Get tough with those who suppress free expression, CWA Canada leader tells social media conference

Martin O'Hanlon at social media conference Martin O'Hanlon addresses the social media conference held in Doha, Qatar.

A two-day international conference — Social Media: Challenges and Ways to Promote Freedoms and Protect Activists — that wrapped up Monday in Doha, Qatar, drew more than 250 participants ranging from human rights organizations to media and technology workers, including CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon.

He spoke about opportunities and dangers for journalists in this presentation to the Interactive Plenary Debate: Identification of future activities to broaden civic space in the social media.

* * *

I am a journalist. So, in terms of our topic here – broadening the civic space in social media – I will come at it from the perspective of journalism: the vital role of the media in democracy and how important it is to protect and foster freedom of the press in the digital realm.

Specifically, I want to focus on the importance of protecting and expanding the ability of journalists to use social media safely and without hindrance from governments, criminals, trolls or other parties.

As I’m fond of saying: As journalism goes, so goes democracy.

There have been some excellent presentations over these two days and I think all the issues and problems have been well identified so I will try not to be too repetitive other than to relate it to the specific circumstance of journalists.

Identifying the problems is the easy part. Finding solutions is the challenge and that’s largely why we’re here. I will offer a few suggestions that I think can help. And news flash: it involves public pressure, using social media against itself, responsible, transparent rules and legislation, and embarrassing and punishing bad actors.

Before I get to my main points, I think it’s important to note how we got here and how quickly things are changing.

When I started work as a journalist in 1988, the Internet was just getting started. There was no social media. In fact, it’s really just the last 10 to 15 years that the social media revolution has taken place. And it has been a revolution, radically changing the way people access and share news and making a huge impact on our society.

For one thing, we in the traditional media have largely lost our role as news gatekeepers because there are now far too many gates to keep. Most people now hear of breaking news through social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

The social media revolution has created opportunities for traditional media:

  • People are looking for trusted news sources in the fake news era.
  • Access to a bigger audience than ever.
  • Access to more sources and information than ever.

But there are many new dangers:

  • Journalists are easily identified and located by hostile governments, criminal groups, trolls, and dangerous individuals.
  • It is easy for governments to shut down access to social media.
  • There is a huge increase in threats and harassment because it now involves just the click of a button.
  • The proliferation of radical and fake news accounts. Some start up out of nowhere and within days or weeks get far more views and followers than major mainstream news companies.

In a day and age when billions of people get their news from social media, it is vital that journalists and trusted news sources are protected and encouraged.

Sadly, freedom of expression is under serious threat around the globe.

There are four main ways in which governments and others attack freedom of the press and diminish the civic space:

  • Violence and intimidation: Each year, dozens of journalists are killed and hundreds are imprisoned. Thousands of others are attacked, threatened or harassed by governments, police, businesses, terrorists or crime gangs.
  • Blocking communication: We’ve long watched governments restricting what journalists can report. But now, many serial offenders are using technology to block and monitor the sharing of information on social media. China has been one of the most aggressive and successful governments at this, but most authoritarian regimes are now using similar tactics with one of the most recent examples being the government crackdown on social media during the protests in Iran. Blocking the ability of citizens to communicate and to share information and ideas on the Internet is a fundamental attack on our human rights and our democratic rights, and we must condemn it and do what we can to fight it.
  • Surveillance: Internet surveillance is perhaps the most common practice used by governments. At best, it is used to catch criminals and terrorists, but in many countries, police or intelligence services monitor posts for any anti-government sentiment and then harass or arrest people. Such surveillance has resulted in arrests in dozens of countries including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, to name just a few.
  • Legislation: A growing number of countries, most recently Turkey, have laws making it a crime to insult the leader of the country. That is a ploy to block political criticism and it is undemocratic and unjust. Many countries also have strict rules that make it a crime to have honest, intellectual discussions about important matters like politics, religion and sexuality. In most of the world, you are taking a big risk by criticizing the government online, questioning a predominant religion or god, or challenging discrimination on the basis of sexuality. And, ironically, fake news laws – which should be intended to block disinformation for the good of democracy – are another dangerous development, used to justify the arrest of people who post anything negative about the government.
  • Online harassment: Another disturbing trend we are seeing in the media industry is online threats and harassment, especially of women journalists, as well as hacking and cyber attacks, including phishing. Mostly it’s online trolls, but it also involves anonymous threats backed by bad politicians, criminal groups, or corrupt businessmen. If journalists don’t feel safe to speak the truth on social media, what will it mean for our democratic systems? It means important stories go untold, leaders are unaccountable, corruption is not exposed, and fake news and poor journalism proliferate.

These are the problems, so what are the solutions?

I see four key solutions:

  • Enforcing current laws and creating new ones.
  • Public pressure campaigns.
  • Using social media against itself.
  • Sanctions against bad actors.

In terms of the law, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Authorities can and should apply current rules and laws, for example in regard to libel and hate speech. Where new laws are necessary, we must be careful. As Dr. Ali and others have noted, the key is finding the balance between stopping things like disinformation and hate speech while protecting freedom of speech. And I would suggest that, if we are going to err, let’s err on the side of freedom of expression. It is vital that rules on internet and social media content must not restrict legitimate freedom of expression and there should be clear international guidelines for what is and is not acceptable.

Short of enforcing laws, pressure campaigns can yield results. We must publicly call out governments and bad actors to embarrass them into behaving better. We need to rally the public to hold government to account and that requires educating people.

Ironically, we can use social media to educate and rally the public and expand the civic space by sharing information about disinformation and hate.

And lastly, it is vital that progressive, responsible governments speak out publicly whenever freedom of expression is under attack, that they pressure offenders diplomatically to do better, and punish the worst offenders through economic sanctions if necessary. And I would suggest those sanctions should be on specific officials, not just governments. Block key politicians and officials from travelling abroad and seize their foreign assets and see how quickly things change.

As I close, I want to mention one concrete effort being made by the International Federation of Journalists – the campaign for a Convention on the Safety of Journalists and Media Professionals. This would provide a codification of all international rules that apply to journalists in one instrument, bringing together both human rights and humanitarian law provisions. Please acquaint yourself with it and do what you can to support it.

Martin O’Hanlon
President, CWA Canada

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