Internet freedom an imperative frontline for free expression and free media, OSCE conference participants say

Participants at the OSCE-supported conference Gaining a Digital Edge: Freedom of Expression, Vienna, 14 September 2016. (OSCE)

VIENNA, 14 September 2016 – Internet freedom is a cornerstone of free expression and free media, and must be ensured and strengthened, participants said today at a two-day OSCE-supported conference in Vienna.

The conference “Gaining a Digital Edge: Freedom of Expression”, organized by the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, the OSCE Mission to Serbia, the Center for Media, Data and Society of the Central European University’s School of Public Policy, and the SHARE Foundation brought together some 120 journalists, media lawyers, government representatives, IT experts, academics, artists and human rights defenders from 14 South-Eastern and Central European countries. The participants discussed the legal, regulatory and technological challenges to freedom of expression in the digital environment.

Keynote speaker Jacob Mchangama, Founder and Director of the Danish think-tank Justitia, said that it has become clear that the Internet’s initial promise of a globally connected world with a free flow of information and opinions has been severely undermined.

“New restrictions are mushrooming with increasing levels and layers of online censorship, restrictions and penalties,” Mchangama said. “Internet freedom remains one of the most important frontlines in a wider global battle of values over the limits of free speech that could have a huge impact on the global development of democratization, innovation, creativity, education and of course the wider freedom enjoyed by citizens all over the world.”

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said that international legal standards exist which protect a free and open internet and that those legal instruments constitute the prime carrier for free expression and free media in the 21st century.

“The technology may be new – and rapidly evolving – but the principles remain the same,” Mijatović said. “We must continue to ensure that basic human rights, such as free expression and free media, are safeguarded and apply online and offline.”

Peter Burkhard, Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, said: “Fast-paced technological advancements open many new doors for freedom of expression and journalism. Some say doors of challenges. In our view, these are first and foremost doors of opportunities. At the same time some challenges remain, such as for instance, the respect for ethical standards in Southern-Eastern Europe.”

During the conference the attendees put forward suggestions and proposals on what could and should be done to strengthen and ensure free expression and free media online. Based on the discussions at the conference, a set of recommendations will be developed and published.