The 2011 Southeast Asia Civil Society Statement on Internet Governance has two vital clauses on censorship and cybersecurity from the perspective of civil society activists.
We are concerned by increasingly sophisticated blocking or filtering mechanisms used by states for censorship. The lack of transparency surrounding these measures also makes it difficult to ascertain whether they are truly necessary for the purported aims put forward by states. The problem is further compounded by the various definitions across the region to internet censorship, because of the differing levels of democracy and standards for rule of law. While international human rights laws allow the State to impose restriction on freedom of expression, including those in the internet, however, these measures must meet, (a) the test of the principles of predictability and transparency as it must be provided by law; (b) the test of principle of legitimacy as it must pursue the purposes of protecting the rights of reputation of others and to protect national security or public order, or of public health or morals; and (c) the test of the principles of necessity and proportionality as it must be proven necessary and proportionate in addressing the problem. Furthermore, these legislative restrictions must be applied by an independent body with adequate safeguards against abuse, including the possibility of challenge and remedy against its abusive application.
We note with dismay that websites of human rights organisations, critical bloggers, and other individuals or organisations that disseminate information that is critical to the State or the powerful have increasingly become targets of cyber-attacks. Although determining the origin of cyber-attacks and the identity of the perpetrator is often technically difficult, it should be noted that states have an obligation to protect individuals against interference by third parties that undermine the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. There needs to be a global framework to address the issue of government-sponsored cyber-attacks and the establishment of an international programme that provides support and resources to victims of cyber-attacks. We should also be on guard against justifications for state surveillance arising from valid security concerns such as hacking and data theft, and the public-private partnerships toward this end, which usually consist of non-transparent institutions.
These are also aspects that have been dealt with in Sri Lanka. Threats and opportunities: The freedom of expression online in Sri Lanka was a detailed study undertaken by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) last year, and led by me, looking at laws and practices that curtailed FoE on the web and Internet in my country. In 2008, I examined interesting parallels between Singapore and Sri Lanka in how they perceived and accordingly sought to control FoE online. Importantly, after I championed it, the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) included two key clauses into the 2008 Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility. Section 10.3 of the revised Declaration deals with the Internet and notes that,
“One of the most significant developments in the last ten years has been the growth of the Internet, which has resulted in the democratization of media and encouraged the emergence of non professional journalists in the form of bloggers etc. We acknowledge the contribution of bloggers towards the promotion of free speech and democratic media. We also recognize that bloggers are as susceptible to controls by the state, misuse of their work as traditional print and broadcast media. We take this opportunity to commit our support to responsible bloggers and other new media practitioners, and hope to work with them in solidarity towards establishing a convergent media which is strong and independent.”
Section 10.4 goes on to note that,
“We specifically call on the government to recognize the internet as an important space for deliberative democracy, and extend to it, all such policies as would enhance the space of free speech on the Internet, and to avoid all policies of banning, blocking, or censoring websites without reasonable grounds. There is now a convergence between the traditional print media and the internet, with a number of newspapers being accessed through the internet, and we would strongly urge that all the privileges and protections sought in this declaration be extended to the web editions of newspapers.”
But if we take a look at how media continued to be censored across the region, one finds that far more pervasive than online techniques are good old physical means to thwart dissent. Journalists and bloggers are assaulted, the victims of hate speech campaigns, abducted and even murdered by governments that then go on to claim that there are in fact no restrictions on the access or production of content online. Sri Lanka is a cogent case in point.
No amount of declarations are going to make them change policy or practice.