Censorship continued by “all means”: the hacking of CINS website

16. 12. 2013.

Censorship continued by “all means”: the hacking of CINS website

Serbia, 2013. A democratic country. Freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Citizens free to think and share their thoughts. Journalists free to investigate and report and the media free to publish information.

Still, in the 21st century Serbia, we are facing restrictions on the freedom of media, speech and expression. We are facing censorship and fear among journalists. We witness self-censorship and violent intrusions on media portals to remove information. Should we consider democracy and free media one more time? Is this how we see Serbia in the 21st century?

 

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” - J.Milton, 1644.

 

A letter written by journalist Dušan Mašić to a journalist of daily newspaper “Kurir” was recently removed from B92 and Mondo websites for unknown reasons. Luckily, many members of the online community copied the text on their blogs, so it was still available and shared on social networks. Because of this incident, B92 editor-in-chief Veran Matić apologized for the “reckless” removal of the text from the website. This example shows that “traditional methods” of censorship in the media don’t work in the digital environment. If content is intentionally removed from one website, it quickly re-appears on many other platforms with a completely new kind of aura of interest in the online community.

The latest case of (self)censorship on a news portal occurred when the website of “Radio 021” published a story on how the daughter of Jorgovanka Tabaković, the Governor of the National bank of Serbia, received a state-funded car and a driver so she could attend classes in Belgrade, which was removed shortly after being published. The text was also taken down from the website of the daily newspaper “Alo”, but it later appeared on blogs and other portals. Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) and Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) expressed their concern about the removal of the disputed story. Also, Jorgovanka Tabaković publicly reacted to the story, asking the Media Council to react and announcing that she is going to sue the media that published the news.

During these events, a text called Istina ima rok trajanja” (“The truth has a best-before date”) about the removal of the text from “Radio 021” website was put up on the portal of the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS). However, the text became unavailable during the morning hours of Wednesday, December 11th. According to CINS, their site was hacked and the story was removed during the attack. A similar thing  happened earlier on the portal Autonomija”.

“Website hacking is a bad, illegal, and censor-like way to stop the publishing of information that someone doesn’t approve. CINS will always fight for the freedom of information, professional journalism and freedom of media”, CINS stated in their press release.

The Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media in Vienna also expressed concern about the whole incident: “Hacking websites and blocking access to media content is a clear violation of the right to free expression. The Internet provides unparalleled opportunities to support these rights and is essential for the free flow and access to information”. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said that she expects the authorities to do their utmost to protect freedom of expression on the Internet: “A free Internet is a precondition for free media to thrive”.

Chapter 27 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Serbia refers to criminal acts against the security of computer data (arts. 298-304a). In cases like this, several criminal acts could be considered, such as “Computer sabotage” (art. 299), “Damaging of computer data and programs” (art. 298) and “Unauthorized access to a protected computer, computer network and electronic processing of data” (art. 302). When someone makes electronic data useless or disables computers that are significant for the work of state bodies, public services, institutions, companies or other subjects, he could be convicted to a prison sentence ranging from 6 months to 5 years. Because of the CINS website hacking, SHARE Defense is currently gathering data so we could determine the criminal act and file a criminal complaint against an unknown person.

What implications can hacking have on freedom of expression on the Internet? As we have seen, an attempt to censor content on digital platforms often causes a counter-effect. When pressure and censorship fail, “different means” are being used, even illegal, such as website hacking. In the case of CINS, the public was informed of the hacking and the text was quickly put back on the portal. What is the purpose of hacking then? Intimidation, sending a message that it “isn’t recommended” to report on some issues, i.e. that they don’t belong in the media?

Serbia, 2013. A democratic country. Citizens free to think and share their thoughts. Journalists free to investigate and report and the media free to publish information. Or are they? Think about that the next time you can’t access a story on some Internet portal.