Venezuela accuses Facebook of ‘digital totalitarianism’ for suspending Maduro

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s government on Sunday accused Facebook Inc of “digital totalitarianism” after it froze President Nicolas Maduro’s page for 30 days for violating policies against spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

Facebook told Reuters this weekend it had also taken down a video in which Maduro promoted Carvativir, a Venezuelan-made remedy he claims, without evidence, can cure the disease. Facebook said it followed guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) that there is currently no medication that can cure the virus.

In a statement on Sunday, Venezuela’s information ministry said Facebook was going after “content geared toward combating the pandemic” and described Carvativir as a retroviral of “national production and engineering.”

“We are witnessing a digital totalitarianism exercised by supranational companies who want to impose their law on the countries of the world,” the ministry said.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Venezuelan doctors have warned that Carvativir’s effect on coronavirus has not been established. The treatment is derived from thyme, an herb that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine.

Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse since taking office in 2013 and is labeled a dictator by Washington and many other Western nations, said in a tweet on Sunday that he would broadcast his daily coronavirus briefing on the Facebook account of his wife, first lady Cilia Flores.

The South American country has reported 155,663 cases of the novel coronavirus and 1,555 deaths. Those figures are below the levels of many regional peers, but the political opposition says the true number of cases is likely far higher due to a lack of testing. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

Oman blocks audio app Clubhouse citing lack of permit, but some fear censorship

DUBAI – Oman blocked U.S. audio app Clubhouse on Sunday because it did not have the right permit, authorities said, but some activists described the move as a further erosion of freedom of expression in the Gulf state.

The government did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but the telecoms regulator told WAF news website that the application was blocked due to a “lack of proper authorisation”.

“Similar communication applications must obtain a permit from the authority,” the Omani Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said.

Oman_blocks_Clubhouse was trending on social media in Oman on Sunday. Many Omanis shared screenshots of the app showing “error message”.

“The government of Oman takes the authoritarian government of China as a role model and bans … Clubhouse which has been used by Omanis as a space to express their opinions freely without government censorship,” the Omani Association For Human Rights said in a statement.

Access to Clubhouse was blocked in China last month.

Launched in early 2020, the San Francisco-based app saw global user numbers soar after Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev held a surprise discussion on the platform.

The app has been popular in Arab countries where media is directly controlled by governments and commentators run the risk of being imprisoned for critical opinions.

Clubhouse has faced criticism elsewhere over reports of misogyny, anti-Semitism and COVID-19 misinformation on the platform despite rules against racism, hate speech, abuse and false information.

The app has said it is investing in tools to detect and prevent abuse as well as features for users, who can set rules for their rooms, to moderate conversations.

“I hope that the suspension of the Clubhouse app in Oman is a result of technical issues and not a formal ban,” tweeted Omani writer Zakaria al-Muharrmi.

“Preventing people from speaking and listening to others does not protect societies, but rather increases tensions and pushes them into the abyss of chaos and confrontation.”

Russia rebukes Facebook for blocking some media posts

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused Facebook on Monday of violating citizens’ rights by blocking some media outlets’ content in the latest standoff between a government and Big Tech.

Communications watchdog Roskomnadzor at the weekend threatened Facebook with a minimum 1 million rouble ($13,433) fine and demanded it restore access to content posted by TASS news agency, RBC business daily and Vzglyad newspaper.

It said Facebook blocked posts pertaining to Russia’s detention of alleged supporters of a Ukrainian far-right group.

“I think this is unacceptable. It violates our national legislation,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament and a member of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia ruling party.

In a statement, Volodin said Facebook had violated basic rights to disseminate and receive information, and legislation would be proposed to preserve Russia’s “digital sovereignty.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Like other nations, including Australia in a high-profile dispute with Facebook and India in a spat with Twitter, Russia has in recent months taken steps to regulate and curb the power of big social media companies.

Bills passed in December allow Russia to impose large fines on platforms that do not delete banned content and to restrict access to U.S. social media companies if they are deemed to discriminate against Russian media.

“They operate in our environment but at the same time they often don’t obey any Russian laws,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told RIA news agency on Monday.

($1 = 74.3400 roubles)

After Facebook ban, thousands in Myanmar take to Twitter to plead #RespectOurVotes

Many are using the platform and pro-democracy hashtags to criticize the army’s takeover and call for peaceful protests until the result of November’s election, which was won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, is respected.

The hashtags #RespectOurVotes, #HearTheVoiceofMyanmar, and #SaveMyanmar all had hundreds of thousands of interactions by Friday, according to hashtag tracker BrandMentions.

The junta seized power on Monday in a coup against the democratically elected government of Suu Kyi in response to what the army said was “election fraud.” [L4N2KA47K]

Military authorities banned Facebook Inc – which counts half of the population as users – until at least February 7th for the sake of “stability”, after the junta’s opponents began using the platform to organize.

But it took several hours for internet providers to enforce the ban, during which time activists began creating Twitter accounts and sharing them on their Facebook profiles, according to a review of social media messages.

Twitter was by Friday among the top five most downloaded apps on both the Google and Apple stores, according to data from research firm SensorTower.

