The Deputy Director General of the United Nations Organization Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Mr. Getachew Engida, has endorsed the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which was launched at the ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Declaration which was presented by Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), aims to galvanize a movement in support of an Internet environment which is accessible, locally relevant and which supports development.
According to the coalition of civil society organizations, which promoted the Declaration, “The development of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms is a Pan-African initiative to promote human rights standards and principles of openness in internet policy formulation and implementation on the continent. The Declaration is intended to elaborate on the principles which are necessary to uphold human and people’s rights on the internet, and to cultivate an internet environment that can best meet Africa’s social and economic development needs and goals.”
The Declaration builds on well-established African human rights documents including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981, the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press of 1991, the African Charter on Broadcasting of 2001, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa of 2002, and the African Platform on Access to Information Declaration of 2011.
The promoters explained in a statement ahead of the launch of the Declaration that “The idea for an African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms was agreed at the 2013 African Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. A broader meeting was subsequently convened in Johannesburg in February 2014 to commence drafting the Declaration.”
The Johannesburg meeting in February was attended by participants from the Africa Centre for Open Governance; Article 19; the Association for Progressive Communications; CIVICUS; Collaboration on Internet ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa; the Commission on Human Rights and Good Governance; DotAfrica; Eduardo Mondlane University; Global Partners Digital; The Institute for Social Accountability; Internet Society Ghana; Kenya Human Rights Commission; Kictanet; the Media Foundation for West Africa; the Media Institute of Southern Africa; Media Rights Agenda; Paradigm Initiative Nigeria; Protégé QV; the South African Human Rights Commission; Support for Information Technology; and Web We Want.
A smaller Drafter’s Group, led by MRA’s Executive Director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, developed the text of the Declaration based on feedback from the wider group, from an online public consultation, and from many eminent individuals and organisations from a range of African and international actors and institutions.
Speaking at the launch event in Istanbul, UNESCO’s Deputy Director-General congratulated the promoters of the Declaration on the launch, saying: “UNESCO sees the Declaration as a significant normative achievement for the African continent – and beyond.”
He described the Declaration as “a significant milestone that follows various statements in which UNESCO had some involvement”, including the 1993 Windhoek Declaration, the 2001 African Charter on Broadcasting, the 2002 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, and the 2001 African Platform on Access to Information.
Mr. Engida said he was pleased that the Declaration mirrors the principles of “Internet Universality” identified by UNESCO.
Explaining the principles, he said: “By this, we mean that for the Internet to be truly universal, it should respect four principles.”
The first principle, according to him, is the promotion of human rights, meaning that fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and privacy must be respected equally online and offline.
Mr. Engida said the second principle is Openness, while the third is Accessibility, which goes beyond technical access, and covers social inclusion. The final principle is Multi-stakeholder Participation.
He explained that the four principles are called the “R.O.A.M” approach, namely: rights, openness, accessibility, and multi-stakeholder.
Mr. Engida said UNESCO was also pleased to see other important aspects highlighted in the Declaration which parallel its own work, including looking at the role of internet intermediaries and technical community, the importance of gender equality, journalism and citizen reporting, open access to education resources online, as well as Media and Information Literacy.
He described the Declaration as a direct contribution to UNESCO’s work to build inclusive knowledge societies in Africa, adding: “Now, we need to translate this Declaration into practice, and ensure rights become a reality for all.”
A first step, according to him, is to build new capacities and new literacies adapted to the information age, which should start “on the benches of schools, and it is one of the purposes of UNESCO’s work to promote Media and Information Literacy, including literacy about rights and principles for the Internet as relevant to each regional context.”
Mr. Engida said a second step is to combat the digital divide, and to make sure that the “Internet becomes a driver and enabler of sustainable development in Africa, and not an additional burden on top of existing inequalities.”
This, he said, calls for African governments to adopt appropriate policies for connectivity, for the integration of media and information literacy in schools, for promotion of local languages and local content online.
The Deputy Director General identified the third step as the “need to make a reality of the right to use freedom of expression safely, online as offline.”
This, he said, is a direct link to the UN Plan of Action for the protection of journalists, spearheaded by UNESCO, adding that in that spirit, UNESCO welcomed the call to integrate the Declaration into its “Priority Africa” strategies.
Mr. Engida announced that UNESCO is also conducting a consultative Internet study mandated by UNESCO’s 195 Member States, which is on Internet-related issues, including access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and ethical dimensions of the information society.
He said: “I am sure this Declaration will be a valuable input to our study, and I invite you all to participate in UNESCO’s multi-stakeholder conference to discuss the first draft of the Internet Study.”
The Conference is scheduled to take place on March 3 and 4, 2015 at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France.
Mr. Engida expressed confidence that “these discussions will contribute to the post-2015 development agenda and on the next phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, to make sure internet rights and freedoms are integrated in any development strategies,” stressing “This is the commitment of UNESCO.”