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Freedom of Expression Part 4: Censorship, COVID-19, the Media and Assault on Freedom of Expression

As I write this, it is World Holocaust Day, 27th January 2021, a memorial of the atrocious events that shocked and outraged the conscience of humanity and gave birth to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the year that Holocaust victims majority of whom were Jews re-established the nation of Israel. Most of us can never begin to imagine the extent of the atrocities but relive the experiences through movies or documentaries, including but not limited to Spielberg’s 1993 Schindler’s List, Son of Saul, Europa Europa, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Secret Lives: Hidden Children and their Rescuers During WWII. I am also reminded of visits to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and in particular the Propaganda section. Lest we forget, incitement to hate a particular people was propagated through the media when state broadcasting units fuelled and created a culture and environment conducive to the movement to extinguish Jews through the Holocaust where the majority thought it was a righteous act to extinguish an entire race but with the passage of time, remorse, shame, repentance, forgiveness and a semblance of peace and justice.

As I am sat perched on my chair, with a mug of coffee in hand, on this wintry night, I am also reminded of being in Paris in 2018 on the 100th Anniversary of World Armistice Day, where over 60 Heads of State including the past President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Russia’s Vladimir Putin joined the French President Emmanuel Macron to reflect on lessons from the Armistice and the state of world peace. The Armistice did not mean peace as there were appalling wars that ensued for several years. Even a few days after the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice Day, there were protests in France against fuel taxes and marches by the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets).

On 12th November 2018, one day after the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice in Paris as the world gathered for the first edition of the Paris Peace Conference that week, the 13th United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was also in session in Paris where my colleagues and I had organized a Main Session which I chaired, titled “Media as a Cornerstone for Peace, Assault on Media Freedom as a Cornerstone for Peace, Assault on Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” watch the session or view the transcripts here. The decade before had witnessed the Arab Spring, conflicts, imprisonment of journalists and attacks on media freedoms in certain regimes and in Western Democratic countries, emergence of fake news, media losing credibility, capture of media by some corporates.

The Main Session featured global experts who were actively monitoring the pulse of media, assault on freedom of expression and media freedoms and conflicts. It featured experts such as Professor Luz Estella Nagle, former Judge in Colombia who confronted drug lords and corruption in Colombia of Stetson University College of Law, Professor Rasha Abdullah from the American University in Egypt and expert in journalism and author of the Internet in Egypt and the Arab World, Mr. Giacomo Mazzone, Head of Institutional Relations of the European Broadcasting Network Union, Facebook India’s Ankhi Dass, Pakistan’s Digital Rights Shmyla Khan, Professor Yik Chan Chin, author of Internet Governance in China: the Network Governance Approach from the Liverpool University in China. These experts shared their reflections and heralded a warning of what was coming.

As humanity stands in 2021 on the precipice of economic depression, food shortage, business closures, property seizures, amongst underlying geopolitical wars, civil wars and the express dominance of Big Tech, the usurpation of access to free knowledge, increasing censorship and abuse, our civil liberties and freedoms are in grave danger.

The continuous assault on our freedoms and liberties where the media has been captured by either State or elite few who control interests in the media to manipulate them to do their bidding.

Regardless of whoever is in control, the media continues to be a tool for propaganda. Today as we reflect on the World Holocaust Day and the lessons from history, it would appear that we have not learnt the lesson. The propaganda and peddling content by either the State or the elite who have manipulated censorship of content to perpetuate their agenda at the expense of global public interest.

When the media in Western democracies remove consumers’ right to choose content and form their opinions. The takeover by Big Tech of freedom of expression veiled under the guise of “fake news”, “political palatability” or “commercial agenda” and censorship of social media that has influenced people’s behavior, kicking people off platforms because they peddle content foreign to our ideologies is the nail on the coffin on freedom of expression.

In previous pieces, I had highlighted Twitter banning Linehan and since then, outgoing President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter whilst still President on the 8th January 2021. Today, it was reported that Colleen Oefelein, an associate literary agent with New York’s Jennifer De Chiara Literacy Agency was dismissed after her boss learned that she owned accounts on Gab and Parler (2021, Apex World News). Mexico’s Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez is reported today to have been censored by Facebook for saying in a video that the pandemic will last for several years and for blasting Bill Gates (2021, Apex News). Bill Gates is one of the major shareholders within Facebook, and it would appear that content relating to him, the vaccines, the pandemic are all censored across most social media platforms.

In 2016, Professor Rasha Abdullah had highlighted in a workshop with then UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye that the definition of fake news should be where it has the intention to deceive. On 3rd March 2017, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, along with his counterparts from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) issued a Joint Declaration on Disinformation and Propaganda, see here.

There is increasing censorship by most Social Media platforms forcing people to also choose to be on platforms that do not censor content and promote open and free internet platforms that encourage freedom of expression. The takeover of media and all social media platforms is an aggressive war against the freedom to think, freedom to reason, freedom to compare information, freedom to form and hold opinions and freedom to express oneself.

The assumption that censorship is necessary because people are incapable of differentiating content is as absurd as it is ridiculous, particularly when used as a weapon to take away our freedoms!

Sir Tim Berners Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989 and his World Wide Web Foundation had launched a campaign in November 2018 where he was advocating for diverse stakeholders to back a new Contract to protect people’s rights and freedoms, see here. The Contract is of the philosophy that knowledge must be kept free whilst strengthening laws, regulations and companies to ensure “pursuit of profit” is not at the expense of human rights and democracy.

If there is a time where information about the pandemic, vaccine and COVID has to be accessible and transparent, it is now! People have the right to understand the ingredients of the vaccines and its impact on their health instead of having content filtered or censored in the name of public good. Put simply, people have the right to access knowledge and knowledge must remain free.

To think that 25 years ago, John Perry Barlow in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace understood the threats by governments and wonder whether, in his declaration, he should have also considered the takeover of these freedoms by non-government entities. If we travel back in time in 2018 in Paris where Professor Luz Estelle Nagle had reminded us that the media is the fourth pillar in a democracy, and she had mentioned way back then that people were losing faith in the media. Professor Nagle had forewarned that the censorship by companies that pay for advertisements was a threat.

Today, as we commemorate World Holocaust Day, we see the same evil that desired to control content then at work trying to control content and censor freedom of expression and civil liberties. Censorship is an evil that possesses those in power or in this information age who influence to cause them to behave in ways that affect us all.

What is increasingly apparent is that in this ecosystem or appearance of democracy, interests have captured key stakeholders in influencing legislation, exploiting the Big Technology companies where they have become more powerful than nation-states. Two days ago, we witnessed the likes of Facebook and Google threatening to pull out of Australia over attempts by the government to require the companies to pay news publishers for articles it links to, see here. That, though, is for another time.

It is a sad day when the media has been weaponized and taken over not only by States as propaganda machines but by the corporate dollar. Those who rise to question these are seen as madmen or fired. Who will guard and defend the freedom of cyberspace, and was it ever really free? The internet must remain open and free!

The erosion of our civil liberties is already at our doorstep. We need to arise and speak up whilst we still can and push back the forces of evil.

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