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freedom of internet news at stake
by Tim Jones
30 July 2003 18:51 UTC
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The World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) alert on world wide web press freedom discussions to be held in Geneva, Switzerland Dec. 10-12.

Freedom of Internet News at Stake, Group Warns

Stephen Leahy, Inter Press Service (IPS)

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jul 29 (IPS) - The free flow of news on the Internet is at risk unless governments that attend December's global information summit commit to supporting free expression and not restricting information online, warns an umbrella group of journalists' organisations.
"News on the Internet is easily blocked and it's often done by countries," says Marilyn Greene of the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC). China, Pakistan, Malaysia and Vietnam are just a few of the many nations that block news sites, shut down Internet cafes, and arrest citizens for disseminating legitimate news, she told IPS.

WSIS evolved from a planned technical gathering of the International Telecommunications Union to a full-blown United Nations (news - web sites) summit because of the shift from an industrial world to an information-based global society.

According to the WSIS website, its overall goal is to assist "governments, institutions and all sectors of civil society deal with the new challenges of the ever-evolving information society, specifically identifying ways to help close the gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' of access to the global information and communication network."

Improving access is not the only significant and long-lasting impact the Summit is expected to have.

"WSIS will set the guiding principles for the Internet for the next few decades," says Spencer Moore, chair of the press freedom committee of the National Press Club of Canada.

Those principles will be agreed upon at the first phase of WSIS--to be held in Geneva, Switzerland Dec. 10-12--and written into an official WSIS declaration.

Press Freedom is not mentioned in the current draft version of the declaration. ”We don't know if that's an oversight or was done on purpose,” says Greene.

But without an explicit statement confirming the principle of press freedom, dictatorships can censor online news claiming that the United Nations says it's OK, she adds.

"Democracies are not in a majority among the UN's 185 member countries."

Reflecting the Summit's origins, and in spite of the liberal use of catch phases like 'information society' and 'digital divide', WSIS preparatory meetings have focused on technology and commercial aspects of the Internet, not on its content or impact on human rights, says Pauline Dugr of the Canadian Commission to UNESCO (news - web sites) (the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

”Journalists or other content creators have not been involved in the process. Hopefully they will be at the final preparatory meeting in Geneva this September,” Dugr says. Freedom of expression ought to be included as basic principle, she adds.

At least 10 regional and other preparatory meetings have been held to date in countries around the world.

WPFC, which represents 44 affiliated journalists' groups on six continents, would prefer to have the entire freedom of expression paragraph (Article 19) from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the WSIS statement.

”As the WSIS declaration stands, there are lots of opportunities to use it to justify censorship,” says Moore. Currently, the document says everyone has a ”right to communicate”, which could be interpreted by governments as a way to force the online press to print their views, he says.

Quoting Article 19 in the declaration would solve those kinds of problems--and endless debates on the meaning of various terms--says Moore.

But there would be considerable opposition to that move, many observers believe.
A June 2003 report by France-based Reporters Without Borders documents government control of Internet news by 60 countries from 2001 to 2003. Aside from totalitarian regimes they included a number of democracies, such as India and the United States, which have adopted anti-terrorist laws that threaten freedom of expression on the Internet.
Tunisia is among the more egregious offenders of online press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB). Zouhair Yahyaoui, creator of the web news site TUNeZINE, which reflected human rights and justice concerns, was jailed for two years for ”spreading false news” in July 2002, says the RWB website.
Despite three hunger strikes, Yahyaoui remains in prison with his only hope an unlikely pardon from Tunisian President Ben Ali.
Interestingly, in November 2005 Tunisia will host the second and final WSIS phase. That meeting will evaluate how the Geneva Declaration and Action Plan have been implemented.


"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." -- Helen Keller


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