Monday, December 8, 2014

When freedom of Expression is taken offline

Issues of freedom of speech online are not solely "rights issues" or "Internet issues"; they are located somewhere in the middle and will need to be addressed by all stakeholders.”
The Internet Society, 2014

The internet has brought with it a plethora of new possibilities. From online shopping to crowd funding for projects, it has been transformational to the lives of ordinary people around the world.
In the last five years or so the ability to interact with friends and even strangers has become a major feature of this technological innovation. With the advent of Web 2.0 tools more commonly known as social media, people from every corner of the earth have been able to connect with each other sharing ideas and information. In so doing they are able to go beyond the limitations of traditional media. 
Previously radio call-in programmes provided the most significant avenue for ordinary people to express their opinions of social, political and economic issues. However there are limitations as a radio station can easily face a law suit for potentially defamatory remarks made by callers.

The internet has not totally displaced the radio call-in programmes or even the newspaper. However it provides citizens with greater freedom to express themselves in comparison to traditional media. In so doing it has become an important tool for raising awareness and amplifying the voice of the common man. However this free speech has become an increasingly contentious issue.

In recent times many debates have been raised at all levels over issues of privacy, security and free speech on the internet. Freedom of speech particularly in the face of repressive political regimes has emerged as one of the most significant issues.  A 2011 report by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) highlighted social media platforms as being invaluable in countries which lack independent media. These platforms provide individuals with a significant opportunity to share critical views, to network and research important information to advance their cause.

The UNHRC further goes on to cite article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These documents outline the right of individuals to hold opinions without political interference and to freedom of expression. However the UNHRC states that these rights come with certain conditions. It cautions that freedom of speech should be exercised with respect for the reputation of others and should not pose a threat to national security or public order.

Herein lies a very ambiguous issue. Any citizen can claim his right to freedom of speech. On the other hand a state can arbitrarily create or interpret legislation which claims that a citizen has compromised public order, national security or the reputation of others. In the majority of cases ‘others’ really mean the privileged few who hold public office and who have the power and financial backing to zealously protect their reputation.

The Arab Spring was a clear example of ordinary people using the internet to circumvent state owned and private media. In so doing they mobilised grassroots support and protested against oppressive conditions in their countries. Of course several individuals were routinely targeted for expressing their views and attempts were even made to disrupt the internet in some countries. The Caribbean has come a long way from such extremes with respect to our system of governance, however the voice of the citizen is still limited with most electronic media entities being state controlled.

Recently in Trinidad, well known comedian Rachel Price used her Facebook page to criticise the attire of the head of state’s wife. President Carmona’s wife was attending a side event at the United Nations in which she wore a midriff outfit. Price staying true to character, made light of the first lady’s fashion sense. This drew the ire of President Carmona who responded by issuing a cease and desist order preventing Price from making any future public remarks concerning his wife.

As expected the President’s reaction created a stir in the twin island republic which is never devoid of political intrigue. It also led to the question of whether the state official had abused his power in curtailing free speech. This was taken to heart by many Caribbean people as for years ordinary citizens have been verbally abused by the political class on platforms and using the veil of parliamentary privilege.  

The internet and the advent of Web 2.0 tools has now placed some of the power back in the citizens’ hands. However with states’ ability to make and interpret laws, the increased resources to conduct mass surveillance, monitoring and identifying activists and criminalising legitimate expression it is difficult to see how freedom of expression online will be maintained.

Citizens must be cognisant of their responsibility not to engage in character assassination and other malicious conduct online.  Where they fall short of this appropriate legal action should be taken. However a government which truly respects the right of its people to free speech will work hard to find a balance and involve its people in policy formulation of this nature.

Outdated ambiguous legislation will not cut it in the 21st century. A caring and fair government will also set the example by establishing and enforcing a code of conduct which protects citizens from the arbitrary and menacing verbal abuse by some of its members. Failure to do such creates a double standard which privileges the unfettered speech of the powerful and punishes those who dare to speak out.

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