BBC files UN complaint against Iran’s online violence towards women journalists

BBC Persian service presenter Fardad Farahzad gets ready to present the news, at the corporation's London headquarters. (AP/File Photo)
BBC Persian service presenter Fardad Farahzad gets ready to present the news, at the corporation's London headquarters. (AP/File Photo)
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Updated 25 March 2022

BBC files UN complaint against Iran’s online violence towards women journalists

BBC Persian service presenter Fardad Farahzad gets ready to present the news, at the corporation's London headquarters. (AP/File Photo)
  • Appeals calls on UN to take action against Iran’s treatment of BBC News Persian’s women journalists

DUBAI: The BBC World Service has filed a new urgent appeal to the UN this week against Iran over the online violence directed at women journalists working for BBC News Persian.

Women journalists at BBC News Persian face relentless online attacks and harassment, including threats of rape and death, the BBC said.

“We absolutely deplore the violent, misogynistic and gendered harassment our women journalists have to face every day,” said Liliane Landor, senior controller of BBC International News and director of the World Service.

The harassment includes threats of death and rape, attacks on their credibility, hacking and phishing of their emails and telephones, and false and defamatory stories about their personal lives.

The information obtained through hacking and phishing is often used to spread false stories about them online, which is then used in the interrogation of their family members in Iran, the BBC added.

The false stories not only attack them professionally but also aim to taint their character by questioning their relationship with co-workers and commenting on what they wear.

The online abuse and harassment is severely impacting female journalists at BBC News Persian, with many of them saying in interviews that they have opted out of using social media entirely due to fear of harassment.

Landor added: “Trusted and impartial journalism is fundamental to any democracy and it is only by working together that we can ensure the safety of journalists everywhere and ensure women’s voices are included. We have to be able to work unhindered, free from threats and free from abuse.”

The constant attacks have resulted in serious mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, psychological trauma and depression.

The appeal from the BBC calls on Iran to take action against those responsible for the online violence towards women journalists by investigating and prosecuting them.

International counsel for the BBC World Service, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jennifer Robinson, said: “Women journalists at BBC News Persian face abhorrent online violence every day simply because they are doing their job. This is a paradigm case of what UN experts call ‘gendered censorship’.”

They added: “Misogynist, sexist online abuse and all threats of physical or sexual violence towards journalists are intended to force women offline and to silence women journalists. It is unacceptable and it must stop.”

BBC has made multiple UN complaints since 2017. Since BBC News Persian TV started in 2009, the staff and their families have faced harassment and intimidation, the BBC said.

BBC News Persian staff cannot return home to Iran because of the risk of arrest and prosecution resulting in the media network not having any staff working in the country.

And it is not just the female journalists who are harassed. Their family members have been arrested, detained, repeatedly interrogated, fired from their jobs, had their passports confiscated and pressured to encourage their family members to leave the BBC and return to Iran.

In 2017, Iran announced a national security criminal investigation targeting 152 BBC News Persian staff members and froze any assets they had in Iran.

Iran has “international obligations of due diligence,” said Gallagher and Robinson. “We call on the UN to condemn the attacks and to ensure Iran meets its international obligations.”


Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre

Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre
Updated 29 September 2022

Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre

Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre
  • “Meta — through its dangerous algorithms and its relentless pursuit of profit — substantially contributed to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya,” the report says

