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Governments and Powers-That-Be Fear the Internet

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Jun 6 2011 (IPS) - The global reach of the internet, and its ability to transmit information in real time and mobilise populations, creates fear among governments and the powerful, says Frank La Rue, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

This has led to increasing restrictions on the use of the internet, by means of sophisticated technologies to block content, and to monitor and identify activists and critics, as well as to the criminalisation of legitimate forms of expression, says La Rue, a Guatemalan human rights lawyer.

During the presentation of his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council Jun. 3, La Rue mentioned information filtering systems used in China that block access to websites containing key words such as “democracy” and “human rights.”

Full access to contents means plurality and diversity when receiving or disseminating information through the internet. It also means a complete absence of censorship, the expert said.

The strength of the internet and the popular uprisings in recent months in North Africa and the Middle East, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, “scares politicians,” he told a press conference.

The special rapporteur stated that these uprisings were not “internet revolutions, but revolutions by the people of Tunisia and the people of Egypt, using internet.”


“So it depends on the population of a nation to change their style of government and development, but it is very clear that with internet, they have a faster means of denouncing human rights violations, struggling against impunity and letting the world know what is happening in real time,” he said.

On a visit to Algeria, La Rue told the government and experts he was convinced that the countries of the region must not neglect recognition of young peoples’ aspirations, including more freedom, more participation, and being heard.

They also want more jobs. Education levels in the region are higher than employment levels, and it is very frustrating for young women and men who have studied for a large part of their lives to find themselves empty-handed, the expert said.

This is “the moment to listen to young people and their demands, but also to give them the space to express themselves,” he stressed.

The internet has become a crucial instrument to facilitate human rights and citizen participation, and therefore it is fundamental for building and strengthening democracy, he added.

La Rue described another form of censorship: the use of criminal law, as in South Korea, where defamation is a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison.

The internet as a means to exercise the right to free expression can only serve its purpose if states develop effective policies to attain universal access to this service, the special rapporteur said.

Without concrete policies and action plans, the internet will become a technological tool that is accessible only to a certain élite, while perpetuating the “digital divide,” La Rue said.

Internet user statistics reflect this imbalance. In contrast to 71.6 internet users per 100 inhabitants in industrialised countries, there are only 21.1 users per 100 inhabitants in developing nations. This disparity is starker in Africa, with only 9.6 users per 100 inhabitants, La Rue said.

The expert said he would devote a special study to internet access in the report he is to present to the next U.N. General Assembly, which meets in September.

The Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 by the U.N. member states aim to halve the proportion of people suffering from extreme poverty and hunger, from 1990 levels, guarantee universal primary education, promote gender equality and reduce infant and maternal mortality, among other targets to be met by 2015..

La Rue pointed out they also include the goal of expanding the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication technologies.

Among the initiatives in this field is the “One Laptop per Child” project, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

La Rue congratulated Uruguay for distributing computers to the entire primary school population through this project, implemented since 2007 and known in the South American country as “Plan Ceibal”.

And in Rwanda, over 56,000 laptops have been distributed to schoolchildren, with plans for the figure to reach 100,000 by June 2011, La Rue added.

La Rue told IPS he views the concentration of media in too few hands as a threat to freedom of expression, which must be based on diversity and pluralism, he said.

People have the right to construct their own thoughts and develop their own opinions, but to do so they need diverse information, from different points of view and with different characteristics, he said.

“In Latin America we made a historical mistake when we allowed over-commercialisation of the media,” he said. “It’s true that commercial media play an important role, but they should not be the only ones. In my view, it’s important that there be commercial media, community media and public service media, so that there is diversity.”

 
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