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The poor luck of the censors

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

During the course of my work on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, I have more than once, rather controversially, wished those who hope to restrict free expression on the internet “all the very worst luck in the world.” I had cause to do so again on two recent occasions.

This has not been a popular position to adopt, especially in our authoritarian Caribbean spaces. The very suggestion that censorship through legislation in the modern age is a non-starter attracts scepticism and a measure of derision.

It is very hard to convince people from our cultures that we cannot regulate ourselves out of danger.

So, let’s see what we are really dealing with. Every 60 minutes, more than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube and 4.9 billion videos are viewed on a daily basis.

In T&T, more than half the population has a Facebook account and contribute to the over 300 million Facebook posts per day worldwide.

Over at Instagram, almost nine million photos and videos are shared on a daily basis. At Twitter, 350,000 tweets per minute have the potential to reach over 330 million active Twitter users.

So, those with an interest in censorship ask a critical question: “Where do we start?” On the evidence, they start with people whose points of view are most hostile to the powerful.

Don’t get me wrong, none of this is meant to suggest that existing laws on defamation, privacy and public order ought to be diminished in influence and applicability. We all agree that even as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to freedom of expression, it goes on to prescribe acceptable duties and responsibilities.

Additionally, many fail to realise that the virtual space is not exempt from laws to protect other rights and that there have been numerous successful instances in which litigants have been able to secure redress.

This also does not eliminate the prospect of abuse through what some describe as “post-truth” campaigns and the now fashionably described “fake news” phenomenon which is in effect the new world manifestation of old-fashioned propaganda and the promotion of falsehoods for partisan or defamatory purposes.

We all know the shady websites and Facebook pages. In some instances, diligent folks have outed the culprits. It’s not always as hard as all that. There is an online news service. We don’t know who runs it.

Who are the “reporters” and who are the “editors.” There is a pattern to the non-hard news components. Yes, the traffic accidents are reported. But check the other stories and the platform provided for a certain kind of opinion. Easy pickings.

My contribution to the recent UNESCO Media and Information Literacy conference in Jamaica challenged authorities to come up with ways to address this growing problem in a manner that is compliant with the principle of free speech and which does not foolishly focus on mechanisms to impose regimes of censorship. You know why? Because such interventions are doomed to failure even before they start. Note the statistics cited above. The focus has to be on more enlightened consumers of news and information.

Then, to their credit, hemispheric parliamentarians from 19 countries at a ParlAmericans Assembly in Colombia last week appeared to concur in spirit. I was there and spoke on ways to facilitate smoother relations with the media while observing their right to report freely.

Though “some forms of fake news have real effects on the human rights of individuals and communities, and can instigate hostility, discrimination, and violence, particularly against women and other traditionally marginalised groups,” they declared, “it is crucial to safeguard the rights to information and free expression as core principles of the Rule of Law, understanding that the aforementioned facts cannot be an incentive to restrict free speech nor to suppress dissent.”

I scanned the room for the Caribbean delegates. T&T wasn’t there. Let’s now see how this pans out.


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