The Malta Independent 4 August 2021, Wednesday

Freedom of expression is a foundation of our democratic societies. Let’s protect it together

Friday, 18 June 2021, 07:50 Last update: about 3 months ago

Michael O’Flaherty

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” proclaimed Voltaire almost 300 years ago.

In 2021, we are in a desperate need of such defenders of free speech.

The right to articulate our opinions without fear of retaliation or punishment is essential for our democratic societies. It underpins our democratic processes and allows media and civil society to operate freely. Most importantly, it is a foundation for many other rights.

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From access to information to freedom of assembly – without the freedom of expression, we are not able to enjoy our human rights fully.

Yet, we have witnessed a worrying erosion of this freedom in the recent years, especially when it comes to the free media. Too many journalists have been threatened, assaulted or even killed when simply doing their job – like Daphne Caruana Galizia. Too many face pressure and censorship daily.

More worrying still is how some countries used the Coronavirus pandemic to roll back media freedom even further.

Instead of recognising the crucial role of independent reporting in times of crisis, some countries used their emergency measures to close down media outlets, censor news and restrict access to information.

Turning a blind eye to journalists facing threats has become a norm.

Attacks on journalists are an attack on democracy. It is time governments make safety of journalists and freedom of media their political priority.

But deteriorating media freedom is hardly the only threat to the freedom of expression. The rapid rise of artificial intelligence is yet another fast-emerging issue.

AI can be a powerful force for good. But a report published by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency warns that even though it affects virtually every fundamental right, those developing and using AI are often not aware of it. And this can become a massive problem.

As digitalisation continues to change the media landscape, the use of AI in newsrooms becomes more widespread. It can help provide more tailored information for both media users and advertisers. But automated tools for creating and sharing news content can also curtail freedom of expression by exacerbating prejudices and creating echo chambers.

Moreover, news based on rumours and fear can get amplified online by algorithms, contributing to the spread of disinformation. It undermines people’s trust in institutions and harms our democracies.

That’s why we need to ensure that the use of AI doesn’t undermine freedom of expression, but rather enhances it.

In the face of these challenges, what can we do to safeguard the freedom of expression?

First, we need to start with the right laws and governance.

EU and national law needs to protect the freedom of expression, as enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the key human rights treaties. The Charter can support legislators in creating rules that respect and promote our fundamental rights and freedoms. This also applies to the upcoming EU law on artificial intelligence.

Second, we need to do more to safeguard media freedom.

Free and independent media play a crucial role in a democratic society, especially in times of a global pandemic. Restrictions on media freedom and threats to journalists’ safety have no place in our societies. Governments need to ensure journalists can report freely and without fearing for their life.

The priority actions to enhance safety of journalists, adopted by the Council of Europe ministers, are a step in the right direction. We need to see them in practice.

Third, civil society organisations need to be able to do their job without undue interference. Civil society is the lifeblood of a thriving freedom of expression within any society. It is of vital importance to create an environment where they can flourish.

Fourth, national human rights organisations also play an important role for a healthy human rights culture within a society. They need to have a strong mandate and the necessary resources.

My Agency stands ready to support the EU and EU countries in safeguarding the freedom of expression.

It is the foundation of our democratic society and everyone has to be able to enjoy it fully.

I am confident that together we can make it happen.

 

Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

 

The European Commission Representation in Malta is inviting the public to participate in a webinar in collaboration with The Malta Independent on Monday 21 June 2021 at 09:00am till 10.00am. The subject chosen for the discussion is "Strengthening the Application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: Freedom of Expression and Information".  

The event will include the participation of following speakers: 

Věra Jourová, Vice President European Commission

Edward Zammit Lewis, Minister for Justice

Roberta Metsola, First Vice President European Parliament

Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

Please register here

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