08.11.2012 - Communication & Information Sector

Affirming the safety of online media actors at the Internet Governance Forum

UNESCO co-hosted event at the Internet Governance Forum, Baku, Azerbaijan - © UNESCO/Cedric Wachholz

Strong voices in favour of safety for freedom of expression online were expressed at a UNESCO co-hosted event at the Internet Governance Forum being held this week in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Neelie Kroes, EU Commissioner and European Commission Vice-President, called attention to the way in which Malala Yousafzai “armed with an open Internet” was able to spread her message to the world despite Taliban attempts to silence her. Further, Ms Kroes referred to the courage of Eynulla Fatullayev, recipient of the 2012 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

Also speaking at the event, Mr Fatullayev spoke of the risks faced by journalists, and noted the importance of the Internet as a channel where citizens could compensate with their own journalism.

Director of UNESCO’s Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger highlighted the relevance to online safety of the UN Inter-Agency Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. He said that attacks on websites, arbitrary blocking and filtering, prosecution for legitimate online speech, unjustified surveillance, electronic death-threats and ultimately, murder, are among the threats to free expression online (see full speech).

Other speakers included representatives from the session’s co-hosts, the European Broadcasting Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Panelists explored what can be done by states, international organizations, civil society, the media and other private sector actors. It was highlighted that states have the duty to investigate crimes against freedom of expression and to combat the prevailing impunity surrounding them.

The discussion also addressed the role and responsibilities of the private sector. William Echikson, Google’s Head of Communications and Public Affairs for Free Expression in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, called for more private firms to join multi-stakeholder groups like the Global Network Initiative to protect and promote freedom of expression in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

He encouraged firms to replicate the publication of transparency reports, through which companies like Google disclose information on governments’ requests for the firm to take actions that would restrict freedom of expression and privacy. The imposition of intermediary liability and the importance of securing online anonymity was an issue referred to by different panelists, as were the responsibilities linked to the trade of surveillance technologies. 

Further involvement of media and civil society actors within the Internet Governance process was also recommended. Dunja Mijatovic, Representative on Freedom of the Media at the OSCE, said it was key for the diverse concerned stakeholders to remain engaged and join forces in the cause for online and off-line freedom of expression.

Jānis Kārkliņš, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, concluded the session by noting that the evolution of technology meant there was a constantly renewed challenge to revisit the question of safety of freedom of expression, in order to foster a culture where the rights of journalists and other media actors could be fully guaranteed.  

The event was organized in cooperation with the governments of Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden, the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

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