Out of around 1,500 new Twitter accounts reviewed by Reuters and activated in the last two days using Myanmar related hashtags, most identified themselves as being opposed to the military government, while a handful of accounts were pro-military and posted links to the junta’s press releases.

Some pro-democracy activists used the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance, to appeal for support to cross-border youth movements pushing for democracy.

The hashtag, which started in Thailand in April, is used prominently by Hong Kong, Thai, and Taiwanese activists, with Twitter becoming a key soapbox for the region’s pro-democracy activists.

Twitter declined to comment on the surge of users in Myanmar.

Myanmar coup: Military blocks Facebook for sake of ‘stability’

Myanmar’s military rulers have blocked access to Facebook, days after they overthrew the democratic government.

Officials said the social media platform – for many in Myanmar the only access to the internet – would be blocked for the sake of “stability”.

Facebook has become a key rallying point for opposition to Monday’s coup.

In further civil disobedience, lawmakers are refusing to leave their compound in the capital, and more pot-banging was seen in Yangon.

The coup, led by armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing, installed an 11-member junta, ending a short period of majority civilian rule. 

The military said an election in November had been fraudulent – though the country’s election commission said there was no evidence of such fraud.

The elected civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with President Win Myint, were detained and on Wednesday police filed charges against them. 

The charges against her include possession of unlawful communication devices – walkie-talkies used by her security staff. 

President Myint is accused of breaching Covid rules while campaigning for last November’s election, won decisively by Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. 

What is Facebook’s role?

The Ministry of Communications and Information said access to Facebook would be blocked until 7 February. However, it was still reported to be accessible sporadically.

Anthony Aung, who runs a tour agency in Yangon, the main city, told the BBC at one point he still had access to the site through WiFi but not cellular data. 

He said “people around me are all rushing to download alternative apps and VPN” – virtual private networks which allow users to get round internet restrictions. 

Hours later, Mr Aung said Facebook had stopped working completely. 

Yangon student Min Htet said her education had already been suspended due to the Covid pandemic. “Blocking Facebook today means that the freedom of young people is restricted from now on,” she told Reuters.

Half of Myanmar’s 54 million people use Facebook and activists have set up a page to co-ordinate opposition to the coup.

The company allows its app to be used without data costs in Myanmar as a way of avoiding expensive telecoms data charges. 

The social media giant acknowledged the disruption, saying “we urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information”.

Telecoms company Telenor Myanmar, which is part of the Norwegian Telenor Group, said it would comply with the order to block Facebook, but suggested in a statement that this breached human rights law. 

What is happening on the streets?

A small protest has taken place in front of a university in Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, with reports of four arrests. 

In Yangon, residents banged cooking pots for a second night running. 

A woman in the city told the BBC: “We bang drums as we want the military government and the world to know that we don’t agree with this military coup… I want our leader Aung San Suu Kyi back.” 

Protesters against the coup in Myanmar on the streets of Yangon, 3 February 2021
image captionMore protesters took to the streets in Yangon

At least 70 lawmakers with the NLD are refusing to leave a government guest house in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and have declared what they are calling a new parliamentary session, BBC Burmese reports. 

The lawmakers are among hundreds who were confined by the military to guest houses before being told they were free to leave.

The streets are for the most part calm with no sign of major protest and a night-time curfew in force. 

However, hospitals have seen protests. Many medics have either stopped work, or continued while wearing symbols of defiance.

But a rally by thousands in support of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, took place in Nay Pyi Taw. Some waved banners saying “Tatmadaw that loves people”. 

A rally in support of the military regime in the Myanmar capital, Nay Pyi Taw, following the military coup on 1 February 2021
image captionA rally took place in support of the military regime in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw

‘Absolutely unacceptable’

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has meanwhile called for constitutional order to be re-established in Myanmar – also known as Burma. He said he hoped there would be unity in the Security Council on the matter.

“We’ll do everything we can to mobilise all the key actors of the international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” he said. 

“It’s absolutely unacceptable to reverse the result of the elections and the will of the people.

Myanmar department of agriculture workers in the capital wear red ribbons in protest against the coup, 4 February
image captionDepartment of Agriculture works wearing red ribbons in protest

Western countries have condemned the coup unreservedly, but efforts at the Security Council to reach a common position failed as China dissented. China is one of five permanent members with a right of veto in the council. 

Beijing has long played a role of protecting the country from international scrutiny, and has warned since the coup that sanctions or international pressure will only make things worse. 

Alongside Russia, it has repeatedly protected Myanmar from criticism at the UN over the military crackdown on the Muslim minority Rohingya population.

Myanmar at a glance

Myanmar is a country of 54 million people in South East Asia which shares borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos.

It was ruled by an oppressive military government from 1962 to 2011, leading to international condemnation and sanctions.

Aung San Suu Kyi spent years campaigning for democratic reforms. A gradual liberalisation began in 2010, though the military still retained considerable influence.

A government led by Ms Suu Kyi came to power after free elections in 2015. But a deadly military crackdown two years later on Rohingya Muslims sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh and triggered a rift between Ms Suu Kyi and the international community.

She has remained popular at home and her party won again by a landslide in the November 2020 election. But the military have now stepped in to take control once more.

Map of Myanmar