“Social Media: Challenges and Ways to Promote Freedoms and Protect Activists”
Doha, 16-17 February 2020
Your Excellency Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani,
Excellencies, dear participants,
I thank the Qatar National Human Rights Committee for the constructive partnership with my Office and I am pleased to have this opportunity to address this international conference on social media.
The changes brought by the digital revolution are here to stay.
Over the last two decades, communications have changed in irreversible ways and civic space has moved online, the place where most people access information, mobilize, organize themselves and shape their protests.
Social media platforms have become key fora for public participation and civil movements, opening channels for voices who were completely isolated before.
But, hosting and managing massive quantities of private data, they can also be a powerful tool for surveillance or attacks on critical voices.
Whenever we discuss how social media is affecting civic space, we need to keep in mind that existing international human rights law applies both offline and online.
We know that as States try to deal with the huge impact of new technologies, they are adjusting their frameworks and policies.
While these changes can be for good, that is not always the case.
Laws prohibiting the use of encryption, banning so-called fake news, or defining online defamation expand the space for authorities to decide what can and cannot be said – and they often violate international standards for freedom of expression.
Journalists and human rights defenders are the first to feel the brunt of these restrictions.
General shutdowns of the internet are also likely to violate many human rights – as it is, in many ways, like closing down the public square.
Shutdowns and other restrictions severely curtail independent media, civil society activities and assemblies. They also undermine the capacity of communities and individuals to work, to access information and public services.
These efforts to limit the space for critical voices often translate into greater tensions. They deepen social and political divisions.
We need to ensure that human rights norms guide how we regulate and manage online space.
As highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee – all public figures are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.
Indeed, online civic space offers many new opportunities for civil society and human rights – but it also comes with considerable risks.
In this context, I welcome your timely discussions on addressing challenges while promoting freedoms and protecting activists.
I am convinced that the best solutions will come from working in partnership, sharing best practices, and studying the detailed outcomes of national regulatory systems, including any unintended consequences.
In that spirit of collaboration, I wish you a fruitful gathering and look forward to hearing its outcomes.
Shukran Jazelan Lakom.