Cuba: telecommunications decree restricts freedom of expression
(Washington, DC) – A new executive order and accompanying legislation announced by the Cuban government severely restricts freedom of expression online and threatens the privacy of users, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments in Latin America, along with the European Union and the United States, should urgently denounce this attack on freedom of expression and urge Cuba to repeal it.
On August 17, 2021, the government released Legislative Decree 35 and several accompanying standards regulating the use of telecommunications, including the Internet and radio, and the government’s response to “cybersecurity incidents”. The decree, which has the declared objective of “defending” the Cuban revolution, obliges telecommunications providers to interrupt, suspend or terminate their services when a user publishes information which is “false” or harming “public morals” and “Respect for human rights”. order.”
“The internet has created a rights revolution in Cuba, allowing people to communicate, report abuse and organize protests in a way that is virtually impossible,” said Juan Pappier, senior researcher on the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “Leaders in Latin America, the European Union and the United States should not remain silent as the Cuban government restricts access to this essential tool for Cubans to exercise their rights.”
Even before issuing these new regulations, the Cuban government had already established abusive restrictions on communications and freedom of expression online.
Under the new Legislative Decree 35, telecommunications users have a duty to prevent the dissemination of “false news or reports” and are prohibited from using the services in a way that affects “collective security”, “general well-being”, “morality” or “respect for public order”.
Telecommunications providers, including Internet and telephone services and “online applications” are required to “discontinue”, “suspend” or “terminate” their services when users allegedly violate these broadly defined obligations. . Suppliers can be fined or lose their license if they don’t comply.
Under international human rights law, laws can limit the rights to freedom of expression and association only when necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate objective, such as the protection of national security. or the rights of others. Legislative Decree 35 includes multiple overly general provisions that are incompatible with international human rights law and could be easily used to violate rights on a large scale as well as target criticism, Human Rights Watch said.
Legislative Decree 35 also requires telecommunications providers to provide a wide range of information and services to government authorities. Under the decree, providers should grant public security institutions the “technical facilities and services they need” and provide the Ministry of Communications with “information that [the ministry] determined. These vague obligations can open the door to undue violations of the right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said.
In addition, a resolution on “cybersecurity” which accompanies Decree / Law 35 contains dangerous provisions which qualify protected speech as “cybersecurity incidents”. Cybersecurity generally refers to protecting the availability, confidentiality, and integrity of information and its underlying infrastructure from attacks. But the new Cuban law instead treats online content as a potential security threat, including “spreading fake news“, “slander that affects the prestige of the country”, “incitement to protest”, “the promoting social indiscipline ”and undermining someone’s fame or reputation. self-esteem. ”
Under the resolution, authorities, apparently from the Ministries of Communications, the Interior and the Armed Forces, are required to “prevent”, “detect”, “investigate” and “mitigate” cybersecurity incidents, including by enacting measures for their “eradication”. “Officials are required to prioritize responding to incidents deemed to be ‘high’ or ‘very high’ danger, such as ‘spreading false news’ or ‘promoting social unruly’.
Cuban law does not specify how so-called “cybersecurity incidents” will be “detected” and “eradicated”. But preventing and eradicating certain types of content would require ubiquitous screening and filters, which inevitably leads to excessive censorship and surveillance, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented how countries around the world have passed similarly abusive “cybercrime” and “cybersecurity” laws that unduly restrict rights and are used to persecute journalists, human rights defenders, technologists, opposition politicians and artists.
Among them, Russia introduced, in March 2020, article 207.1 in the penal code for “public dissemination of knowingly false information in circumstances threatening the life and safety of citizens”, punishable by a penalty of up to ‘to three years of restriction of liberty. In October 2020, the Nicaraguan Congress passed a Cybercrime Law that criminalizes the “posting” or “dissemination” of “false” or “distorted” information on the Internet that is “likely to spread anxiety, anguish or fear ”. Saudi Cybercrime Law 2007 criminalizes “the production of anything that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of privacy, or the creation, sending or storage of via an information network ”.
The Internet is very expensive, which makes it prohibitively expensive for many Cubans. Many telecommunications services are offered exclusively by the state-owned Telecommunications Company of Cuba SA (ETECSA) and are controlled by the Cuban government, which exercises its ability and legal mandate to restrict connectivity in a manner inconsistent with standards. international human rights standards.
The government has repeatedly imposed targeted and arbitrary restrictions on the internet against critics and dissidents, including as part of its ongoing systematic abuses against independent artists and journalists. Several organizations have also reported internet blackouts across the country, followed by restrictions on social media and messaging platforms, during the battered July 2021 protests and hundreds of arbitrary detentions.
In July 2019, Decree-Law 370/2018 on “the computerization of society” entered into force, prohibiting the dissemination of information “contrary to the corporate interest, good morals, good manners and integrity of persons ”. Authorities have used the law to interrogate and impose fines on journalists and critics and confiscate their work materials.
“The Cuban government presents this legislation as a measure to strengthen cybersecurity in the face of threats, but it is essentially trying to protect itself from criticism and dissent,” Pappier said.