The FCO sees freedom of expression as an essential element of democracy and human rights. It is fundamental to the democratic process, to good governance and to exposing corruption and human rights violations. It may legitimately be restricted only in certain prescribed circumstances. The Foreign Secretary’s 2012 statement to mark World Press Freedom Day stressed the importance of protecting freedom of expression and the free flow of information and ideas, both online and offline, which the Foreign Secretary sees as “cornerstones of a stable and prosperous society”. In his video message to mark the day, the then FCO Minister Jeremy Browne also drew attention to the importance the British Government attaches to freedom of the media across the world and paid tribute to local journalists and media representatives who put themselves in danger to document human rights violations.
Freedom of expression remained limited in many countries in 2012. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the imprisonment of journalists worldwide reached a record high in 2012, with Turkey, Syria and Eritrea ranking amongst the worst offenders. In Syria, both Syrian and foreign journalists and their offices were targeted by both regime and armed opposition forces. In Eritrea, 28 journalists were imprisoned; none have enjoyed the right to a fair trial or access to a lawyer. The CPJ estimates that by the end of 2012 at least 132 journalists were being held around the world on charges of terrorism, treason and subversion. High-profile events in Azerbaijan, such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the Eurovision Song Contest, shone the spotlight on reports of journalists critical of the government who have been intimidated, beaten or arrested. Media freedom continued to be a particular issue in Tajikistan, where social media and other websites were blocked at various times throughout the year. In Kazakhstan, the Almaty public prosecutor filed lawsuits against nine newspapers, more than 20 Internet publications and two new television channels in November, charging them with inciting social hatred against the state and classifying them as extremist organisations. A series of short trials in December found them guilty and placed a ban on their activities.
The FCO continues to press for existing obligations to be upheld, working both bilaterally and with like-minded governments, UN Special Rapporteurs and through our membership of international organisations.
Bilaterally, we engage directly on freedom of expression with individual countries, raising individual cases where appropriate. In Afghanistan, we are seeking to ensure that Afghan civil society partners are active in the consultation process on the draft media law run by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. The then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, raised concerns about freedom of expression in discussions with Chinese State Councillor Liu Yandong during the UK–China People to People Dialogue on 16 April, highlighting the cases of Ai Weiwei, Chen Wei and Chen Xi. Continuing concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression were raised during human rights dialogues with China in July and September. In Vietnam, we continued to support the development of the media sector through a range of activities, including a workshop aimed at improving the legislation governing official spokespeople. We participated in a dialogue with the government of Ethiopia on the ban on the private use of Skype, which was subsequently repealed. In both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, constraints on media freedom have led to frequent representations to the authorities. Our Embassy in Kazakhstan has funded training programmes for journalists, most recently on criminal justice and prisoners’ rights.
Freedom of expression also remained a priority area for our Human Rights and Democracy Programme. Under this we supported a number of projects including one in India and Sri Lanka to help local civil society build strategic alliances to strengthen freedom of expression on the Internet across the region (subsequently expanded into other countries), and one in Colombia where we supported the implementation of recommendations by the Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression of the UN and the Organisation of American States.
In the international arena we continued our work in the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe to protect the erosion of existing obligations on freedom of expression. At the Human Rights Council in February, then FCO Minister Jeremy Browne highlighted the importance of freedom of expression, citing the tragic deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik while reporting with great bravery from Homs in Syria – a reminder of the risks that journalists take to report the truth. He also condemned the arrest and detention of Mazen Darwish, Director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, and called for his immediate release. Mr Dawish remains in prison and has allegedly been tortured. In June, the UK was among 82 states which supported a resolution affirming that the right to freedom of expression applies online in the same way as it does offline. At the Human Rights Council in July we joined 56 other states in supporting a cross-regional statement on the safety of journalists. In the Second Committee of the UN General Assembly in December, we supported the inclusion of language in a resolution on ICT for Development affirming that freedom of expression and the free flow of information, ideas and knowledge are essential for development in the digital age.
We continued to work closely with the Council of Europe in 2012, including by making freedom of expression on the Internet a priority for our chairmanship of the Council of Ministers (November 2011–May 2012). A new strategy on Internet governance, adopted in March, contains more than 40 action points to protect and promote human rights, the rule of law and democracy online. During the ministerial debate at the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe in May, the Foreign Secretary highlighted the importance of guarding against the growing trend of using the Internet as a means of political repression. The Steering Committee on Media and Information Society (CDMSI) agreed at their November meeting that the elaboration of standards for the protection of journalists was a matter of urgency.
We saw growing evidence in 2012 of states imposing controls over the Internet: pulling the plug at times of political unrest, invading the privacy of net users and criminalising and legislating against legitimate online activity. At the Budapest Cyber Conference in October, the Foreign Secretary gave a keynote speech in which he affirmed that “an open Internet is the only way to support security and prosperity for all”. Our work to support freedom of expression through the Freedom Online Coalition intensified in 2012. This is an international coalition of like-minded states committed to working together through diplomatic channels to end measures which restrict Internet freedom, and to support individuals whose freedom of expression these measures curtail. Its aim is to engage with other governments, regional organisations, international institutions, civil society and other stakeholders such as businesses and academics to reinforce our efforts. Joint action by coalition members included lobbying to raise awareness among other governments about the potential dangers to freedom of expression posed by moves to exert more control over the Internet. In Vietnam, for example, the coalition voiced concern about a draft Internet Regulation Decree, resulting in significant improvements to the legislation. Kenya hosted the 2nd Freedom Online Conference in Nairobi in September, attended by more than 430 delegates. The Internet as a driver of economic development rather than of repression was a key theme. Tunisia joined the coalition and will host the next conference as chairman in 2013. Latvia and Costa Rica also joined in 2012. The coalition also met to agree strategies for supporting freedom online at international meetings, such as those of the Human Rights Council, the OSCE and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT).
The UK will continue to play an active part in this group during 2013 and sees the diverse geographical spread of its members as one of its strengths.
The FCO’s Freedom of Expression on the Internet Expert Group, now chaired by Senior Minister of State Baroness Warsi, continued to meet in 2012. This brings together UK-based experts from NGOs, academia, the media and the business sector, who advise officials on issues surrounding freedom of expression on the Internet. This in turn informs our strategy at international meetings on Internet governance, such as the Internet Governance Forum in Baku in November and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) held in Dubai in December. In March, the group discussed FCO policy objectives in relation to freedom of expression on the Internet; in October they offered advice on a campaign to support online journalists.
Freedom of expression, including on the Internet, will remain a priority for the FCO in 2013. We will engage with a broader range of countries, taking into account concerns they may have about the tension between freedom of expression and issues such as public order or morality, but seeking ways to work together more effectively. The challenge continues to be to reframe the debate firmly around rights rather than restrictions. To do this, we will work bilaterally and with regional organisations such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE, engage with businesses, civil society and states, including more closely with those in the Freedom Online Coalition, support the extension of voluntary principles for business and fund projects to promote and protect freedom of expression.