Freedom of expression: Where do we set the lines
The second African Internet Governance Forum started in Nairobi, Kenya just a day after a terrorist attack was launched on this African country.
The media reported 24 hours a day from the site of the attack; Twitter hashtags were created to make sure messages related to the crisis were passed on to the masses; and Facebook ready-to-use pictures of support to Kenya were circulated. It was actually a valuable experience for freedom expression defenders, as they were able to analyse how human beings exercised their rights in a time of shock and where the limit is set.
Over the course of the 4 days that the horrific event held Africa’s attention, photos of victims and deceased were circulated without any regard to morality and ethics. Hate speech online called to kill Muslims. Terrorist-related Twitter accounts were being disabled, yet new ones were created when the first were cut off. If freedom of expression is really a right, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, why were the accounts of users communicating hate speech suspended? I could add to this, why did women in the movement around the world call, months ago, for Facebook to suspend the accounts of people calling for women’s rape?
This reminds me of the story of Edea Ojo, a Nigerian activist from the Media Rights Association in Nigeria. Some years ago, all Irish IRA activists where banned from UK media. They were listed as a terrorist group therefore they had no rights, as do all people who call for hate and violence. Some are trying to ensure that it is not solely civil servants or political parties, who often have their own perceptions and are motivated by their own interests, deciding what should be published in the media, yet others are calling for the highest authority to decide what is published. Should a human being, born with inalienable rights be suppressing of all of them? And for indefinite time? Can violent and armed activists have other political views if they are not promoting violence? Can they try and reach out to people and defend themselves in case the information that is being said about them happens to be untrue? Can they in that case, be allowed to express themselves? Where are we setting the limit to freedom of expression, if there is one?
Rights definitely come with responsibilities. Human rights offline are the same as those online, but communications rights are also linked. While it is generally accepted in countries under threat of violence that surveillance can help circumvent the threats to security, it is still a major intrusion in our privacy rights. When people are suspected of being linked with criminal activity online, we should not forget that these are exception as the majority of the internet users are not criminals. Coming up with policies and practices such as the US NSA can only be a threat to our fundamental rights. Therefore, the more the governments are spending resources on surveillance, the more we see that they are missing their targets. Because we experience it, here in Nairobi, Kenya. The internet allows free flow of information regarding the Nairobi mall event. Africans, especially Kenyans had the opportunity to question their government. They forced ministers to come up with plausible explanations. There used to be a silence, information only breaking out hours later by the politically correct response in media. Kenyans’ freedom of expression contributed to good governance, democracy and pulled a country together through a hashtag #weareone, calling all Kenyans to stay united beyond the differences.
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