”We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press.”

 
Reporters Without Borders appealed to all media outlets globally to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons thought to offend the extremists. “Freedom of information cannot shrink in the face of barbarity and yield to blackmail by those who assail (our) democracy and what  (France) stands for. In the name of all those who have fallen in the defence of fundamental values, let us continue Charlie Hebdo’s fight for free information,” said RSF in a statement.
B6vwy0sCMAABMA5.jpg-large

One of the last cartoons drawn by Charb, killed in Wednesday’s slaughter by extremists. “Still no terrorist attacks in France,” it says. “Wait! We have until the end of January to present our wishes,” says the man with an AK47. Photo via Twitter, fair use.

It’s no coincidence that on the same day a dystopian novel by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, was released in France, amid a media fire storm. 

“The book’s publication could not come at a more sensitive time as France is currently undergoing a fierce debate on Islam and national identity,” noted  an analysis on the French site France 24.

Charlie Hebdo was one of many outlets to feature the book.

Submission, said numerous French media outlets, portrayed a France years in the future ruled by Sharia law and a Muslim government. In the world of Submission Muslims would eliminate France’s secular focus on human rights, captured in the official national motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, coined during the French revolution. 

France takes human rights seriously, and has a long tradition of accepting and even celebrating satire. It was in France the famous quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was coined, attributed to a biographer of French enlightenment writer Voltaire, the pen name of François-Marie Arouet.

One of the journalists killed by the extremists Wednesday was Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier. “A drawing has never killed anyone,” he  told Der Spiegel in 2012.  “Extremists don’t need any excuses. We are only criticizing one particular form of extremist Islam, albeit in a peculiar and satirically exaggerated form. We are not responsible for the excesses that happen elsewhere, just because we practice our right to freedom of expression within the legal limits.”

“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Charbonnier told Le Monde in 2012, in a story about the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo by extremists in 2011, after it published a caricature of the Prophet Muhammed. 

As the world learned through the bloody, brutal, irrational, self-defeating and continuing aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the clear and present danger now is the fanatical attack on Charlie Hebdo will boost fanatics of all stripes.
 
Extremism by fanatics, the latest of whom claim allegiance to the self-branded “Islamic State,” has been met by extremist xenophobia and bigotry aimed at Muslims in general. Carnage in the names of religion and “war on terror,” both, continues in world war zones, far from the light of publicity now shining on Charlie Hebdo. And if recent history is a guide, the reaction can easily backfire on all of the rights cited today in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings. Since 9/11, press freedoms of all kinds have been amongst the collateral damage in the “War on Terror.”
 
Warned UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “If this attack is allowed to feed discrimination and prejudice, it will be playing straight into the hands of extremists whose clear aim is to divide religions and societies. With xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments already on the rise in Europe, I am very concerned that this awful, calculated act will be exploited by extremists of all sorts.”
 
Who will keep a cool head after Wednesday’s slaughter by gunmen reportedly screaming, triumphantly, “Allahu Akbar?”
 

 

Further reading:

Freedom of Expression, Freedom House: https://freedomhouse.org/issues/freedom-expression#.VK2lEt6kb8s

An image gallery of the attacks, Le Monde: http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/portfolio/2015/01/07/en-images-l-attentat-de-charlie-hebdo_4550797_3224.html

Wikipedia page for Charlie Hebdo, including backgrounder: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo

Ban outraged by ‘horrendous and cold-blooded’ attack on French magazine: United Nations news release: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49741&Cr=UNESCO&Cr1=#.VK2JBN6kb8s

World leaders condemn attack on France’s Charlie Hebdo, France 24: http://www.france24.com/en/20150107-charlie-hebdo-paris-attack-journalist-terror-/

‘Charlie Hebdo’ Editor in Chief: ‘A Drawing Has Never Killed Anyone,’ by Stefan Simons, Der Spiegel, September, 2012

A “Charlie Hebdo”, on n’a “pas l’impression d’égorger quelqu’un avec un feutre,” Le Monde archive:  http://www.lemonde.fr/actualite-medias/article/2012/09/20/je-n-ai-pas-l-impression-d-egorger-quelqu-un-avec-un-feutre_1762748_3236.html#jsi567twGzKCWauk.99