With roosters crowing in the background as he speaks from the crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh that’s been his home since 2017, Maung Sawyeddollah, 21, describes what happened when violent hate speech and disinformation targeting the Rohingya minority in Myanmar began to spread on Facebook.
“We were good with most of the people there. But some very narrow minded and very nationalist types escalated hate against Rohingya on Facebook,” he said. “And the people who were good, in close communication with Rohingya. changed their mind against Rohingya and it turned to hate.”
For years, Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc., pushed the narrative that it was a neutral platform in Myanmar that was misused by malicious people, and that despite its efforts to remove violent and hateful material, it unfortunately fell short. That narrative echoes its response to the role it has played in other conflicts around the world, whether the 2020 election in the US or hate speech in India.
But a new and comprehensive report by Amnesty International states that Facebook’s preferred narrative is false. The platform, Amnesty says, wasn’t merely a passive site with insufficient content moderation. Instead, Meta’s algorithms “proactively amplified and promoted content” on Facebook, which incited violent hatred against the Rohingya beginning as early as 2012.
Despite years of warnings, Amnesty found, the company not only failed to remove violent hate speech and disinformation against the Rohingya, it actively spread and amplified it until it culminated in the 2017 massacre. The timing coincided with the rising popularity of Facebook in Myanmar, where for many people it served as their only connection to the online world. That effectively made Facebook the Internet for a vast number of Myanmar’s population.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh that year. Myanmar security forces were accused of mass rapes, killings and torching thousands of homes owned by Rohingya.
“Meta — through its dangerous algorithms and its relentless pursuit of profit — substantially contributed to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya,” the report says.
A spokesperson for Meta declined to answer questions about the Amnesty report. In a statement, the company said it “stands in solidarity with the international community and supports efforts to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its crimes against the Rohingya people.”
“Our safety and integrity work in Myanmar remains guided by feedback from local civil society organizations and international institutions, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar; the Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned in 2018; as well as our ongoing human rights risk management,” Rafael Frankel, director of public policy for emerging markets, Meta Asia-Pacific, said in a statement.
Like Sawyeddollah, who is quoted in the Amnesty report and spoke with the AP on Tuesday, most of the people who fled Myanmar — about 80 percent of the Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine at the time — are still staying in refugee camps. And they are asking Meta to pay reparations for its role in the violent repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which the US declared a genocide earlier this year.
Amnesty’s report, out Wednesday, is based on interviews with Rohingya refugees, former Meta staff, academics, activists and others. It also relied on documents disclosed to Congress last year by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist. It notes that digital rights activists say Meta has improved its civil society engagement and some aspects of its content moderation practices in Myanmar in recent years. In January 2021, after a violent coup overthrew the government, it banned the country’s military from its platform.
But critics, including some of Facebook’s own employees, have long maintained such an approach will never truly work. It means Meta is playing whack-a-mole trying to remove harmful material while its algorithms designed to push “engaging” content that’s more likely to get people riled up essentially work against it.
“These algorithms are really dangerous to our human rights. And what happened to the Rohingya and Facebook’s role in that specific conflict risks happening again, in many different contexts across the world,” said Pat de Brún, researcher and adviser on artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty.
“The company has shown itself completely unwilling or incapable of resolving the root causes of its human rights impact.”
After the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar highlighted the “significant” role Facebook played in the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya, Meta admitted in 2018 that “we weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
In the following years, the company “touted certain improvements in its community engagement and content moderation practices in Myanmar,” Amnesty said, adding that its report “finds that these measures have proven wholly inadequate.”
In 2020, for instance, three years after the violence in Myanmar killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and displaced 700,000 more, Facebook investigated how a video by a leading anti-Rohingya hate figure, U Wirathu, was circulating on its site.
The probe revealed that over 70 percent of the video’s views came from “chaining” — that is, it was suggested to people who played a different video, showing what’s “up next.” Facebook users were not seeking out or searching for the video, but had it fed to them by the platform’s algorithms.
Wirathu had been banned from Facebook since 2018.
“Even a well-resourced approach to content moderation, in isolation, would likely not have sufficed to prevent and mitigate these algorithmic harms. This is because content moderation fails to address the root cause of Meta’s algorithmic amplification of harmful content,” Amnesty’s report says.
The Rohingya refugees are seeking unspecified reparations from the Menlo Park, California-based social media giant for its role in perpetuating genocide. Meta, which is the subject of twin lawsuits in the US and the UK seeking $150 billion for Rohingya refugees, has so far refused.
“We believe that the genocide against Rohingya was possible only because of Facebook,” Sawyeddollah said. “They communicated with each other to spread hate, they organized campaigns through Facebook. But Facebook was silent.”


Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers

Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers
Updated 29 September 2022

Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers

Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers
  • 11 films will celebrate creativity and talent of emerging figures in the Kingdom

DUBAI: Netflix is releasing a collection titled “New Saudi Voices” consisting of 11 specially curated short films to celebrate the creativity of emerging Saudi filmmakers.

