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Internet access

June 20, 2011

Free flow of information is a core part of the OSCE commitments in relation to media freedom. More people should speak up against Internet filtering and access restrictions, says OSCE representative Dunja Mijatović.

Two teenage girls in front of a computer screen
Human rights have reached the digital age. Or have they?Image: Fotolia/Norman Pogson

On Monday, the Global Media Forum kicked off in Bonn. This international conference focuses on human rights around the world. Many world leaders are increasingly dealing with the consequences of an open Internet - with Western democracies calling for more Internet freedom and many authoritarian countries like Iran and China increasingly cracking down on unfiltered access. To learn more, Deutsche Welle spoke with Dunja Mijatović, the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Mijatovići, who is attending the conference remains worried about attempts by OSCE-members, like Turkey, which restrict Internet use by imposing filters.

Deutsche Welle: You recently signed a declaration for the freedom of the Internet. Freedom of the media advocates from all continents say freedom of the Internet is the key for pluralism and freedom of expression in the 21st century. Can access to the World Wide Web be considered a human right?

Dunja Mijatović at the opening ceremony of Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum
Dunja Mijatović is the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the MediaImage: DW

Dunja Mijatović: Access to the Internet should in a way be a human rights issue. We have a very good example in Finland, where giving Finnish citizens access to the Internet is already part of legislation. Other countries should follow - if possible. There are attempts in some other European countries, but so far we don't see anything relevant that we would welcome.

In different parts of the world, or shall I say problematic parts of the world, where access to the Internet is not something that is available to citizens, and where the telecommunication infrastructure itself is a problem, we try to do something jointly with other 'freedom fighters', if I may call them that. The joint declaration is just one of a few documents which help us raise awareness among society. In order to see real results, however, I think all of us need to do much more than that.

How can the internet be protected from attempts by governments or companies to restrict access or to apply special filters? Technically, after all, it's easy to access the Internet.

I call it 'a lost battle' if you try to block anything from people. If they see it as a blockage of their rights they will find a way to get access. There are attempts in many totalitarian regimes to block access. Not just because of certain transnational threats, or because of anything that is in relation to threats which also occur in the offline world, such as child pedophelia. No, simply because they want to restrict free flow of information and to block critical voices and keep people from discussing certain issues.

A grey computer keyboard with a red key with the Turkish flag on it
Turkey's latest internet restrictions restrict media freedom there even furtherImage: kebox - Fotolia.com

How can we protect this right, how can we stop our governments from doing so? The only democratic tool I see is our voices, we need to join our voices in order to explain and say how important it is for us to have this possibility. On the other hand, I don't think anybody should question the legitimate right of any government to fight issues in relation to national security and all other threats I've previously mentioned. This argument, however, should never be used as an excuse when you're actually trying to silence the voices in your country. Unfortunately that's the case in many parts of the world.

Let's take a closer look at the situation in the OSCE area - and at OSCE-member Turkey. A new law there requires Internet users to apply special content filters to ban words like 'gay', 'naked', 'adult' or 'hot'- what do you tell Turkish authorities in that respect? Is it acceptable to apply those filters?

Of course it's not acceptable, and I have raised it on several occasions. I wrote to the Turkish foreign minister, I raised this issue in public, but I also think - and that's even more important - that Turkish society, users of the internet, Turkish citizens, must raise their voices in order to say this is unacceptable for them.

Belarusian policemen block a central street to protect it from a youth opposition action "Revolution via social network" in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Opposition rallies in Belarus are often organized through social networks online and later dispersed by the policeImage: AP

In order to tackle this issue and to exercise the mandate I was given I need to talk to the government, I need to try and assist them and to explain to them why it is so important not to do these things: They're not in line with the OSCE commitments. The OSCE commitments in relation to media freedom are commitments that governments signed on a voluntary basis, so nobody forces them to adhere to them. Access to internet, free flow of information are core values. They are not something that we are inventing on a daily basis - they are core values for all countries which are members of OSCE, UN, European Commission, Council of Europe. We have the same fundamental rights.

Can you name other countries in the OSCE area where access to the Internet is also difficult? What about Central Asian countries?

We have problems in Belarus. At the moment what we see there is that people are interrogated, their equipment is seized, and anything that has any connection with any free way of expressing their opinion is questioned by the KGB. Other countries, where we have certain problems, are Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and others. There are, however, also 'free' parts with regards to Internet access - such as Azerbaijan or Kyrgyzstan, for example. There are certain attempts [to restrict Internet access] but I wouldn't say that those attempts are very worrying.

Dunja Mijatović is the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

Interview: Bernd Riegert / nh
Editor: Cyrus Farivar