UN official discusses freedom of expression, internet at Cairo conference

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CAIRO: “Freedom of expression is like a river that flows with the least obstacles in its way,” Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression said in a press conference at the Journalists’ Syndicate Thursday.

“Those limitations have to be in line with human rights standards and there are already standards in Articles 19 and 20 in the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) or in other international instruments of human rights,” he added.

La Rue was invited on an unofficial visit by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Arabic Affairs Committee of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate to discuss freedom of expression and the freedom of internet.

This is La Rue’s first visit to the Arab region.

“We have been sharing three days of consultation with friends from Cairo and friends from the Arab world, in reference to internet and freedom of expression.” La Rue said.

La Rue is from Guatemala, a developing country and has experience in journalism and law.

La Rue had participated in what he described as an “intense debate” with delegations from Egypt and Pakistan in the UN regarding restrictions on freedom of expression based on religion.

“I believe that religions should be treated with respect, but it’s not the state that should force this respect, the same way that it’s not the state or the government that can force ethical boundaries,” La Rue said.

“This has to be part of the values that individuals choose voluntarily as part of the culture that they build, that culture can only be built by better dialogue and better understanding among different religions, different people and different cultures, never by censorship,” he added.

“This is a region where there has been an intense debate on limitations [on freedom of expression] based on religion, I engaged in this debate with a delegation from Egypt and Pakistan in the UN.”

La Rue also referred to internet censorship and the acceptable limits that should be imposed.
“Internet is today what the industrial evolution was in the 19th century,” Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression said in a press conference at the Journalists’ Syndicate Thursday.

“It was a leap of technology that liberated many forces of communication, forces that increase the speed in which ideas flow and are exchanged and forces that increase the possibilities of economic development,” he said.

La Rue described the internet as a “tremendous force.”

“It’s precisely the strength of the internet that scares politicians today,” La Rue said.

“There are some new technologies for blocking and filtering messages over the internet, in many occasions [they] are used [for] good reasons like preventing child pornography and protecting children in our countries or like combating terrorism and defending national security which are legitimate goals for any state,” La Rue said.

“But often times they begin with that reason and then easily move to harass those who criticize, who are called enemies of the state or who are mentioned as someone who destabilizes just because they’re willing to criticize and stand up [to the government],” he added.

La Rue said that bloggers have become “citizen journalists” who play a very important role in informing the society.

He also mentioned the importance of internet accessibility to all parts of the world.

“If we guarantee universal access [to the internet], we will be able to guarantee freedom of expression for all the population” he said.

There are two billion internet users around the world and 20 million internet users in Egypt, according to Sweden’s Human Rights Ambassador Hans Dahlgren, who also attended the conference.

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