The collection comprises movies across genres including horror, fantasy and animation, in an attempt to capture the full scope of Saudi filmmakers’ creativity and talent.

The 11 films are part of the New Saudi/New Cinema Shorts showcased at the Red Sea Film Festival last year and encapsulate the work of some of the most promising new voices in the Kingdom.

The films include Mohamed Basalamah’s “Hallucinated,” which tells the story of a delivery worker who suffers from worsening insomnia until the line blurs between his reality and hallucinations; and Rami Alzayer’s “The Day I Lost Myself,” which explores how a young man with anxiety finds himself stuck in an elevator on his way to an interview.

Documentaries like “Arufea” by Abbas Alshuwayfie offer a peek into an old Saudi neighborhood, and Omar Al-Omirat’s “Covida the 19th” explores lifestyle changes post-pandemic.

The collection also includes an animated short called “Whisper Down the Lane” by Raghad Albarqi, “The Jakar” by Abdulaziz Saleh, “The Palm Witch” by Hala Alhaid, “Hide and Seek” by Mohammad Helal, “Red Circle” by Abdulaziz Sarhan and “Little Bird” by Khalid Fahad.

Nuha El-Tayeb, director of content acquisitions, Netflix, MENA and Turkey, said: “We’re very excited to amplify the voices of up-and-coming filmmakers in Saudi Arabia through this collection. There’s incredible talent in the Kingdom, and they have unique stories to tell. We hope that as people tune into the films, they learn more about these creators, and catch a glimpse of their passion, originality and creativity, as we have.”

It is not the first time that Netflix has shined the spotlight on Saudi cinema. Earlier this year, the company launched a specially curated collection of 21 Arab films, “Because She Created,” featuring movies from filmmakers across Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt and more.

At the time, El-Tayeb told Arab News: “There’s incredible talent in Saudi Arabia. The entertainment landscape is rapidly evolving and Saudi women — like other women from the Arab world and globally — have beautiful, complex and layered stories to tell.”

The streaming giant has also worked with writer and director Hana Al-Omair on “Whispers,” an eight-part psychological thriller, as well as with Haifaa Al-Mansour on “Wadjda,” the first feature film made by a female Saudi director.

The “New Saudi Voices” collection will be available on Netflix on Sept. 29.


Google announces host of updates and improvements

Google announces host of updates and improvements
Updated 29 September 2022

Google announces host of updates and improvements

Google announces host of updates and improvements
  • Company said during annual Search On event that the new features will be rolled out across its Search, Maps and other services

DUBAI: Google on Wednesday announced a host of updates and improvements to its Search, Maps and Shopping services.

The enhancements, announced during the company’s annual Search On virtual event, are “just the start of how we’re transforming our products to help you go beyond the traditional search box,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, a senior vice president at Google.

Some of the biggest updates are to Google Search, including multisearch, which enables users to search using text and images simultaneously. First introduced in beta mode in the US, it is now available in English worldwide and is being rolled out in 70 other languages.

Google will also introduce, initially only in the US, “multisearch near me,” which allows users to take photos of items and search for suppliers near them.

Every month, people use Google to translate text contained in images more than a 1 billion times across more than 100 languages, said Cathy Edwards, Google’s vice-president and general manager for Search.

“With major advancements in machine learning, we’re now able to blend translated text into complex images so it looks and feels much more natural,” she added. This improved experience will launch later this year.

In addition, shortcuts will be placed under the search bar that make it easy for users to shop their screenshots and translate images of text taken with their camera, among other things. This initially will be available on the Google app for iOS.

Google said its research has found that 40 percent of people already have a dish in mind when they search for food, so to help people find exactly what they are looking for, users will soon be able to search for any dish and find local establishments that have it on the menu.

These and other features, such as continuous scrolling, are designed to improve the search experience for users by making it quicker and more intuitive, the company said.

Improvements to Google Maps include new features such as a “neighborhood vibe check,” which will highlight popular landmarks and hot spots in a given area. The information will be based on a combination of artificial intelligence and photos and reviews uploaded by Google users.

