MONTEVIDEO – Freedom of expression worldwide has been under threat since agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last week seized two Internet servers hosting Web sites of the Independent Media Centers. In Latin America, Indymedia Brazil and Uruguay are directly affected.
"The incident resembles a Kafka novel," Pablo Ortellado of Indymedia Brazil told IPS in an e-mail interview. "Our equipment was seized and we don’t exactly know when, by whom or why."
The servers confiscated on Oct. 7 were located in the UK premises of Rackspace, a U.S.-based company, and hosted 21 sites.
Indymedia is a network of more than 140 Web sites worldwide. It was established in 1999 to report alternative viewpoints on the World Trade Organization’s conference in Seattle, and is now a major source of information for the anti-globalization movement.
Anyone can publish on Indymedia. According to "Libertinus," an activist at Indymedia Uruguay, the medium is one of the "most effective forms of free flow of information."
Indymedia Brazil managed to return online 24 hours after the seizure. Still, some of their material is missing. For Indymedia in Uruguay, one of the smallest Latin American countries, the situation is much more precarious.
"If the recovery work is going well, the entire website might be back on air next week," reckons Libertinus. Yet, "a great part will be impossible to retrieve, in particular the multimedia archives," the activist told IPS.
The main consequences are, however, political rather than technical, claims Ortellado, as the incident demonstrated that a government can seize equipment of an independent communication medium in a foreign country, on the basis of foreign law, without formal charges and without being required to release information about its actions.
Until now, nobody seems to know why Indymedia was targeted. The seizure could be related to the publication of pictures on one of its French sites, showing Swiss undercover police photographing protesters. If this suspicion is confirmed, says Ortellado, we will have witnessed the violation of civil rights on a global scale.
"Swiss police, protesting against news on a French Web site hosted on an English server get the American government to seize the server and take more than 20 independent media sites off-line," he says.
Libertinus believes the incident was an intentional attempt at sabotage, to intimidate a network that has been growing considerably in the past months, and represents a threat to the world’s powerful.
The authorities of at least four countries, Switzerland, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, might be involved in the seizure, suggests an Indymedia press release.
Federal prosecutors in both Switzerland and Italy have confirmed they are investigating Indymedia, and the Italian prosecutor reportedly said there are suspicions the network may "support terrorism," says Indymedia.
A representative for the network in the United States said the group still has received no official explanation for the shutdown. "But apparently this morning the Swiss said they had never asked the FBI to seize the servers, just that they were looking at the photos [of undercover police]," David Meieran of Indymedia Pittsburgh told IPS.
"Ten to 15 days ago there was a communication between the FBI and Rackspace, although we were not informed of this. It’s a plausible inference that these photos were involved," he added.
To date, six of the Web sites had resumed operating, said Meieran.
In a statement issued Oct. 8, Rackspace claims to have acted "in compliance with a court order pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering."
However, representatives of the two Latin American sites do not accept Rackspace’s explanation. "It is no justification but an excuse allowing the FBI to use their methods all over the world," says Libertinus. Ortellado calls the incident a serious affront against freedom of expression and of the press.
"If the American government was able to force an American company based in a foreign country to hand over the servers of a media organization using arbitrary methods and without going through a transparent judicial process, there is no reason why the same methods could not be used again in other circumstances, in other countries, targeting other organizations."
Indymedia is currently being working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on possible responses it could take to the seizure. According to Ortellado, other organizations. such as the Center for Constitutional Rights have offered their assistance.
EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl writes on the organization’s website: "This seizure has grave implications for free speech and privacy. The constitution does not permit the government unilaterally to cut off the speech of an independent media outlet, especially without providing a reason or even allowing Indymedia the information necessary to contest the seizure."
According to the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Aidan White, "We have witnessed an intolerable and intrusive international police operation against a network specializing in independent journalism. The way this has been done smacks more of intimidation of legitimate journalistic inquiry than crime-busting."
In an Indymedia news release, Libertinus explains the particular consequences of the seizure for his country. "Uruguay has a long history of media repression. We don’t have the money to pay for web hosting, and so we rely on the solidarity of other countries."
"Actions like the seizure of the servers make the whole world insecure for free media. Uruguay’s national elections will take place on Oct. 31. It’s a bad time for this to happen."
with reporting by Katherine Stapp in New York