Promotion and Exercise of Freedom of Expression on a Global Scale By Owais Aslam Ali

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Promotion and Exercise of Freedom of Expression on a Global Scale

Owais Aslam Ali

Secretary General

Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paper presented at the international symposium

“Freedom of Expression in the Information Society”

Organized by

French National Commission for UNESCO and the UNESCO Secretariat.


November 15-16, 2002

First, I would like to thank UNESCO and the French National Commission for UNESCO for inviting me to participate in this important conference on “Freedom of Expression and Information Society”. The holding of this conference is a befitting recognition of the fact that respect for freedom of expression is central to fully realising economic and social potential of the information society.

As a freedom of expression activist my orientation and inclination is to support development of the Internet in a manner that frees creative energies of individuals rather than pronouncements with grand sounding goals that do not achieve anything but pose an inherent danger of legitimising state interference in free expression of ideas and views.
The conference is especially timely in the present era of changing priorities as all human rights, including freedom of expression are dependent on international environment. Over the past two decades, global priorities have helped to promote democracy and greater respect for human rights. An indication of this is the fact that the number of democracies in the world has doubled over the last quarter century. The term “emerging democracy” has become a common term in the media as country after country succeeded in getting rid of dictatorial regimes to embrace the ideals of democracy and human rights. In most new democracies, there has been a determined push for good governance and pluralism and undemocratic regimes have been under constant pressures to read the writing on the wall – that the days of dictatorships and autocratic regimes are numbered.
The moves towards democracy in developing countries led to loosening of controls over the media. Laws relating to licensing of publications have been relaxed and procedures for starting new publications simplified. The result has been an explosive growth in the number of newspapers and magazines in most new democracies of the world. Similar growth is now being witnessed in independent broadcast media in many developing countries.
The last two decades also saw the evolution of an effective network of human rights organisations and activists committed to push for greater freedom. One of the reasons why human rights organisations were effective was because, by and large, they had the support of the people and governments of established democracies.
In the field of freedom of expression, one of the finest example of North-South cooperation is the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), established to promote freedom of expression in the developed and developing countries. I would like to complement UNESCO for providing support to IFEX since 1992, enabling it to emerge as a leading network for exchange of information on threats to press freedom.
IFEX has also supported the creation of press freedom organisations throughout the world and has developed the competences of these organisations through regular training programmes to coincide with its annual general meetings. The IFEX membership now comprises over fifty members from developing and developed world that share a common commitment to freedom of expression. Today because of the effectiveness and commitment of southern freedom of expression organisations, no one can seriously say that freedom of expression is a western concept. It is a truly global ideal.
For example my organisation, Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), works to defend and promote press freedom internationally, but with a focus on Pakistan. Our procedure is simple. We publicise attacks on journalists and media organisations nationally and internationally, and when human rights and press freedom organisation protest against the attacks, we circulate the stories to the media. It is a very straightforward process, but very effective. Since 1995, my organisation has been monitoring attacks on media in Pakistan the successive governments have had to withdraw almost every action against the media. The support of international human rights and press freedom organisations has been instrumental in an increased emphasis on human rights in developing countries such as Pakistan.
Technology has proved to be a powerful ally of human rights, particularly freedom of expression. The advent of satellite channels and availability of affordable satellite dishes, even in remote areas, made governments realise the futility of trying to control the flow of news and views. Private radio and television stations are now mushrooming in many countries and are playing an important role in promoting dialogue between different sectors of societies with divergent viewpoints. For example in Pakistan, the independent television channels played a creditable role in informing the electorate about the range of choices available in recent elections by presenting lively and entertaining political debates.
The greatest development for freedom of expression is of course the Internet. This is one medium with the promise of making Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality. The right to “hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” seem almost within reach of a rapidly increasing proportion of humanity. The Internet also has the potential of providing global reach to Third World media as publications in developing countries enter the era of electronic publishing and news dissemination through the Internet.
In many countries the greatest threats to freedom of expression occur in rural areas, where feudal and tribal lords and government functionaries can deliver brutal private punishment away from glare of the national and international media, to any journalist who dares to report their misdeeds. Freedom of expression community is now using the potential of the Internet to promote free expression even in rural areas of developing countries. One such effort is the UNESCO supported pilot project to use the Internet technology to promote the creation of a networks of freedom of expression monitors in rural areas of Pakistan.
Of course there are important issues of access, affordability, protection of children, pornography, anonymity, privacy, encryption, etc. that need our attention but, until recently, there was broad consensus that the Internet would be a tool for free expression with minimum government interference. Unfortunately international priorities have changed significantly, since the world entered into “ a new kind of war” following the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Since then heightened concerns for security have been at the cost of civil liberties and increased surveillance, in particular, has had a chilling effect on free expression on the Internet.
The war against terrorism is against non-state actors, with no ground rules. By definition, the terrorists do not play by the rules, but in this war even established democracies such as USA, Canada, Australia and countries of the European Union feel that they cannot abide by existing rules.
