From the UN: Freedom of Expression
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld
IHEU and the National Ethical Service of the AEU
representative to the UN
Dr. Reba Goodman,
member of BECS and
Department of Pathology at Columbia University
Repressive regimes are intent on controlling the dissemination of information, including control of the journalists who collect news. These regimes use a variety of repressive tactics to maintain control of information and suppress its use. With the worldwide use of the internet, it is becoming more and more difficult for authoritarian regimes to hide and suppress their crimes from the public. The Chinese government has responded to the increase in internet use for spreading news by increasing internet censorship: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are all blocked. It is apparent that the Chinese government is threatened by overseas news and social media sites. In Beijing a naturalized American citizen was abducted and questioned for 21 hours about his blogging activities and searched for the password for his Twitter account.
The electronic genie is out of the bottle and a digital arms race is defining the control and dissemination of news throughout the world. Firewalls are not the only form of censorship. Increasingly, the press is silenced by other tactics including imprisonment and murder. In Iran, for example, constant intimidation is produced by the use of the "revolving door" where some detainees are freed but are at the same time required to post exorbitant bail, followed in turn by re-arrest. Anti-state charges such as treason, acting against the national interest, are a commonly made charge against journalists.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ, www.cpj.org
) at least 79 journalists were held on such charges in 2011. In Cuba, government authorities continue to detain reporters and editors on a short term basis as a form of harassment. In Egypt, Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org
) has shown that free expression has deteriorated over the past year following the Arab Spring. Punishments for protesters attempting to employ freedom of expression include military trials of protesters and bloggers, interrogation of journalists for criticizing the military regime, and the suspension of satellite TV licenses.
The number of journalists imprisoned has increased more than 20 percent since the mid-1990s. In its annual census of imprisoned journalists, CPJ has identified 179 writers, editors and photojournalists. Iran is one of the worst offenders with 42 journalists behind bars. More freelancers are being used as international news organizations reduce their budgets. Currently, 78 freelancers have been imprisoned worldwide. Freelancers are especially vulnerable to imprisonment because they do not have the legal and monetary support that news organizations can provide staffers.
For many years the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of 57 Islamic states, have promoted resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly to "combat defamation of religion" which is, in effect, the notorious laws against blasphemy or "religious insult" that call for restrictions on what people can say or write about religion. The good news is that last year the UN affirmed freedom of speech under international law. This affirmation states that restricting blasphemy, as such, is incompatible with universal human rights standards. Blasphemy laws and punishment are harsh. A recent example of this took place in Malaysia where a Saudi journalist was deported to his home country to face arrest and possibly death for apostasy after writing about the prophet Muhammed.
According to Freedom House only one out of six people live in a country designated as free which is defined as having access to a free and independent press (www.freedomhouse.org
). Freedom of expression is a vital moral issue connected to human rights and recognized in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN celebrates Press Freedom Day every year and monitors and promotes freedom of the press.
Free speech is essential and a precious right. We need information to make decisions. What we don't know can hurt us.