Freedom of expression on the internet is a challenge for the next decade, say rapporteurs from the OAS and UN

The creation of an environment that allows the exercise of freedom of expression, the creation and maintenance of a free and inclusive Internet and the private control of digital communication are the main challenges for freedom of expression in the next decade, according to the rapporteurs of international organizations specializing in the topic.

A joint statement released on July 10 was drafted by the Special Rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations (UN), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), with the support of international civil society organizations Article 19 and the Centre for Law and Democracy.

This is the twentieth year that the four freedom of expression rapporteurs have made a joint statement on the subject. The purpose of the annual declarations has been “interpreting human rights guarantees for freedom of expression, thereby providing guidance to governments, civil society organisations, legal professionals, journalists and media outlets, academics and the business sector,” the document says.

“We understand that freedom of expression faces three keys to problems: a hostile and intolerant environment for those who, as journalists, activists or opponents, inform or express themselves about matters of public interest; the pressures of States to regulate or censor the circulation of adverse information on the Internet; and the growing role of dominant companies on the Internet that are making decisions that are not transparent and often automatic on content that may be protected by freedom of expression,” Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), told the Knight Center. He is one of the signatories of the 2019 joint declaration.

“We believe that these challenges reflect the issues on which States, civil society and international organizations should work in the coming years,” he added.

The first challenge pointed out in the declaration, “Creating an environment that enables the exercise of freedom of expression,” is about measures that States should take in that sense, as explained by Barbora Bukovská, senior director for Legislation and Public Policy of Article 19, to the Knight Center. “It highlights that in order to refrain from restricting freedom of speech, states need to adopt a series of measures that enable freedom of speech to flourish. Issues such as media pluralism and diversity are essential for protecting and promoting freedom of speech in an increasingly globalised, digitalised, and converged media landscape worldwide.”

This item recommends, for example, that the States “take immediate and meaningful action to protect the safety of journalists and others who are attacked for exercising their right to freedom of expression and to end impunity for such attacks” and “address the major economic challenges faced by independent journalists and media outlets, including by supporting local media and regulating to mitigate the negative impacts caused by the dominance of online advertising companies.”

The second item of the joint statement, “Building and maintaining a free, open and inclusive internet,” addresses challenges related to the virtual environment, both from the point of view of its infrastructure and the relevant actors in this space, such as telecommunication companies.

The rapporteurs recommend that States and other actors, among other measures, “recognise the right to access and use the Internet as a human right as an essential condition for the exercise of the right to freedom of expression” and “refrain from imposing Internet or telecommunications network disruptions and shutdowns.”

“It is not surprising that the mandate holders prioritised digital issues as the Internet and mobile telephony has been the most disruptive communication technology of our age,” Bukovská said. “The technology not only enables freedom of speech to an extent never before imagined, but it also makes it possible to restrict speech in an unprecedented scale - both by states and private sector.”

In fact, the third item of the statement, “Private control as a threat to freedom of expression,” suggests measures to “protect against unaccountable private domination of the environment for freedom of expression.”

These include the establishment of regulations that “address the ways in which the advertising-dependent business models of some digital technology companies create an environment which can also be used for viral dissemination of, inter alia, deception, disinformation and hateful expression,” as well as the development of “independent and multi-stakeholder oversight, transparency and accountability mechanisms to address private content rules that may be inconsistent with international human rights and interfere with individuals’ right to enjoy freedom of expression.”

“Much of the world’s online content is now regulated by the community standards of a handful of Internet companies, whose processes lack transparency and are not subject to the checks and balances of traditional governance,” Bukovská commented.

Challenges in Latin America

While the joint declaration addresses global challenges and provides guidance for public policies and private entity measures around the world, some of these issues are particularly relevant to Latin America.

Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy, pointed to the first item of the statement as the most relevant to Latin American countries. “Media diversity has always been a particular challenge in that region, the more so now with the economic threats facing the media. Of course for several countries, safety is also a massive issue,” he told the Knight Center.

Bukovská of Article 19 also highlighted the issue of security by pointing out violence against journalists and human rights defenders and the impunity in which such violence remains in the region.

“Importantly, Mexico still remains one of the countries with the highest numbers of journalists murdered and in Brazil attacks against journalists combined with a worsening environment for freedom of expression has been on increase,” she said.

Bukovská also highlighted the restrictions imposed by some Latin American governments on civic engagement and protests, including the use of excessive force against demonstrators and the imposition of limits for online and digital communication between citizens, and online censorship through attacks and surveillance against “women and minorities (LGBTI and ethnic minorities) journalists, human rights defenders and others.”

Edison Lanza said that the three themes addressed in the joint declaration are present int he concerns of the IACHR Special Rapporteur concerning freedom of expression in Latin America. In addition to violence against journalists and human rights defenders, he noted that in some countries “criminal laws that restrict freedom of expression persist.” Lanza also pointed to the digital divide and full access to the Internet as challenges in the region, as well as “countries where there is censorship, blocking, removal, and filtering of content; the cases of Venezuela and Cuba are the most notorious,” he said.

In addition to these, Lanza said that the recommendations of the declaration on internet companies and the circulation of information on online platforms, in its third item, are also relevant to the region.

“In Latin America, public debate moves more and more through platforms, and platforms also make decisions in Latin America of removing accounts by denouncing or removing contents referring to their terms and conditions, as well as [importing] also the decisions that the judiciary takes on issues that have to do with content on the internet.”