New Challenges to Freedom of Expression
Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered a public lecture at CEU on April 4 entitled “New Challenges to Freedom of Expression.” The event was organized in collaboration with the Center for Media and Communication Studies at CEU (CMCS) and the Open Society Archives at CEU (OSA). Frank La Rue was introduced to the audience by Istvan Rev, Director, OSA.
La Rue was in Budapest for an official visit and conducted a series of meetings with representatives of the Hungarian government, parliament and civil society about the recently passed media legislation. In his public lecture at CEU he provided a broad overview of global challenges to freedom of expression. He focused in particular on the impact new technologies and the Internet are having, as they increase both the variety of ways in which people can express themselves, individually or in groups, and the ways in which this speech can be restricted and surveilled. La Rue argued, however, that protecting freedom of speech in this new age remains a matter of upholding existing protections, such as Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the relevant articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rather than creating new conventions.
As special rapporteur, Frank La Rue explained that he had conducted a series of regional consultations about the subject of freedom of expression and the Internet, in locations such as Stockholm, Delhi and Cairo, since last June. Describing the main issues that arose at these meetings with civil society groups, he highlighted the challenges of access–both in terms of affordable access to internet connectivity, and in terms of free access to internet content–as well as those surrounding privacy rights and intermediary liability. He stressed the crucial role of connectivity in development, observing the role of the Internet in facilitating the right to education and the right to freedom of association as well, and praised initiatives to frame access in terms of human rights, such as Finland's groundbreaking move to make internet-access a legal right. La Rue argued that governments should devise ways to guarantee universal access, through different forms of subsidies where necessary, much as they would subsidize public transport. He highlighted examples such as Sweden, where purchase of equipment for internet use is tax-deductible, and Uruguay, where every school child receives a low-cost laptop.
La Rue warned against the increasing tendency of national governments to tighten controls on the Internet when faced with its transformative potential. He predicted that repressive regimes, in particular, will only be more tempted to restrict or criminalize internet content and use after the current uprisings in the Middle East, but also emphasized that the overuse of filtering and blocking is not limited to such regimes. While legitimate limitations can be applied when it comes to phenomena such as child pornography, incitement and hate speech, he argued that restrictions are currently too readily applied. National security arguments are used to suppress legitimate discussions, and the application of criminal rather than civil law to accusations of defamation and blasphemy has a stifling effect on the freedom of expression. Moreover, governments appear to increasingly pass on the responsibility of policing internet content to private actors such as Internet Service Providers, further undermining their accountability for such restrictions. In that context, La Rue expressed concern over reports that private companies were pressured by the US government to limit Wikileaks related services. He recounted how he “hand-delivered” a note to the US State Department to warn against prosecuting Julian Assange for the dissemination of leaked government information, arguing that the medium of the message should never be criminally responsible.
The Internet, he concluded, can and should not be regulated in the same way as broadcast media, and regulation should primarily be for the purpose of facilitating internet access, for example, through regulating commercial monopolies or guaranteeing affordable connectivity. As is the case regarding all media, he noted, the state should refrain from attempting to be the party to define objectivity and balanced coverage, as media are accountable to the public, not to the state.
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