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Statement by Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression

76th Session of the UN General Assembly (Third Committee)

New York, October 18 2021

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen

I am honoured to present the first ever report by this mandate on the subject of gender justice and freedom of opinion and expression.

Let me begin by paying a tribute to Maria Ressa, Editor of Rappler, who received the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for speaking truth to power. Her courage, vision and fortitude are truly inspiring. The award of the Prize jointly to Ms. Ressa and Dimitri Muratov sends a powerful message that women’s equal right to freedom of expression is indispensable for media freedom and the achievement of peace, democracy and sustainable development.

As we celebrate the Nobel Prize, let us also recall that only two months ago the world watched in horror as the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan crushed the voices – and dreams - of women and girls of an entire nation.

Despite the impressive achievements of women like Maria Ressa, the truth is that gender equality in freedom of expression remains a distant goal.

Against that mixed background of hope and disappointment, let me highlight four key findings of my report:

First, gendered censorship is pervasive, online and offline. Women’s voices are suppressed, controlled or punished explicitly by laws, policies and discriminatory practices, and implicitly by social attitudes, cultural norms and patriarchal values. Sexism and misogyny, which are dominant factors in gendered censorship, have been heightened by the rise of populist, authoritarian and fundamentalist forces around the world.

Social media platforms have amplified the opportunities for women to express themselves but also multiplied the possibilities for suppression.

The patriarchal norms of the real world are replicated on platforms, targeting young women and gender non-conforming people, especially those with marginalized identities. In a number of countries, their online social behaviour is closely monitored, censored and criminalised by governments under the guise of protecting “public morals”. Such action is paternalistic at best, misogynistic at worst.

Fundamentalist movements often play a leading, visible role in gendered censorship on social media platforms. Content moderation by companies also show signs of gender bias, algorithms reflecting the prejudices of the human rule-setters. 

Secondly, sexual and gender-based violence, hate speech and disinformation are used extensively online and offline to chill or kill women’s expression. In many cases, online threats escalate to physical violence and even murder. Women journalists, politicians, human rights defenders and feminist activists are targets of vicious, coordinated online attacks. The objective is to intimidate, silence and drive them off the platforms and out of public life. The effect is to undermine human rights and set back media diversity and inclusive democracy.

Women’s rights groups and feminist movements have also come under threats and pressure as authoritarian regimes seek to restrict civic space.

Thirdly, despite the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals, the gender digital divide persists. Almost half of the world’s women have no access to the Internet. Gender-disaggregated data are systematically lacking in many countries. Information of particular interest to women is often unavailable, outdated or difficult to find. In some countries access to gender-related information, including on reproductive and sexual health and rights, is blocked.

The disparities that women face in the context of information reflect the economic, social, political and cultural inequalities in their everyday lives. There is not just one divide but multiple divides to be overcome.

States are failing to respect, protect and fulfil women’s equal right to freedom of opinion and expression.

The aggravation of gender inequalities by the Coronavirus pandemic has created a new urgency for action. If women are to recover lost ground, if countries are to revive their economies and if governments are to regain public trust, then women’s equal right to freedom of opinion and expression must be front and centre on national and international agendas.

So, what are my recommendations?

First, make the digital space safe for women. States should adopt robust laws, grounded in international human rights standards, and ensure their effective implementation to prohibit, investigate and prosecute online gender based violence.

Governments must adopt special measures to ensure the safety of women journalists. Attacks on women journalists violate not only individuals’ freedom of expression but society’s right to information from diverse media.

Second, there can be no trade-off between women’s right to be free from violence and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Both rights must be equally upheld by States.

Efforts to eradicate online gender-based violence, gendered hate speech and disinformation should not be used as a pretext by governments to restrict freedom of expression beyond what is permitted under international law.

All restrictions of freedom of expression must comply fully with the three part test of legality, necessity and proportionality, and legitimate objectives, as set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Nor should laws on public morals be weaponized to inhibit women’s cultural, gender and sexual expression, or to restrict feminist discourse.

I caution strongly against the prohibition or criminalization of disinformation. It is often counterproductive, and misused to silence critics. Gendered disinformation is best addressed through measures such as fostering diverse and independent media, fact-checking, digital and media literacy, and community-based awareness programs.

Third, taking a gender-sensitive approach to the right to freedom of expression, UN human rights bodies should make clear that gender based hate speech is prohibited under international law in the same way as religious or racial hatred.

Also, an international definition of online gender based violence should be developed to protect women and girls, while respecting the boundaries of legitimate speech.

Fourth, States should put resources behind the rhetoric of leaving no one behind, and accelerate efforts to remove the digital divide, data gaps, and other barriers to women’s right to information.

Fifth, the rising tide of online gender based violence and hate speech indicates that social media companies are not addressing this issue with sufficient urgency, seriousness and resources.

In line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, social media companies should carry out regular human rights and gender impact assessments to identify and mitigate systemic risks affecting women and gender nonconforming people. They should make platforms safe and gender-inclusive, and in line with international human rights standards, adopt effective safety policies and tools, ensure meaningful transparency, including of algorithms, and provide adequate remedies.

While my report exposes many failures and gaps, it also draws attention to impressive and inspirational achievements of women to claim their rights and to good practices of some States and companies.

I urge Member States and social and legacy media companies to work with civil society, especially women’s groups, to end the unlawful interference in women’s freedom of expression, and create an enabling environment in which women and girls can exercise their agency and participate safely, fully and equally in political, cultural, social and economic life. It is high time to heed the call for gender justice.