The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and his regional counterparts – the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)Representative on Freedom of the Media; the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, on July 10, 2019, released their 20th Anniversary Joint Declaration in London.
Titled: “Challenges to Freedom of Expression in the Next Decade,” the Declaration highlights the challenges that freedom of expression is expected to face over the next decade.
The Special Rapporteurs said they were: “Alarmed by the ongoing violence against and prosecution of journalists, right to information activists, human rights defenders and others for exercising their right to freedom of expression, as well as the fact that impunity for killings and attacks prevails.”
They welcome “the significant contributions that digital technologies have made to expanding global communications and the possibility for people everywhere to access information and ideas and to speak and be heard, while noting the continuing imperative of providing universal and affordable access to the Internet.”
The Mandates also acknowledged “the need to address, within the framework of international human rights law, serious problems that arise in the context of digital technologies, including disinformation; incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence; terrorist recruitment and propaganda; arbitrary and unlawful surveillance; interference with the use of encryption and anonymity technologies; and the power of online intermediaries”
They express “concern about the on-going and deepening threats to media diversity and independence as a result, among other things, of a significant reduction in advertising revenues for legacy media, undermining news production and especially local and investigative journalism; increased concentration of media ownership; political control over and insufficient financial allocations to public service media; a failure to develop community broadcasting sufficiently ; and on-going attempts to exert control over the private media, including through regulation.”
According to the Special Rapporteurs, they also denounced “the continued prevalence of undue legal restrictions on online expression and their abusive application, and stressing the importance of States respecting the obligations set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights when imposing restrictions on freedom of expression, which include ensuring that any restriction is necessary and proportionate, and the availability of independent judicial oversight over the application of these restrictions.” Therefore they made various recommendations broadly divided into three sections.
The first section, on an enabling environment, focuses on both traditional threats – such as safety, excessive content restrictions, maintaining media diversity and the need for independent, accountable regulators – as well as some more modern ones – such as the dominance of online companies in terms of advertising, the need for States to respect human rights when seeking to influence major online intermediaries, restrictions on encryption and anonymity tools, and the growth in surveillance.
The next section, on a free, open and inclusive Internet, looks at issues such as ensuring universal, affordable, quality Internet access, disruptions and shutdowns, network neutrality and State actions that fragment the Internet.
The last section examines the threat of private control over digital communications systems. It called for independent multi-stakeholder oversight of the application of private content rules and regulatory measures to address business models which foster disinformation and hate speech, company responsibilities to respect human rights, transparency in algorithmic and artificial intelligence moderation of content, and effective measures to address concentration of ownership and abuses of dominant market positions.