Information more important than ever

Freedom of expression critical during a time of crisis

Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix
In recent years, more people have turned to the internet instead of printed newspapers, but information in the digital space is more likely to be unchecked—or even dangerous.

United Nations Human Rights Council

In this time of COVID-19, freedom of expression in the world is more in danger than ever. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, who completed his term at the end of July, explained by videoconference to the press at the Palais des Nations the serious threats to freedom of expression, one of the foundations of democracy.

What follows is a transcription of his remarks, lightly edited for clarity.

Freedom of expression during the pandemic

I think that one of the things we have seen is a very serious problem in the way states around the world have restricted freedom of expression. They have restricted access both to information and to the internet.

I’ll connect that back to the overall trends. Many of these things we have seen in particular regarding pressure on journalists around the world, including restrictions on access to information and restrictions on the internet, are things we have seen repeatedly over the last several years.

My initial hope, going back as far as January, was that individual countries would see that access to information and freedom of expression would be extraordinarily important during a time of public health crisis. The way that people get information about public health is through the internet, through robust public reporting, through the sharing of information, or through one’s own network. Unfortunately, often under the guise of trying to restrict disinformation, governments have been clamping down on the free flow of information, and that has frankly been disturbing, and I think that that has contributed in many places to the spread of the disease.

In my report on freedom of expression and disease pandemics, I discuss the ways in which the World Health Organization (WHO) talks about the importance of information during a public health emergency such as this pandemic. It does not address the issue from the perspective of human rights, but the WHO does say it is essential to have free communication with the public, not to address their fear by shutting them down, but by listening to their concerns, to such issues as disinformation and publicly correcting that. 

This should start with having a real policy and program for disseminating accurate information about the disease. Of course, in the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the disease science has been evolving. Sometimes the things we think we know, we do not know, or where we think we understand how it spreads, it turns out that public experts were wrong. That evolving sense of information also requires governments to be robust in communicating that uncertainty to the public, and they often fail at that.

We have seen how governments’ responses to the pandemic have also been connected to ways in which governments have been increasingly restricting freedom of expression over the last few years.

I would just point to a few trends that I think are most disturbing and should be of concern to people around the world.

The first regards the digital age, which has evolved from something that we only talked about 10 years ago, like a quaint issue. Look at how much information is now being shared online.

It is now clear that the digital space, if it’s not the public square, is clearly a place that is a space of essential importance to freedom of expression, to journalism, to access to information. As that space has developed and become more available to people around the world, we have seen a kind of push back from governments. We have seen new legislation, new laws restricting the sharing of information online. We have seen legislation that has tried to impose penalties on social media and internet companies for the kind of information they host.

We see an increase in hate speech laws. While I completely understand the motivation behind them, they tend to restrict freedom of expression in core ways and are often used against journalists, human rights defenders, or people in the opposition.

One of the major trends that we have seen over the years has been the increasing pressure put on people in the digital space, obviously people in the human rights community, and my successor will continue to pay attention to it. It is certainly something where, as I look back over the last six years, I see increasing pressure and, I think, very problematic approaches in law and practice. 

The second area is the continuing failure of governments to hold perpetrators accountable for attacks on journalists—an attack on many levels. On the one hand, you see increasingly physical attacks on journalists. We have seen it in places like Mexico, Malta, Syria, and many other places. We see very little accountability of these attacks. The signature case is Saudi Arabia’s murder of [dissident author and journalist] Jamal Khashoggi. That particular case highlights not only a failure of accountability but also a failure of the international community to take steps to deal with the very serious problem of a state at its very highest levels ordering and committing the murder of one of its own citizens.

So, the impunity for the attacks on journalists has been extremely depressing for everybody to see and deeply problematic, particularly because so many human rights mechanisms, human rights defenders and others, even governments, have been calling out this problem and identifying ways to address it.

The other problem related to that is obviously the disparagement of the media around the world. This includes President Donald Trump, who calls independent media the enemy of the people, but it goes across an entire range of threats and intimidation of independent media. We see increasing pressures against these media.

Of course, there will be many other issues that my successor will address over the coming years, but I will suggest what those might be.

Freedom of expression in the United States beyond COVID-19

I think clearly the kind of signature issue over the past almost four years has been the way in which this particular president addresses the media and the way he disparages the media and freedom of expression. You might recall that very early on, Trump suggested opening up United States libel laws as a way of intimidating journalists into thinking that the laws might change, so that public figures could bring lawsuits against them.

Initially, many of us thought that there would be constraints on the president, because the American system is one that has zealously protected freedom of expression. But I think these countervailing institutions have been shown to be weaker than we thought in the face of a kind of onslaught from the White House, both in terms of attacking the media and in terms of the regular disinformation that comes from this White House. And frankly, to that can be added the kind of partnerships that he has had with certain news outlets like Fox News and One American News Network, as well as the limitation of press briefings up to very recently. All of this has had an effect.

I think journalists have, at the very highest levels and from the top of the mass on down, really struggled to figure out how to cover the disinformation coming from the White House. I think the big question looking forward is freedom and a free press, both of which are protected against government interference under the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. Are they under serious long-term threat, or will this kind of administration turn out to be a kind of hiccup over time? I cannot really answer that question. My hope is that the attacks on the press will end with the next administration. I can only hope that the tools used by Trump will be considered useless by the next president.

David Kaye was the United Nations special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression between August 2014 and July 2020. He is clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, on public international law, international humanitarian law human rights and international criminal justice. Irene Khan succeeded him in July 2020.

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.