Error 404 – freedom of speech not found

7 Dec 2021 14:45h - 15:45h

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Error 404 is becoming the state of affairs in many countries across the globe, especially in the Global South. This session, therefore, sought to understand the causes and ways in which the governments of these states are denying access to information and undermining the freedom of expression and ways to fight such practices.

While many internet outages are temporary, they all have long-lasting repercussions. According to Mr Oliver Spencer (Legal Director, Free Expression Myanmar), who spoke about the recurring internet shutdowns in Myanmar, these shutdowns may be temporary in nature, but they often lead to something much worse. These actions establish public acceptance of the limitation of the freedom of expression and access to information and the authorities who take these actions.

Addressing the issue of many internet shutdowns in India, Mr Kris Ruijgrok (Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)) referred to numerous interviews he conducted with Indian officials responsible for issuing these shutdowns. According to the interviewees, these actions were necessary because of the use of the internet and social media to spread misinformation and hate speech that fosters communal tension and violence across India. Ruijgrok noted that these tensions are by and large incited by the Indian government itself and compared the internet shutdowns to ‘firefighters who first start the building on fire and then start to extinguish it with such brute force that the building collapses’.

Frequent internet shutdowns have the gravest impact on women and marginalised communities, as noted by Ms Radhika Jhalani (Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group). These communities primarily depend on the internet to elucidate their needs and problems in a patriarchal society like India. Similarly, Mr Prasanth Sugathan (Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group) referred to numerous examples of blocking various websites and social media accounts that showed dissent and censoring different streaming platforms across the country.

Participants also attempted to respond to the question of why some things that work in western democracies may not work in South East Asia.

Spencer referred to the absence of competing power sources, i.e. strong judiciaries and parliaments, strong media laws that protect free media, and more robust public support for rules-based systems.

Jhalani underscored poverty as one of the main differences between the Global North and the Global South. And these existential issues come up before those related to democratic governance and the rule of law. She noted that the person who has to think about their food and basic housing does not think about the issue of free speech.

Sugathan noted that countries of the Global South face similar issues and that the civil society organisations in these countries, in particular, need to work together and form alliances to raise awareness and tackle those challenges. In addition, Ruijgrok highlighted that those problems should not be thought of as technical issues but rather political problems requiring a political solution.

Such a solution requires the involvement of more than one actor. To this end, Spencer added that government, civil society, and business are three corners of a triangle. It is important to make sure that two of these corners work together towards solving an issue. Concerning the coup in Myanmar, two of these actors, i.e. civil society and business, tried to defeat the military’s attempts to control the digital environment.

By Katarina Andjelkovic

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