Africa Insiders: The loophole used to censor M&G and how it got around it
The essentials: After publishing an investigation into the involvement of convicted fraudster Njock Ajuk Eyong in an oil deal between South Sudan and South Africa, the newspaper Mail & Guardian was hit by a copyright claim under US legislation and had to take down the story. The incident has highlighted current weak points of the internet even in democracies and how shady actors can use them to censor journalism.
The context: Investigative journalist Athandiwe Saba uncovered that Njock Ajuk Eyong, who runs a law firm in Equatorial Guinea, was a key figure in a $1 billion oil deal between the governments of South Africa and South Sudan. About 15 years ago, Eyong pleaded guilty in a US court to charges of impersonating a congressman and trying to fraudulently obtain visas.
In response to the story, Eyong or a party affiliated with him used a quirk of US copyright legislation to force the Mail & Guardian to take the story down: they republished the article largely unchanged on an obscure blog, changed the publication date to before the story went online at the South African newspaper and then filed a complaint over alleged plagiarism with the publication’s US-based hosting company Linode.
Under US legislation, hosting providers like Linode have strong incentives to take down content rather than investigate the veracity of allegations. Threatened with having the complete website taken offline, the Mail & Guardian complied with the complaint and took down the article. To avoid being censored, the publication then republished the article on Twitter, where it can still be read.
The good: The Mail & Guardian made the right decision, stood by its reporter and is fighting the frivolous copyright claim. The facts of the investigation remain accessible on Twitter and have probably reached more people than the original story would have because of M&G’s outspokenness.
The bad: The case highlights the extent to which journalism and online free speech depends on infrastructure provided by only a handful of countries, chief among them the US. For shady characters and companies specialised in “reputation management”, it is quite easy to leverage this centralisation to suppress unwanted opinions and facts. Not to speak of surveillance, both by governments and private actors, which arguably has been made easier by the complete permeation of daily life by technology.
The future: Especially for democratic societies, guaranteeing the free flow and transparency of information is vital. Both individual journalistic publications, as well as governments interested in a free press and free speech will have to find ways to decentralise critical infrastructure away from foreign jurisdictions and the influence of private actors. This issue has gained more attention in the realm of finance, e.g. where online companies pay (or don’t pay) their taxes. But the question who decides over the flow of information is at least as important.
- The original investigative story, as an edited Twitter thread
- The Twitter account of Athandiwe Saba
- The M&G’s account of the affair
- Hacker News thread with some interesting discussions regarding the technical and judicial aspects of the case
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