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Freedom of opinion and expression

Internet must be free but handled with care

09 December 2011


Participants at the special event held in Geneva with the theme Social Media and Human Rights were universally of the view that the internet should remain an open and free forum, accessible to all at any time. However, there was also a common view that the extraordinary freedom of expression offered by the internet carried with it additional responsibilities which had to be accepted by everybody – governments, individuals and by the companies providing the social media platforms.

Deputy High Commissioner, Kyung-wha Kang in her keynote address, recalled the events of 2011 and said there was much to celebrate: “In cities, towns and villages globally, people have ventured from the safety of their homes and gone into the streets campaigning for their human rights.”

President of the Human Rights Council Laura Dupuy Lasserre, said States should not curtail access to the internet but rather promote it: "Any State which guarantees freedom of expression responds to a real societal need... All individuals have a right to access information, exchange ideas and opinions, so as to participate in and contribute to our environment and the development of our society."

Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said “Every person in every corner of the world now has the opportunity to be heard in real time.”

Although many leaders still find it hard to accept social media is a major part of the democratic process, La Rue said, it can enhance peace and lead to a better understanding among all people.

Wael Abbas, a well-known blogger and journalist from Egypt, said he started using social media because he realized there was no limit to the freedom on the internet.

It was an opportunity, he said, to report the stories that were not being told in the government-controlled media and, without it, regime change would have taken ten years instead of one.

Maite Azuela from Mexico told the gathering of the group she and fellow bloggers founded in 2009 to fight corruption called, “Stop playing dumb”. Within a few months they had 30,000 followers on Facebook.

Using social networks as a tool, Azuela said, she and her supporters are trying to ensure participation and harness the enthusiasm of others to “break down this barrier of powerlessness that we know mainly exists in our minds.”

Bassem Bouguerra, a software engineer and blogger from Tunisia said social media had made people very powerful because the flow of information is now from the bottom up.

He referred however, to the “dangers and challenges” inherent in social media and called on governments, in considering how to manage the internet, not to take “the easy way” and censor material but instead to find the funds to educate people.

“We don’t give kids a car without a license - there is a very big responsibility that comes with the internet,” he said.

Ednah Karamagi, the Executive Director of BROSDI, an NGO working with farmers in remote areas of Uganda said the internet was about “getting the voice of the unknown, known and passing on information.” She also tempered her remarks, warning that “You can drown in the pool of social media… and you must be able to differentiate the truth from the lies.

Meg Pickard, the Head of Digital Engagement at Guardian News and Media talked of social media curation, the process of selecting, creating, amplifying and contextualizing material or separating the noise from the signal. Problems that have traditionally been dealt with by editors, she said, can now be negotiated much more broadly although it is a challenge to find the “authentic voices” on the internet.

Salil Tripathi, Policy Director at the Institute for Human Rights and Business in London warned of the risks of companies acquiescing with governments. There is a ‘huge risk of complicity’ between providers of social media platforms and governments, he said, and the question to be asked is how we all ensure the tendency to suppress is restrained.

In summing up Kang said the complex and challenging questions thrown up by social media needed to be addressed by governments, bloggers, civil society, human rights defenders, private companies and by the UN Human Rights office.

“I do sense that the common message is that these new methods of communication and participation should not and cannot be controlled”, Kang said. “They need to be embraced, and their potential needs to be built upon.”

View the webcast of this event

9 December 2011

This year, Human Rights Day celebrates the work of human rights defenders and focuses on their efforts to galvanize and inspire support and inspire support for change via social media. The UN Human Rights Office has launched a global social media campaign that will encourage people to commit to taking action for change by becoming human rights defenders. Join us to celebrate human rights!