This year, Google introduced Immersive View, which provides multi-dimensional views of an area along with information about the weather, traffic and businesses. Building on this feature, the company is launching more 250 photorealistic aerial views of global landmarks such as the Tokyo Tower and the Acropolis of Athens.

Using predictive modeling, Immersive View automatically learns and uses the historical trends for a location to determine what it will be like in the future. This means that users can search for additional information about each landmark, such as weather, nearby restaurants and parking, on specific future dates.

Neighborhood vibe check will be rolled out globally in the coming months while Immersive View will be launched in Los Angeles, London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo on iOS and Android devices.

Other improvements to Maps include the expansion of the Live View search feature, and of eco-friendly routing to third-party developers.

The growth of online shopping in the past two years has resulted in many digital and social platforms creating tools designed to make the buying experience more seamless. Google is no exception, after launching almost 10 new features at this year’s event.

Most of them will only be available in the US at first and are aimed at enabling shopping from within Google products. For instance, users can choose to “shop the look,” with Google offering suggestions on complementary pieces in an outfit within Search.

Other features include trending products, 3D images, buying guides, new filters, page insights, and a “discover” section in the Google app that features shoppable styles and looks.

The updates aim to make the shopping experience on Google more intuitive, fun and easier, according to Lilian Rincon, senior director of product, shopping.

“Regardless of where you end up buying, these tools can help you find what you want more quickly and maybe even discover the next thing you’ll love,” she added.


Netflix launches in-house video games development studio

Netflix launches in-house video games development studio
Updated 29 September 2022

Netflix launches in-house video games development studio

Netflix launches in-house video games development studio
  • The streaming service recently acquired three existing games studios and signed a deal with developer Ubisoft for three games based on popular franchises including Assassin’s Creed

DUBAI: Netflix is launching an in-house video games studio that will be based in Helsinki, Finland, and headed by Marko Lastikka, a former Zynga and Electronic Arts executive. The move was announced in a blog post by Amir Rahimi, the streaming service’s vice-president of game studios.

Netflix recently acquired three existing games studios. Last year it bought Night School Studio, known for supernatural graphic adventure Oxenfree, and followed that up this year with the acquisitions of Next Games and Boss Fight Entertainment.

The new studio is the first internal launch that Netflix will “build from scratch,” said Rahimi. Helsinki was chosen as the base for the studio because it “is home to some of the best game talent in the world,” he added.

Each of the four Netflix game studios have their own “strengths and focus areas” and they “will develop games that will suit the diverse tastes of our members,” Rahimi said.

Netflix in April reported a quarterly loss of subscribers for the first time since 2011. Its share price fell by 35 percent after the announcement of a 200,000 reduction in subscriptions. Between April and July, it lost nearly a million more subscribers.

Many streaming services have lost subscribers recently because, industry experts say, viewing habits are normalizing following a surge in subscriptions during the pandemic. However, the Netflix slide seems to extend beyond the wider churn being experienced by other streaming services as consumers cut back on subscriptions.

This year, Netflix began to crack down on password sharing, which might have provided further motivation for some users to cancel their subscriptions. Just this week, users in Argentina took to social media calling for a boycott of the service because of the resultant additional charges, with the hashtag #ChauNetflix, or #ByeNetflix, trending locally on Twitter.

Meanwhile Netflix is exploring additional sources of revenue and content, including video games, to help attract and retain users. Soft-launched 10 months ago, its gaming service now has 28 mobile games in its library.

And this month it announced a deal with games developer Ubisoft to create three games based on the company’s successful video game franchises, including one based on the smash hit Assassin’s Creed franchise. It was previously announced that an Assassin’s Creed TV series is in development at Netflix.

The company said its growing investment in gaming reflects an evolving view of its future.

“We think the great opportunity that Netflix has is connecting our universes together,” Leanne Loombe, head of external video games at the company, told Arab News this month.

Gaming is a “natural progression” for a company that aims to provide “a broad spectrum of entertainment” for its users, she added.

