Isn’t the internet a great place? Open, public, egalitarian. Everyone has a platform and can speak freely.
Hold on, not so fast. While the internet certainly has the potential to be a democratic digital space, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Communication rights online are often not well protected. Surveillance, threats, and restricted access impact people’s ability to exercise their rights online. The rise of profit-driven Big Tech can suffocate small and independent news outlets, making it hard to find broad and balanced news. And the advent of generative AI makes it harder for media to invest in a diverse team of trained human reporters, editors, and photographers.
Safe, open, and reliable digital communication empowers people. So what’s stopping us? Keep going to the keywords for this session to learn more.
Communication Rights, Freedom of Expression, Hate Speech, Journalism, Digital Spaces
After this session you will be able to:
- Understand major challenges facing communication rights today.
- Describe communication rights and how they are impacted by hate speech and other challenges.
- Take steps to choose and share content from trustworthy sources online.
If you are glued to your smartphone all day, you may be pleased to hear that communication is a human right, just like food, shelter, and security. Communication rights enable all people everywhere to express themselves individually and collectively by all means of communication. They are vital to full participation in society and are, therefore, universal human rights belonging to every person.
Communication rights are even enshrined in international law, including the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights:
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. (UNDHR, Article 19)
The right to assemble and demonstrate, learn and use your own language, receive an education and establish media are all part of your communication rights. Protection of these rights helps us interact with others and promote understanding and cooperation.
Recap: Communication rights allow people and groups to seek, receive, and share information.
Example: Governments have an obligation to create an environment where free, independent media can flourish. (Source: Article 19. Article 19 is a donor-funded international NGO based in the United Kingdom).
Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression is an important communication right. Unfortunately, freedom of expression is too-often used to defend people saying harmful things. Freedom of expression is never without restrictions. It has to be used responsibly.
The Council of Europe says, “You have the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of your choice without interference and regardless of frontiers.” The Council of Europe has 46 member states and works to uphold human rights and democracy in Europe following World War II.
But (and this is important!) you cannot incite hatred or violence, you can’t steal content and ideas from other people, and you have to respect all the other human rights. So exercise this right responsibly!
Unfortunately most people in the world cannot enjoy full freedom of expression. Blasphemy and defamation laws, internet censorship, media monopolies, and more mean that people cannot communicate freely or without personal risk.
Recap: Freedom of expression protects your right to hold and share opinions without interference, provided you do not cause harm or break laws.
Example: Freedom of expression is enshrined in Sri Lankan law, but journalists and human rights defenders risk losing their jobs, violence, and direct government interference when they speak out against injustices and corruption. (Source: International Federation of Journalists. The IFJ is a global federation of journalists’ unions, representing more than 600,000 media workers around the world).
Hate speech is a big problem online. The annonymity and large audiences of the internet can empower people to say things they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face. Frequent targets of hate speech include refugees and migrants, women, religious minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Hate speech doesn’t even need to be speech. It can be a cartoon or gesture, as well as symbols or objects.
What all hateful content has in common, though, are the targets: a group, or members of a group, who share a particular characteristic. This is can be a religious belief, gender, or even a group united by an opinion. Hate speech attacks people for who they are, not what they say or do.
Hate speech is dangerous because it is an accelerant. It doesn’t just impact the target, but emboldens others to discriminate and spread hate. It validates negative stereotypes and can be harmful to social cohesion.
Recap: Hate speech is abusive content that targets people on the basis of their identity.
Example: Describing groups of people as animals or blaming them for a disease is a form of hate speech. Promoting conspiracy theories and celebrating past persecution of certain groups is also hate speech. (Source: British Columbia (Canada) Office of the Human Rights Comissioner).
The media is frequently called the Fourth Pillar of the State. Sounds important, right? It is! The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of a democratic government propose, enact, and enforce laws. Independent media is there to inform people about what is going on in the world and hold everyone accountable.
Healthy media ecosystems and healthy democracies go hand-in-hand.
Journalism is the activity of researching, investigating, questioning, creating, and disseminating news. It refers to the people who do this work and the media they produce.
In many countries, journalists face threats of imprisonment and violence for doing their work. Journalism is also facing pressure from AI-generated content, lack of trust in and funding for independent news, and demand for free online content.
Recap: Journalism is a public good that provides people with trustworthy information needed for healthy societies and strong democracies.
Example: Investigative journalism dives deep into a subject over the course of months or even years. The British Broadcasting Corporation gained access to a tablet found on a Libyan battle field by Russian mercenary group Wagner. The contents gave unprecedented insight into how the group works. (Source: BBC. The BBC is the public broadcaster of the United Kingdom).
Digital spaces are places for communication, encounter, and exchange of ideas – much like a public square in a town. They exist where people connect with each other and form community online and using digital technologies. Social media networks are great examples, but digital spaces also include virtual reality, online gaming, blogging, and more.
As we have seen, digital spaces are dominated by Big Tech for making money and can be used by governments for surveillance and restricting communication rights. Marginalized groups also face barriers in accessing and using digital public spaces.
Rights in these spaces must be an extension of our offline rights. Digital public spaces are made better when everyone can participate freely, equally, and in safety. Respectful participation from a diversity of people lets people learn and work for positive change together.
Recap: Digital spaces are online spaces where people can exercise and enjoy their right to communication.
Example: Digital spaces includes social media, online gaming and learning platforms. Digital spaces can also be created by hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall.
Super! You now know the essentials about the big issues for communication rights. People around the world face different challenges in exercising their right to communication. Click Next Lesson to hear from a few experts on this matter.