Internet Press Freedom Editorial
Stabroek News
August 26, 2003

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“News media in cyberspace and via international satellite broadcasts should be offered the same freedom of expression rights as traditional news media,” the first clause of the Statement of Vienna states. That Statement was adopted in Vienna, Austria, on the 21st November, 2002, by leading press freedom groups as the fundamental guidelines for protecting press freedom on the Internet. The Statement also says that “News on the Internet is the same as news everywhere. New technology does not require any reconsideration of fundamental rights such as freedom of the press.” It notes that, that principle is also embedded in UNESCO’s Declaration of Sofia, which formally endorsed a declaration earlier adopted by a broad cross-section of journalists from Eastern and Western Europe.

The subject is topical for at least two reasons. First, as of now a number of countries that include China, Cuba, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt monitor, filter and censor Internet news. In the absence of such interference an internet user in any country can get up in the morning and read the online edition of newspapers in a large number of countries. The governments in the countries mentioned above and others are not happy with this and take steps to block that access. They sometimes claim that they are concerned with pornography or other improper material on the internet but they also block news and information sites. Clearly, the intention is to prevent citizens in those countries, which often do not have a completely free press, from reading critical views of their governments on foreign websites. Moreover, as the declaration makes clear, news is quite different from pornography, paedophilia, fraud, conspiracy for terrorism, excitement to terrorism and hate speech, although there may be news stories about such issues. “Such matters as those listed are normally covered in existing general legislation and can, if appropriate and necessary, be prosecuted on the national level in the country of origin.”

Secondly, the July newsletter of the World Press Freedom Committee reports that a UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society is scheduled to begin in December in Geneva and to continue in 2005 in Tunis. All 185 UN member states, a majority of which do not have a free press, have a voice at the Summit and “proposals for international and national policies on governing, and restricting, the Internet are already in play.” The newsletter says that draft versions of a Summit Declaration and a plan of action contain many unacceptable provisions.

The Internet has provided unprecedented opportunities for freedom of expression and communication. Not much can be done at this stage to stop repressive governments from blocking access to users in their countries except to criticise them. But any effort to impose international restrictions must be strongly resisted.

As Clause 5 of the Statement of Vienna notes, some countries that have advocated controls over the free flow of information across national frontiers have tried to justify controls on political grounds, regional value systems or national information sovereignty but such controls are clearly in violation of Clause 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and import information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Statement notes that over the years developing countries have complained of being unequal partners in world communication ability (because of the domination of the international flow of news by Western based press agencies and radio and television media like BBC and CNN). It points out that the internet affords `just the opportunity for interactive and multi-way communication’ developing countries have said they want. The internet can go a long way to fulfilling the global promise of Article 19.

Though internet users are still primarily clustered in the developed world the Statement notes that this was originally so with printing, radio and television but that they spread naturally throughout the world.

Caricom member states and other developing countries that believe in the free expression of opinion and ideas and a free press must be vigilant to ensure that no unwelcome controls on the free flow of information on the internet are introduced at the World Summit on the Information Society which starts this December in Geneva and should lobby for support for the core principle of the Statement of Vienna expressed in clause 1. The internet is a liberating force that has given expression to views from all over the world of news media, political and other groups. No government that believes in an open society can legitimately agree with the imposition of controls, despite the fact that there are abuses and some extremely unpleasant material can be found on the internet. Already, efforts have been made to prosecute pornographers and paedophiles and methods can be devised to deal effectively with material that transgresses criminal laws that are acceptable in a democratic society.