Freedom of expression, association and assembly

Healthy democracies are about more than
just casting a vote every few years. For democracy to truly flourish, people need to be able to debate issues and exchange ideas freely – to form associations and groups on shared interests, and to challenge power through protest and demonstration. These activities are broadly covered by
three human rights – the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly. As we’ve shown in previous videos, the digital age has transformed the ways
in which we can realise these rights – in both good and bad ways. Peer-to-peer networking has created new,
freer means of exchanging information and content. And social media has made
organising people easier than ever. But these opportunities have not gone
unnoticed by governments – and some are now seeking to close off these opportunities. At the end of this video you should understand: how the digital age is affecting freedom of expression, assembly and association; who the relevant actors are, where they operate; and how to effectively engage with them. Freedom of expression, assembly and
association are all protected in international and regional human rights treaties. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold
opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and
ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” These last three words are
particularly important in the digital age – where communications are
increasingly cross-border, and the platforms we use to communicate are based
in different jurisdictions. Article 20 of the UDHR is similarly unequivocal.
It states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” But it’s important to note that, while protected, none of these rights are absolute. They can all be legitimately restricted on the grounds
of national security, public order and to protect the rights and freedoms of others. Restrictions – both legitimate and
illegitimate – are common. But the importance of these rights in enabling
democracy is also widely accepted. The right to freedom of expression in
particular is often strongly protected in national laws and constitutions, and
restrictions on it frequently attract media scrutiny. It’s hard to overstate the importance of these rights. They’re crucial, of course, in their own right – self-expression is a basic human impulse. But they also enable other rights. What does the freedom to form an opinion
mean if there’s nowhere to express it? On a practical level they are important
for good governance, society and the economy. Without them, there is no
innovation and no accountability. The internet has in many respects helped
to realise and strengthen these rights. As a communications platform, it has given
marginalised groups a voice which older technologies – like television, radio and
newspapers – often denied them. It is also given these groups a safer
means of organising themselves. But there are also instances where the internet is
being used for harmful activities – from online fraud and child abuse, to
harassment and incitement. Any human rights defender would accept the need to
tackle these threats. The problem is that efforts to limit
such activities can often take the form of censorship, surveillance and closure. Such measures threaten the very characteristics that make the internet such a powerful enabler of human rights – its openness and potential for anonymity. That’s why human rights defenders need
to fight for digital policies which are balanced, proportionate, evidence-based –
and grounded in human rights principles. As with other rights, national and
regional courts have a crucial role in protecting the rights to freedom of
expression, assembly and association. The UN’s Human Rights Council and
Special Rapporteurs are also important. The Special Rapporteur for freedom of
expression, for example, regularly seeks input from a range of stakeholders and
forwards their findings to all UN member states. Of course, it is also important to hold governments accountable for respecting these rights. In cases where this is difficult at the national level, going through bilateral and multilateral
diplomatic channels is also an option. For example, you can engage with
government representatives in policy forums like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
and RightsCon. Apart from that, there are many civil
society initiatives worldwide committed to supporting these rights including: Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), AccessNow, BytesForAll, Social Media Exchange, Amnesty International – as well as transparency
and evidence gathering initiatives like or the Open Observatory of Network Interference. Businesses are an important part of this
ecosystem too – and their roles within it can be fluid. Sometimes, tech companies like Facebook or Google can act as censors of content. Here, pressure and criticism from
human rights defenders is vital. At other times, however, they may themselves
be the victims of censorship or blocking. Or they may stand alongside
civil society in opposing state measures, as some Silicon Valley companies did
when the controversial Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (Cisa) was introduced in 2015 in the US. We’ve looked at what these rights mean
in the digital age, why they’re important, where they’re
discussed and who the key actors are. Now let’s look at a few real life case studies You’ve probably heard of many examples
of states infringing these rights. One of the most well-known is China’s
Golden Shield Project, nicknamed the Great Firewall of China. On a technical level, this blocks all incoming content from foreign sources that the government believes to be subversive. The government also has laws in place to arrest citizens who express dissent both online and offline. While this is an extreme example, recent developments in France show how similar measures can be introduced in a democratic state. In 2015, the French government passed a
controversial internet censorship law in response to attacks in Paris. Among other things, the law allows authorities to delist websites they think “incite or endorse terrorism”, and to dissolve groups of people deemed to be “endangering the public order”. Some fear that its vague wording could be used to criminalise legitimate forms of association and assembly, both online and offline. In some cases, censorship measures like
this can be circumvented with the help of tools like VPNs or anonymity networks
like Tor. But it is just as important for human rights defenders to bring public attention to these violations by gathering evidence, sharing stories and
coordinating advocacy. But it’s not only states that violate these rights. In response to pressure from governments, and sometimes their own users, some companies are now acting as judges
of appropriate online behavior. In early 2016, Twitter set up its “Trust
and Safety Council”, a body tasked with curbing abuse and harassment on the platform. The council is composed of civil society
organizations specially selected by Twitter, and there is little transparency
about its role or remit. Facebook has faced criticism from
different sides for its handling of these issues. On one side, it has been accused
of inaction over hate speech on its platform. On the other, it has been criticised for complying with state requests to remove content and block groups. But it’s important to remember that these companies also provide crucial tools for assembly and association. Take the Arab uprisings and the Umbrella revolution in Hong Kong, for example. There, social media played a crucial role in organising demonstrations. So the role of companies for the realisation of democratic rights is rarely fixed, or black and white. It’s complicated, and demands close
attention from human rights defenders. Civil society groups have a crucial role
in promoting freedom of expression, association and assembly nationally,
regionally and in relevant global forums. Advocacy arguments should be based not
just on the principle of human rights but on the practical advantages of these rights – like encouraging and enabling business environment, fighting corruption, and improving governance. Where violations happen, it’s crucial that human rights defenders monitor, record and document them. The media is one of the primary
beneficiaries of free expression and therefore an important potential ally in
cases where these rights are under threat. Media reports drive public discourse and
can help raise awareness among the wider population. And while no one would argue
that these rights are absolute, where restrictions are applied, human rights
defenders should be arguing strongly for due process – so that any restrictions have judicial oversight and aren’t just executive decisions. In the next video we’ll explore the ongoing debate about the right to access – which is currently
not enshrined in international human rights law.

1 thought on “Freedom of expression, association and assembly

  • Cathleen Berger, Aditi Gupta, Jonathan Jacobs ..Kudos ! Just out of curiosity, what kind of software are you using to edit and publish such explicit contents ? @dobe ? Please any help will be appreciated and welcomed as I am willing to start some educative videos on the privacy management over the internet ( in french)

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