By Ernest Jacobs
The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) on the 5 July 2012 endorsed a resolution that in principle upholds the freedom of expression and information on the Internet.
A global coalition led by countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States was supported by a total of 71 member and non-member states of the UNHRC making it a truly universal call to action.
Subsequently Chinese Ambassador Xia Jingge was quoted in the media as having stated that “China believes that the free flow of information on the Internet, and the safe flow of information on the Internet, are mutually dependent. As the Internet develops rapidly, online gambling, pornography, fraud and hacking are increasing its threat to the legal rights of the society and the public, particularly the unhealthy information have a huge negative impact on the growth of minors.
The governments of the world are duty bound to fight against such crime, to guarantee the safe flow of information on the Internet, to guide the public to use the public – to run the Internet – legally. Otherwise, unhealthy and negative information flow will obstruct the development of the Internet.”
A statement made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington DC (USA), noted: “This resolution is a welcome addition in the fight for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online. The free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world. We are witnessing an alarming surge in the number of cases involving government censorship and persecution of individuals for their actions online – sometimes for just a single tweet or text message.”
Yet as in the case of all resolutions of the UNHRC this is yet another non-binding one that is popularly hailed as a milestone of vital importance as the resolution affirms that freedom of expression and information applies with equal importance online as it does offline in a hyper-connected era.
The resolution titled, “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” states the following points;
The Human Rights Council, Guided by the Charter of the United Nations, reaffirming the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and relevant international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,
Recalling all relevant resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in particular Council resolution 12/16 of 2 October 2009, and also recalling General Assembly resolution 66/184 of 22 December 2011,
Noting that the exercise of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet is an issue of increasing interest and importance as the rapid pace of technological development enables individuals all over the world to use new information and communications technologies.
Protection of rights
Taking note of the reports of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, submitted to the Human Rights Council at its 17th session, 1 and to the General Assembly at its 66th session,2 on freedom of expression on the Internet,
1. Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
2. Recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms;
3. Calls upon all States to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communications facilities in all countries;
4. Encourages special procedures to take these issues into account within their existing mandates, as applicable;
5. Decides to continue its consideration of the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet and in other technologies, as well as of how the Internet can be an important tool for development and for exercising human rights, in accordance with its programme of work.
The Sri Lankan context
On the same day that the UNHRC passed the above resolution, Sri Lankan media Minister Keheliya Rambukwalla speaking at the weekly Cabinet media briefing at the Media and Information Ministry said the Sri Lanka Press Council is a statutory institution established under the Sri Lankan Press Council Act number 05 of 1973, which comes under the purview of the Mass Media and Information Ministry and will be amended introducing new regulations, etiquette and guidelines aimed at streamlining websites.
It has been revealed that certain websites carry out mudslinging campaigns against politicians, artistes and other reputed personalities. According to sections 25 and 26 of the Sri Lanka Press Council Act, all newspapers, magazines, periodicals published in Sri Lanka should be registered with the Sri Lanka Press Council.
Speaking on the situation of the 'srilankamirror' and 'Lankaxnews' minister Rambukwalle said, “Since websites are an exception, the Media and Information Ministry requested all websites to register with the Information Department. In response many websites registered with the Information Department while only two websites went before courts against this decision.
However, the court ordered those two websites opposed to the Media and Information Ministry decision to follow suit and abide by the regulations and guidelines issued by the ministry regarding registration of websites.
Is there any real significance of the UNHRC resolution?
The internet is merely an electronic medium that hosts platforms for the exchange of information. These range from email to websites (including blogs and micro-blogs) to an ever evolving variety of social networking and they all have enabled the exchange of information in diverse forms since the internet was available to the general public during the early 1990s.
So freedom of expression was always the foundation of the internet that has influenced the billions of people who use it. Yet is the same fashion that one would deserve the respect of the general public if one was to communicate with responsibility offline (in the real world)and be accountable for what one expresses, an online portal will too be respected for the responsibility and accountability displayed in the information expressed.
The internet can be ruthless as peer-to-peer communication occurs in light speed, taking mere minutes to completely disrepute or dishonor a website or person irrespective if that person used one’s own name or even a pseudonym.
Yet the foundation of Journalism is to publish the truth.
The general public expects journalists to have done the necessary research and corroborated all information before presenting them as factual. This does not necessarily mean that any information published by journalists cannot be proved false.
The code of professional practice of the 'Editors Guild of Sri Lanka' (TEGOSL) states the following;
“2.1:The media must take all reasonable care to report news and pictures accurately and without distortion.
2.2: Every reasonable attempt should be made by editors and individual journalist to verify the accuracy of reports prior to publication. Where such verification is not practicable, that fact shall be stated in the report.
2.3: Editors and their staff, including external contributors, shall not publish material in such a way as to endorse any matter which they know or have reason to believe to be false or inaccurate.”
In the case of the two online publications in question, it is quite reasonable to assess the level of responsibility taken when publishing information and if their publishers would stand by what they published and be accountable in moral terms. As the old saying goes “one man’s freedom fighter may be another’s terrorist” depending on how one chooses to interpret the information presented.
“Freedom of expression is nothing new to the democratic world but the fact that the UNHRC has passed a unanimous resolution with regard to freedom of expression on the internet also calls for those expressing their views to also take responsibility and be accountable for such expressions rather than doing so in anonymity” said opposition MP and attorney-at-law, SujeewaSenasinghe asserting that “if anyone wants to say anything about anything or anybody they must also have the courage to face subsequent consequences as they may occur.”
As such is it really the Internet that is in breach of human trust or humanity that does not respect decency anymore? The concern is hardly what happens online but more about what follows offline.
Technology is yet to have the ability to judge the human mind, leaving it vulnerable to misuse or abuse. Governments and Internet service providers can use prevailing technology to block access to certain websites, but simultaneously users can equally always find a way to access the same websites as long as they functioning on the Internet.
It is important to recognize that the Internet or cyberspace as it is known is not limited to national boundaries and the legislature of singular states or even international laws but is an extra-terrestrial space which requires a completely new set of laws.
In the opinion of a young tech-savvy individual who spoke on terms of anonymity, “there is no way to limit freedom on the Internet and that’s the beauty of it, nobody can in all fullness control what anybody does or says online. To me a simple internet user, this UNHRC resolution means nothing.”
Technology will certainly advance towards creating many other new platforms of communication on the internet; the human conscience would continue to stay the same whether in the real world or the virtual world.