RWB APPEALS TO MEDIA OUTLETS TO PUBLISH CHARLIE HEBDO CARTOONS, Reporters san Frontiers/Reporters Without Borders:  http://en.rsf.org/france-rwb-appeals-to-media-outlets-to-07-01-2015,47454.html

1101 Journalists Killed since 1992: Committee to Protect Journalists report: http://www.cpj.org/killed/ 

 

 

 

Help sustain independent, non-partisan and professional journalism by buying a $1 day pass or subscription to Facts and Opinions. An online journal of first-rate reporting and analysis, without borders, F&O is employee-owned, does not carry advertising, and is funded entirely by readers. Click here to purchase a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. Receive free blog emails via the form on FRONTLINES. Please tell others about us.

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UN Security Council and journalists at risk

A legal expert wonders if it’s time for the United Nations Security Council to become pro-active in protecting journalism.

Daniel_pearl_highres

Daniel Pearl, Wall Street Journal correspondent, abducted in Pakistan in 2002 and beheaded in a manner copied by the murderers of freelance journalist James Foley this month. READ: International law fails to protect journalists from savagery.

“Statistics suggest that many states are unwilling or unable to deter crimes against journalists by ensuring that the perpetrators are held to account,” writes Carmen Draghici. “The culture of impunity not only infringes the victims’ right to life, personal security and free speech, but also has a chilling effect on the media in general, as well as affecting the public’s right to information.”

An excerpt of Draghici’s essay in Dispatches/Publica:

The vicious execution of US journalist James Foley by militants of the Islamic State deepens the concern that international law and diplomacy may be ill-equipped to address crimes against media workers reporting from conflict zones.

The video depicting the decapitation and cautioning Barack Obama to end military operations in Iraq displays a modus operandi typical of terrorist negotiation strategy. It evokes the murder of freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni in 2004 by the Islamic Army in Iraq, after the fundamentalist group attempted to use the hostage as a leverage tool for an ultimatum requesting the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq.

It further echoes the murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, abducted in Pakistan in 2002, whose captors posted the video of the beheading as a warning after unsuccessfully demanding the release of Guantanamo Bay Muslim prisoners.

Unlawful killings have also been used as a tactic to inhibit the dissemination of information and critical views, as in the kidnapping and shooting of US freelance journalist Steven Vincent by Islamic extremists in Iraq in 2005.

High-profile cases are only the tip of the iceberg … read International law fails to protect journalists from savagery. (Free story*)

*Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate, and will continue with, your interest and support:  for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in the form on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

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International law fails to protect journalists from savagery

By Carmen Draghici, City University London
August, 2014

IMG_91001-275x183

James Foley, abducted in Syria in 2012 and slaughtered in August by extremists. Photo © Jonathan Pedneault, courtesy of FreeJamesFoley.org

The vicious execution of US journalist James Foley by militants of the Islamic State deepens the concern that international law and diplomacy may be ill-equipped to address crimes against media workers reporting from conflict zones.

The video depicting the decapitation and cautioning Barack Obama to end military operations in Iraq displays a modus operandi typical of terrorist negotiation strategy. It evokes the murder of freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni in 2004 by the Islamic Army in Iraq, after the fundamentalist group attempted to use the hostage as a leverage tool for an ultimatum requesting the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq.

It further echoes the murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, abducted in Pakistan in 2002, whose captors posted the video of the beheading as a warning after unsuccessfully demanding the release of Guantanamo Bay Muslim prisoners.

Unlawful killings have also been used as a tactic to inhibit the dissemination of information and critical views, as in the kidnapping and shooting of US freelance journalist Steven Vincent by Islamic extremists in Iraq in 2005.

High-profile cases are only the tip of the iceberg. UNESCO reports reveal an alarming 593 journalist killings between 2006-2013, with the highest figures in 2012 (123) and 2013 (91). According to the International Federation of Journalists, 67 journalists and media workers have been killed so far in 2014, with Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Syria holding the worst records.

These statistics suggest that many states are unwilling or unable to deter crimes against journalists by ensuring that the perpetrators are held to account. The culture of impunity not only infringes the victims’ right to life, personal security and free speech, but also has a chilling effect on the media in general, as well as affecting the public’s right to information.

As UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue stated in his 2009 report to the Human Rights Council: “Limiting impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against media professionals will function as an important deterrent against the repetition of these crimes.”

Countering impunity remains, however, a real problem in countries where political instability and military turmoil render state institutions ineffective. This has led to the rise of a new type of threat facing foreign correspondents: deliberate targeting by private actors.

Unlike states, extremist groups tend to be beyond the reach of both diplomacy and the law. Peer pressure within the international community relies on concerns such as reputational damage, continued support of economic or strategic allies and domestic public opinion. Groups that are driven by a nihilist ideology who resort to terrorist methods do not respond to such considerations.

Daniel_pearl_highres

Daniel Pearl, Wall Street Journal correspondent, abducted in Pakistan in 2002 and beheaded. (Promotional photo)

This is not to say that international law places no obligations on non-state parties. Under international humanitarian law, which protects individuals who take no active part in the hostilities, obligations applying to warring countries in international conflicts also bind non-state parties to internal hostilities.

In particular, Article 13 of Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions dictates that civilians cannot be the object of attack or acts or threats of violence. Non-international conflicts are also covered by common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, establishing that civilians cannot be subjected to cruel treatment or outrages upon personal dignity or taken hostages.

Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict are expressly classified as “civilians” in Article 79 of the 1977 Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. This means they are entitled to the protection of Article 48, which requires warring parties to distinguish between civilian and military objectives.

More recently, UN Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006) reiterated the obligation for all parties involved in conflicts to treat journalists as civilians and respect their rights and professional independence. So media workers in conflict zones cannot be legitimate targets under any circumstance.

But the reality does not match the expectations under the law. To address this crisis, in 2012 UNESCO developed a Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which is at present being implemented in five pilot countries, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Tunisia.

The plan involves helping states to develop legislation guaranteeing freedom of expression – including effective investigation and prosecution of crimes against journalists; raising awareness amongst media owners and policy-makers on existing international instruments for the protection of journalists; disseminating best practices on the safety of journalists.

Further international avenues for increasing the safety of journalists may include the adoption of a convention for the protection of journalists in conflict zones in recognition of their being a category at risk – or making the killing of journalists a war crime.

Nevertheless, enhancing the international legal framework may prove valuable in dealing with rational state players. Similarly, international co-operation focusing on capacity-building presupposes the effective control of the legitimate authorities of States receiving assistance over their own territory.

The efforts of the international community to tackle threats to journalists may be insufficient if confined to legal measures and assistance in the administration of justice. In the presence of anarchic private groups such as Islamic State, rethinking international law-enforcement options through the Security Council might be timely.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Carmen Draghici does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. She is Senior Lecturer, City Law School at City University London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Further reading on F&O:

 Washington and Tehran find common cause against Islamic State, International Affairs column by Jonathan Manthorpe 
James Foley, Journalist, Frontlines blog post

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate your interest and support:  for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in the form on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

 

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Weibo, the Free Market, and Censorship

Weibo, “China’s Twitter,” has begun offering shares on one of America’s free market stock exchanges. But unlike in the United States, where freedom of expression is protected, in China social media companies rely on censorship for their business model. Weibo’s regulatory disclosures reveal a company’s balancing act between censoring too much and too little.

An excerpt of the ProPublica report, in F&O’s Dispatches/Money section:

As of last week, investors can purchase shares of Weibo, sometimes called “China’s Twitter,” on NASDAQ. The company’s regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission reveals details not previously known about Weibo’s censorship apparatus…

Weibo, like all Internet publishers and providers in China, is prohibited from letting their users display content that is obscene, fraudulent, defamatory or otherwise illegal under Chinese laws. The content prohibitions also forbid material that “impairs the national dignity of China,” “is reactionary,” “superstitious,” or “socially destabilizing.”

As required under SEC regulations, the company must list for investors potential risks that might affect its share price. Weibo is up front about the risk the Chinese government’s regulation of content poses to its ability so succeed. “Failure to [censor] may subject us to liabilities and penalties and may even result in the temporary blockage or complete shutdown of our online operations.”

Click here for the full story, Weibo IPO Reveals a Company Struggling With Censorship. (Free public access.)

 

 

 

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