Internet Freedom and Journalism

Author's name: 
Frédéric Dubois
Grahamstown

Highway Africa may seem far away, but the media and ICT conference comes back haunting, as the World is watching the contentious ITU discussions unfolding in Dubai. So how exactly do we make the link between a conference on media in a small university town in South Africa and a world conference on the revision of telecommunication regulation in the United Arab Emirates?

Three months after Highway Africa, one of its most popular plenary sessions comes back in mind. Moderated by APC’s Africa Internet Policy coordinator, Mawaki Chango, the Internet Freedom and Journalism plenary gave blogger Dibussi Tande, professor Jane Duncan and internet rights crusader Anriette Esterhuysen a chance to plead in favour of a free internet for journalists. The panel took the audience by surprise, literally playing the role of an eye-opener for many reporters, media managers and citizen journalists in attendance. The following except provides a quick overview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPaWaBKlXSI

Proponents of freedom vs adherents of regulation

Dibussi Tande laid out the main rift lines along which states stand, when it comes to internet freedom. Some states see the internet as a “catalyst for development,” he said, while others perceive it as a “destabilizing force”. He quoted government ministers from Malawi, Cameroon, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, to explain how these countries were desperate to control the internet.

Drawing from the US civic organisation Freedom House, he insisted that it was important to measure internet freedom, if journalists and bloggers were to adequately defend it. According to this organisation, the three aspects of internet freedom to measure are obstacles to access; limits on content and; violation of user rights. He has seen all three at work in Africa in the last year, he said. The main obstacle are legislative measures, such as in Cameroon, where new security and crime rules extend liability to internet intermediaries (e.g., Internet Service Providers touched by Law No. 2010/012 21)

Tande also referred to the Human Rights Council’s Panel on human rights and the internet to underline the Chinese position as one of the clearest in the regulation camp. How to achieve the right balance between a hands-off approach and an interventionist one, is still up for grabs, he admited. “Can there be a middle ground?,” he asked, before citing UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue’s framework on freedom of expression and the internet, as possible way to strike the right balance.

Jane Duncan used Tande’s last intervention as a bridge to her presentation. She also cited Frank La Rue’s report (http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Opinion/A.66.290.pdf) as a source of inspiration for finding the “best regulatory system for content that enables free expression online”.

Public and private internet regulation

Duncan found three reasons for restricting content on the internet: intellectual property; child protection (including child pornography) and; national security. These three justifications are unfortunately almost always defined in an overly broad manner and invariably abused, she argued. “Governments simply can’t keep up technically and so they are now delegating censorship down to ISPs for content removal or blocking of “illegal” content,” she said.

Professor Duncan also sees limits when it comes to private corporate regulation. “Self and co-regulation are presented as the future in digital age, as they are reputed to be less susceptible to government capture.” The point is that they are susceptible to industry capture, for instance through corporate user policies which are not set up in a transparent or public manner. Since not being established by a public process, such as when laws are passed, self and co-regulation remain problematic, she insisted.

Practical actions that the private sector can take to show goodwill, she concluded, include measures such as to “the issue of annual reports on notices and takedowns, give users notice and the right of reply to takedown notices, build in appeal procedures, require a court order for a takedown, reinstate content if it gets a counter notice and let courts deal with takedowns, establish independent body to administer notice and takedown.”

“Don’t take internet freedoms for granted”

Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications (http://www.apc.org), entered the fold swinging: “The potential for enabling expression, access to information, learning, transparency, association and assembly, protest and participation cannot be understated!” This is why internet freedom needs to be defended, she argued.

Talking to journalists in the room, Esterhuysen went on saying that there is no linear relationship between internet freedom and media freedom. Russia and many Eastern European countries are a good example of media freedoms being curtailed while the internet scene is developing and using its freedoms in important ways.

“Don’t take internet freedom for granted though,” her advice was. “Restrictions are increasing and not only in ‘repressive’ countries.” The list of types of internet limitations is growing. It includes “national ‘extranets’, censorship/filtering, surveillance/violation of privacy, criminalisation of blogging, loss of the right to anonymity, disproportionate protection of intellectual property and more,” Esterhuysen said.

In the African context, as access to the internet increases, fear and consternation on the part of governments increases. Even though access is only at 13% Africa-wide, governments are responding with fear, acting to repress internet users. “The story of The Spear (http://www.apc.org/en/news/online-censorship-south-africa-protecting-or-...) speaks to this scenario,” she added.

As closing statement, Esterhuysen encouraged bloggers and journalists to “report on internet freedoms. If you have internet freedoms, then fight to keep them and if you don’t, fight to get them.”

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