20 October 2016 (UN) – Warning that the freedom of expression is under the widespread assault, a new United Nations human rights report has found that governments worldwide, wielding the tools of censorship, are “treating words as weapons.”
“Governments are treating words as weapons, adopting vague laws that give officials massive discretion to undermine speech and opinion,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, in a news release about his report to be presented to the UN General Assembly tomorrow in New York.
He said that governments are punishing journalists for their reporting, silencing individuals for posting opinions on social media, shutting down debate and the flow of information on grounds of counter-terrorism, protecting public order, sheltering people from offense.
“The approach that many governments adopt towards freedom of expression today is abusive and unsustainable,” Mr. Kaye stressed. “Governments must not only reverse course, but also take the lead in ensuring its protection.”
“Censorship in all its forms reflects official fear of ideas and information,” the expert noted. “And it not only harms the speaker or reporter or broadcaster, it undermines everyone’s right to information, to public participation, to open and democratic governance.”
The report involved a survey of hundreds of official communications Mr. Kaye has issued to governments, which resulted from allegations of violations of well-established international human rights law received from individuals and non-governmental organizations worldwide. The trend lines are stark, he said.
“I am especially concerned that many governments assert legitimate grounds for restriction, such as protection of national security or public order or the rights of others, as fig leaves to attack unpopular opinion or criticism of government and government officials,” he stated. “Many times governments provide not even the barest demonstration that such restrictions meet the legal tests of necessity and proportionality.”
The Special Rapporteur drew attention to increasing instances where governments assert rationales having no basis in human rights law. “For example, it has become routine for governments to explicitly target political criticism, journalism, and the expression of singled-out groups such as LGBTI communities and artists,” he said.
One of the biggest threats to online expression is the use of Internet ‘kill switches.’ More than a dozen network shutdowns have been recorded in the last year. Internet shutdowns are just one form of digital censorship among many adopted by governments today.
The report noted areas of positive developments as well. The Special Rapporteur welcomed examples where governments, legislatures, and domestic and international courts have taken strong steps to promote freedom of expression or carefully evaluate restrictions.
Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
In the present report, submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 25/2, the Special Rapporteur addresses contemporary challenges to freedom of expression. He assesses trends relating to the permissible restrictions laid out in article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and concludes with recommendations that the United Nations, States and civil society may take to promote and protect freedom of opinion and expression.
Conclusions and recommendations
In the present report, I have sought to describe trends working against freedom of opinion and expression around the world today. Those trends are sobering.
Individuals seeking to exercise their right to expression face all kinds of limitations. Rationales are often unsustainable. Some of the limitations involve assertions of a legitimate objective — typically national security or public order — without the barest demonstration of legality or necessity and proportionality. Other limitations are based on objectives that are not legitimate under international human rights law. Old tools remain in use, while others are expanding, as States exploit society’s pervasive need to access the Internet. The targets of restrictions include journalists and bloggers, critics of government, dissenters from conventional life, provocateurs, and minorities of all sorts. Our communications have revealed allegations relating to all of these issues, and reporting from civil society suggests that the problems are more pervasive and extensive than even our communications illuminate.
In the coming years, I urge States to be particularly mindful of the context of digital rights, the integrity of digital communications and the roles of intermediaries, regardless of frontiers. It will be particularly critical for States to avoid adopting legal rules that implicate digital actors — including, but not limited to, data localization standards, intermediary liability and Internet security — that undermine the freedom of expression, and I will be monitoring such legislation closely. I see ongoing deterioration of online rights, even as the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly urge that rights offline be respected online. The coming years will test just how genuine the commitment to that proposition is.