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Freedom of expression under worldwide attack, UN rights expert warns in new report

NEW YORK (20 October 2016) – “There is no question that governments worldwide are wielding the tools of censorship,” warns the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, in a report on the widespread global assault on the freedom of expression to be presented to the UN General Assembly tomorrow.

“Governments are treating words as weapons, adopting vague laws that give officials massive discretion to undermine speech and opinion,” Mr. Kaye says. “They are punishing journalists for their reporting, silencing individuals for posting opinions on social media, shutting down debate and the flow of information on grounds of counter-terrorism, protecting public order, sheltering people from offense.”

“Censorship in all its forms reflects official fear of ideas and information,” the expert noted. “And it not only harms the speaker or reporter or broadcaster, it undermines everyone’s right to information, to public participation, to open and democratic governance.”

The report involved a survey of hundreds of official communications the rapporteur has issued to governments, which resulted from allegations of violations of well-established international human rights law received from individuals and non-governmental organizations worldwide. The trend lines are stark, Mr. Kaye said.

“I am especially concerned that many governments assert legitimate grounds for restriction, such as protection of national security or public order or the rights of others, as fig leaves to attack unpopular opinion or criticism of government and government officials,” he stated. “Many times governments provide not even the barest demonstration that such restrictions meet the legal tests of necessity and proportionality.”

The Special Rapporteur drew attention to increasing instances where governments assert rationales having no basis in human rights law. “For example,” he said, “it has become routine for governments to explicitly target political criticism, journalism, and the expression of singled-out groups such as LGBTI communities and artists.” 

“Those who carry out physical threats, particularly to journalists and writers and bloggers, are rarely held accountable,” Mr. Kaye added. “Online, threats to expression are getting worse. Advances in technology have triggered new forms of repression and censorship that undermine everyone’s ability to hold opinions or seek, receive and impart information and ideas.”

One of the biggest threats to online expression is the use of Internet ‘kill switches.’ More than a dozen network shutdowns have been recorded in the last year. Internet shutdowns are just one form of digital censorship among many adopted by governments today.

The report notes areas of positive developments as well. The Special Rapporteur welcomes, for instance, examples where governments, legislatures, and domestic and international courts have taken strong steps to promote freedom of expression or carefully evaluate restrictions.

In his study, the human rights expert urges all governments to review their national laws to ensure strong protection and promotion of the freedom of expression, in particular to limit the discretion officials may enjoy to restrict the flow of information.

“The approach that many governments adopt towards freedom of expression today is abusive and unsustainable,” Mr. Kaye stressed. “Governments must not only reverse course, but also take the lead in ensuring its protection.”

(*) See the Special Rapporteur’s report to the UN General Assembly: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/71/373

Mr. David Kaye (USA) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in August 2014 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, Mr. Kaye is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Mr. Stefano Sensi (+41 22 917 9237 / ssensi@ohchr.org), Ms. Azin Tadjdini (+41 22 917 9400 / atadjdini@ohchr.org) or write to freedex@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, OHCHR Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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