Panel Discussion on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Expression on the Internet

On February 29th, 2012, the Human Rights Council held the first ever panel discussion of freedom of expression on the internet.  There were some complaints before the discussion even got under way that the panel was being moderated by an Al-Jazeera English journalist rather than the president or vice-president of the Council (according to UN protocol, they said) and admonitions that the United Nations  is “not a TV talk show.” 

Such complaints, which appeared purely technical on the surface, seemed to aptly limn the conflict underlying the following debate: on the one hand, the demand for freedom of expression with the least amount of restriction possible and on the other, a more wary and guarded view according to which unlimited freedom of expression is perceived as a danger to social stability and the legitimate state.  Special Rapporteur Mr. La Rue, who was brilliant in his lucid explication of what exactly was at stake in this issue, stressed more than once the self-evident simplicity of the concept that preexisting human rights for freedom of expression and opinion that exist offline – such as in the written press – should apply in exactly the same manner online.  As a consequent of this, he tried to logically reassure those skeptical that just as it is with regards to the written press, that there were legitimate instances in which material could be removed if international standards were violated, such as in the case of advocating genocide or child pornography.  He decried national laws being misused to limit the use of the internet and to arbitrarily arrest citizen journalists, who are usually human rights defenders working to expose violations committed by the State.  No longer sidestepping the issue that remained unspoken throughout the whole debate, Mr. La Rue stated in conclusion that censorship is ultimately a tool most always used by oppressive political wills who have no interest in a dialogue to silence all opposition and dissension. He and other panelists called for sanctions that do not hinder the use of the internet and freedom of expression and unequivocally warned that restricting internet access is tantamount to restricting the possibility of a society to develop, citing an established link between internet connectivity and socioeconomic development.