“You need a few hours to sit and watch a movie or a TV show at the weekends or in the evening but with games, you can play for five minutes in your break or you can play on your commute, especially on mobile,” Loombe said.

“That makes Netflix properties that much more accessible and they can fit within your lifestyle.”

The announcement of the new in-house gaming studio suggests the company is further ramping up its games-related operations.

Rahimi said the move is “another step in our vision to build a world-class games studio that will bring a variety of delightful and deeply engaging original games — with no ads and no in-app purchases — to our hundreds of millions of members around the world.”


Prior restraint: Elon Musk claims government-imposed muzzle unlawful

Prior restraint: Elon Musk claims government-imposed muzzle unlawful
Updated 28 September 2022

Prior restraint: Elon Musk claims government-imposed muzzle unlawful

Prior restraint: Elon Musk claims government-imposed muzzle unlawful
  • Court brief: Musk’s speech is chilled by the threat of SEC investigations and prosecution for contempt of court

DETROIT: US Securities regulators are unlawfully muzzling Tesla CEO Elon Musk, violating his free speech rights by continually trying to enforce a 2018 securities fraud settlement, Musk’s lawyer contends in a court brief.
The document, filed late Tuesday with the federal appeals court in Manhattan, was written to support Musk’s appeal of a lower court’s April decision to uphold the settlement with Securities and Exchange Commission.
The brief says that a provision in the settlement requiring Musk to get prior approval before tweeting about the electric car company is an illegal “government-imposed muzzle on Mr. Musk’s speech before it is made.”
The settlement required that his tweets be approved by a Tesla attorney before being published. The SEC is investigating whether Musk violated the settlement with tweets last November asking Twitter followers if he should sell 10 percent of his Tesla stock.
But in the brief, Musk attorney Alex Spiro contends that the SEC is continually investigating Musk for topics not covered by the settlement. It asks the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to strike or modify the prior approval provision.
“The pre-approval provision in the consent decree qualifies as a prior restraint on speech that runs afoul of the First Amendment,” Spiro wrote. “It forbids future lawful speech on a range of topics absent approval.”
Further, Musk’s speech is chilled by the threat of SEC investigations and prosecution for contempt of court, the brief said.
The whole dispute stems from an October 2018 agreement with the SEC that Musk signed. He and Tesla each agreed to pay $20 million in civil fines over Musk’s tweets about having the “funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 per share.
The funding was far from locked up, and the electric vehicle company remains public, but Tesla’s stock price jumped. The settlement specified governance changes, including Musk’s ouster as board chairman, as well as pre-approval of his tweets.
In April, US District Judge Lewis Liman in New York rejected Musk’s bid to throw out the settlement that he signed with the SEC. He also denied a motion to nullify a subpoena of Musk seeking information about possible violations of the settlement.
Liman’s ruling said that Musk made the tweets without getting pre-approval, but the judge later wrote that he didn’t mean to pass judgment on that issue.
A message was left early Wednesday seeking comment from the SEC.
Spiro writes that Mr. Musk’s waiver of his First Amendment rights in the settlement was not voluntary because there was no way for Musk to know how far reaching it was. “The provision applies to future speech about circumstances no one could anticipate in advance,” he wrote.
Musk, he said, is under constant threat that the SEC will disagree with his interpretation of what he can say. Musk also agreed to the deal when Tesla was a smaller company and the SEC action could have jeopardized its financing.
“The SEC has maintained constant investigations into Mr. Musk’s speech, employing nebulous interpretations of the consent decree seemingly designed to curb and chill his future speech, all regarding speech entirely unrelated to the 2018 tweet for which the SEC initiated this action,” Spiro wrote.
Tesla is now the most valuable automaker in the world, and Musk is the world’s wealthiest person.
Liman ruled that Musk’s claim that economic duress caused him to sign the settlement is “wholly unpersuasive.”
Even if Musk was worried that litigation with the SEC would ruin Tesla financially, “that does not establish a basis for him to get out of the judgment he voluntarily signed,” Liman wrote.
The judge also said Musk’s argument that the SEC had used the settlement order to harass Musk and launch investigations was “meritless.”