UN expert warns combat against violent extremism could be used as ‘excuse’ to curb free speech

3 May 2016

A United Nations human rights expert today signalled concern that efforts to counter “violent extremism” may be construed as the “perfect excuse” for democratic and authoritarian governments to restrict free expression and control access to information.

“By ‘balancing’ freedom of expression and the prevention of violence, the programmes and initiatives aimed at countering ‘violent extremism’ have – often purposely, sometimes inadvertently – put at risk or curtailed the independence of media,” said David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, in a press release on World Press Freedom Day.

While recognizing the important role that governments and non-State actors play in countering violence extremism (CVE) and its incitement, Mr. Kaye and his counterparts from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) raised concerns in their annual Joint Declaration that programmes to prevent or and/combat violent extremism risk undermining freedom of expression.

“So-called CVE or PVE programmes must be based on a legal framework and on evidence of their effectiveness and their necessity and proportionality to achieve legitimate objectives,” Mr. Kaye stressed.

The human rights expert noted that most relevant programmes fail to provide definitions for key terms, such as extremism or radicalization, pointing out that “in the absence of a clear definition, these terms can be used to restrict a wide range of lawful expression.”

“Some governments target journalists, bloggers, political dissidents, activists and human rights defenders as ‘extremists’ or ‘terrorists,’ criminalizing and detaining them, using legal systems to counter broad and unclear offences,” Mr. Kaye warned. “The harm is felt not only by journalists but also by their audiences, the public that deserves the right to know and to access information of public interest.”

The Special Rapporteur also cautioned that CVE-inspired efforts – including content removal, surveillance, the blaming of security tools like encryption – risk undermining the potential of digital technologies to foster freedom of expression and access to information and to provide avenues for counter-speech.

“Freedom of expression plays a critical role in promoting equality and in combating intolerance, and the role the media, the Internet and other digital technologies play in keeping society informed is essential,” Mr. Kaye said.

For the UN Special Rapporteur, “limiting the space for freedom of expression and restricting civic space advances the goals of those promoting, threatening and using terrorism and violence.”

The Joint Declaration on freedom of expression and countering violent extremism, by Mr. Kaye; Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media; Edison Lanza, IACHR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; and Pansy Tlakula, ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information is available here.


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