Free expression under worldwide assault, UN human rights expert warns in new report

Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

20 October 2016 – Warning that the freedom of expression is under the widespread assault, a new United Nations human rights report has found that governments worldwide, wielding the tools of censorship, are “treating words as weapons.”

“Governments are treating words as weapons, adopting vague laws that give officials massive discretion to undermine speech and opinion,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, in a news release about his report to be presented to the UN General Assembly tomorrow in New York.

He said that governments are punishing journalists for their reporting, silencing individuals for posting opinions on social media, shutting down debate and the flow of information on grounds of counter-terrorism, protecting public order, sheltering people from offense.

“The approach that many governments adopt towards freedom of expression today is abusive and unsustainable,” Mr. Kaye stressed. “Governments must not only reverse course, but also take the lead in ensuring its protection.”

“Censorship in all its forms reflects official fear of ideas and information,” the expert noted. “And it not only harms the speaker or reporter or broadcaster, it undermines everyone’s right to information, to public participation, to open and democratic governance.”

The report involved a survey of hundreds of official communications Mr. Kaye has issued to governments, which resulted from allegations of violations of well-established international human rights law received from individuals and non-governmental organizations worldwide. The trend lines are stark, he said.

“I am especially concerned that many governments assert legitimate grounds for restriction, such as protection of national security or public order or the rights of others, as fig leaves to attack unpopular opinion or criticism of government and government officials,” he stated. “Many times governments provide not even the barest demonstration that such restrictions meet the legal tests of necessity and proportionality.”

The Special Rapporteur drew attention to increasing instances where governments assert rationales having no basis in human rights law. “For example, it has become routine for governments to explicitly target political criticism, journalism, and the expression of singled-out groups such as LGBTI communities and artists,” he said.

One of the biggest threats to online expression is the use of Internet ‘kill switches.’ More than a dozen network shutdowns have been recorded in the last year. Internet shutdowns are just one form of digital censorship among many adopted by governments today.

The report noted areas of positive developments as well. The Special Rapporteur welcomed examples where governments, legislatures, and domestic and international courts have taken strong steps to promote freedom of expression or carefully evaluate restrictions.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.


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