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
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
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
"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