I will not go into details of the many incidents and policies against free expression in many countries. I will just quote two incidents to illustrate the point. One example of the dramatic erosion in commitment to freedom of expression was when the US Secretary of State urged Qatar, a developing country, to control its independent television station Al Jazeera. Another example was the comments by the Whitehouse Spokesman warning people to watch what they say. I have chosen these examples from USA to show that fragility of freedom of expression even in the land of the First Amendment, that has inspired journalists throughout the world for over two centuries.
USA is of course not the only country that has seen erosion in commitment to civil liberties. In January 2002, barely120 days after September 11, The International Federation of Human Right Leagues and Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) released a report of 15 countries that had taken major steps negatively affecting human rights. While America was at the top, it also included other major western countries such as Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, European Union, Spain, as well as India, Pakistan, Jordan, Russia, Indonesia and Zimbabwe.
In a later report on the first anniversary of September 11, RSF declared the Internet as a victim of ”collateral damage” caused by the “spate” of security managers, which have negatively affected cyber-freedoms. The report points out that the Internet is not just under siege in countries traditionally hostile to freedom of expression but also in western democracies such as USA, Germany, EU, France, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Italy and United Kingdom. The report asserts that privacy rights of Internet users have been affected negatively by changes in the laws enabling governments to keep details of emails sent and received and websites visited, “turning telephone companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) into potential arms of the police.”
The actions taken by developed countries that negatively affect freedom of expression and privacy are particularly troubling because of three reasons.
First, developed countries have a much greater capacity to systematically monitor communications in cyberspace not just in their own countries but globally. Thus, after September 11, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) could not only install its email surveillance software “Carnivore” software in ISPs in the US but also in Pakistan, and perhaps in other countries as well. Only a developed country like USA could ask for and get from Hotmail, details of email accounts with names that contain the word “Allah” in them.
Secondly, while the developed countries, including former colonial powers, have international reach and their actions and policies affect people in many countries, they are responsible only to their own citizens. Thus, the US-based Electronic Frontiers Foundation did a commendable job of getting details of surveillance done in America by the Carnivore software and detected that the privacy of innocent people was violated. However, citizens or organisations outside USA cannot demand similar details from the American government, nor can they lodge legal challenge that the word “Allah” is a part of many common names of millions of Muslims, and that it is unfair and unacceptable to cast such a wide net.
Finally, and most importantly, established democracies set the democratic standards for other countries. The ideals of liberal democracy and respect for the dignity of the individual have tremendous global appeal and these ideals have inspired many millions in the recent past to choose a democratic path for their societies. Unfortunately, the erosion of commitment to civil liberties is having negative effects as governments justify their repressive actions by pointing to actions by western democracies. This trend is dangerous because a world with scant regard for human rights will be more prone to instability, violence and terrorism.
The large number of journalists killed in 2001 and 2002 highlight the fact that the dangers for journalists have increased considerably. There is thus a need to devote our energies and resources to take practical steps for the safety of journalists. Many media organisations have taken a number of practical steps, such as training on handling dangerous situation, or monitoring attacks on the media and exerting pressure on governments to provide adequate protection to journalists. Much more needs to be done in this direction.
Today, more than ever before, it is important that the profession of journalism be seen to be totally independent of the government and there should no blurring of lines between the state and the media. The resolution adopted by the UNESCO sponsored Conference on "Terrorism and Media", Manila, Philippines, 1-2 May 2002 very rightly focused on the problem by stating that States at peace, as well as all parties to conflicts, should never allow their agents or combatants to pose as journalists, or attempt to use journalists as agents. Governments must realize that whatever the marginal benefits, the use of journalists for intelligence purposes tarnishes the image of the profession and puts all journalists at risk. States should declare that they would not try to use journalists for intelligence gathering. This prohibition should not only include their own nationals but also journalists of other nationalities as well. The negative image of the profession poses a danger for all journalists as the perception of journalistic independence may mean the difference between life and death for a journalist.
On the positive side, if one can say that, there is a growing realisation of how little the world knows about different people, cultures and religions, and that a situation where the majority of the people fall below the media radar screen is not only unfair but terribly dangerous. One of the questions asked in the wake of attacks on September 11 in America was "Why do they hate us so much". The American public seemed genuinely perplexed as to how people could feel such hostility towards their country. They felt angry, isolated and hurt.
While it is impossible to make perfect analogies, the feeling of being misunderstood reflected similar sentiments long felt in many developing countries. Many in Third Word feel their voices are not heard, that their aspirations and concerns are misrepresented by the dominant media organisations. The frustration at being misunderstood resulted in the disastrous and misguided attempts to create the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) by the Non Aligned Group and socialist countries. The analogous attempt in USA, the Office of Strategic Influence, was mercifully short lived.
The new information technologies provide the technical capabilities for people from around the world to communicate and to understand each other. What is required is an environment where people everywhere feel safe their freedom of expression and privacy rights are being respected.
Respect for press freedom, as for many fundamental rights, has taken many, many sacrifices to take a toehold in many countries, and it is still fragile. It can be rolled back very quickly, unless there is unambiguous support from established and emerging democracies.

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