Conference report 'freedom of the media online'

By EDRi · September 9, 2004

On 27 and 28 August 2004, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Mr Miklos Haraszti, organised a conference on ‘freedom of the media online’ in the Amsterdam city hall.

Two panels focussed on the problematic definition of harmful content and self-regulation. Yaman Akdeniz (director of the UK NGO Cyberrights), Sandy Starr (editor of the e-zine Spiked) and Matthew Berry, senior counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice all gave strong arguments against global regulation of hatespeech, as suggested by the additional protocol to the Cybercrime Convention (signed by 23 countries, amongst which 15 EU member states, and only just ratified by Slovenia on 8 September 2004).

Akdeniz concentrated on the different cultural and legal definitions of what is harmful and what is considered illegal, while Starr gave a passionate plea that free speech is not divisible. “You cannot uphold free speech as a historic achievement of the enlightenment and simultaneously call for suppression of hate speech.” According to Starr, politicians are overly keen on creating ‘big angst over hatespeech’. This results in a very negative argument to vote, namely to keep the extreme right-wing parties out, in stead of a positive incentive to participate. This kind of electoral black-mail happened both during the French presidential elections and during the vote for the European Parliament in 2004. Starr ended his talk with 4 recommendations, not to confuse action with words, not to confuse emotions with ideas, not to panic, and finally, not to patronise the public.

Berry added the US fiercely oppose the protocol on hatespeech. “Once you entrust government with censorship, history teaches us the free speech rights of all individuals are endangered, including the political left and all sorts of minorities.”

Though none of the panels was devoted to post 9/11 censorship and surveillance, the theme often recurred in discussions with the speakers. A representative from the OSCE Bureau on Terrorism suggested that civil rights may be important, but security is even more important, and we shouldn’t object to measures infringing on privacy and freedom of communication. Many participants answered in outrage, varying from a representative of the European provider association to a representative from Article 19, the global campaign for free expression. They all pointed to the difference between systematic surveillance of all citizens and specific investigations, and said the whole purpose of fundamental rights is they cannot be set aside in times of turmoil.

Conference website with papers from speakers (27/28-08-2004)

Cybercrime convention additional protocol – chart of signatures