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Governments and the Internet

(CMFR/IFEX) - 11 July 2012 - The following is a statement by CMFR Executive Director Melinda Quintos De Jesus:

Governments and the Internet

The Philippines stands out for the freedom it grants to the press. Our 1987 Constitution gives the ultimate protection from government interference - "No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances." Earlier in 1899, Filipinos declared national sovereignty from Spain and wrote the first democratic constitution in Asia providing the guarantee of the right of every Filipino "to freely express his ideas or opinions, orally or in writing, through the use of the press or other similar means."

The country is set apart from democratic countries in Southeast Asia for not framing a Press Law to supervise the conduct of the press. At this time, it is also among the few countries that have no laws governing the Internet, except for the protection of electronic commercial and non-commercial transactions.

The experience of Martial Law, a period of 14 years, when Filipinos were subject to government control and regulation of freedom of expression and all media must have left Filipinos with a strong distrust of government's regulatory powers in public affairs. Philippine government is peculiar in the region for its lack of inclination so far to interfere with the rich exchange among citizens using communication technology, including the Internet.

In February this year however, the Philippines was among 30 countries represented by the People's Republic of China in issuing a joint statement at the panel of freedom of expression on the Internet at the United Nations in Geneva.

The list of countries included Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ethiopia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mauritania, Myanmar, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe and of course, People's Republic of China.

One must wonder about the company the country is keeping in these international discussions.

The statement may seem innocuous enough, starting out to hail the Internet as an "indispensible tool of our daily lives, and is playing an important role in human development . . . ", the need to respect and protect freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, and asserting the power of the Internet to promote "mutual understanding and common development of people."

Even its warning about the limits of freedom of expression seems benign enough as it listed the obvious dangers of its abuse. One would have to agree with the statement's concern about the use of the Internet to undermine individual dignity, social safety and stability, threaten national security. We cannot deny that there are those who use the power of Internet for dis-information, distorting facts, provoking violence and escalating tensions among competing groups. The countries also correctly expressed disappointment that not all citizens can enjoy the benefits of information through the Internet because of the economic divide and plead the cause of children as victims of criminality on the Internet.

But the intent of the statement is belied when it calls for governments to strengthen legislation in the field of Internet regulation and law enforcement activity in order to combat criminality.

Judging from the country signatories, this call for a stronger government role will tend toward an expanded regulation of content of citizen communication.

What government among those our UN representative signed with would we trust with such a role? How did we end up in such company?

While there is a need for reviewing the issues arising from Internet use and its continuing growth and expansion, such a discussion cannot be dominated by governments and business interests.

I saw the signing up of the Philippines in this list as another sign of our contradictory tendencies. We may have a liberal constitutional framework for press freedom and freedom of expression.

But there are far too few champions of these values in government.

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