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3 Reasons Why We Need Human Rights-Based Approach to Digital Media

By Guest Writer on September 11, 2019

internet access shutdown

Citizen engagement and participation through the use of digital media is a crucial area of work at this point in history and is now being recognized in regulatory provisions.

In July 2016 the United Nations passed a resolution specifically against Internet shutdowns and the African Declaration on Internet Rights emphasises the importance of Internet access (Art. 2), Freedom of Expression (Art. 3), Right to Information (Art. 4) and Right to Development and Access to Knowledge (Art. 7).

Regulatory provisions like these are needed to ensure that citizens have unrestricted access to digital media for their communication needs, including at times of political decision-making.

However, the African continent, in particular, has seen a large number of Internet shutdown occurrences in recent years. Questions arise in regard to the consequences on economic development, civic and political participation, and information access, for countries in which communication rights are restricted by governments.

In a recent study, Digital Media and Information Rights, we argue that ‘a rights-based approach to digital media access is therefore a crucial prerequisite in the formulation of developmental policy.’ Here are three reasons why you too should stand by this argument:

All that glitters is not gold

In our study, we observe how the use of Internet communications as presently regulated can be double-faced. On the one hand, digital media have played a strong role in global economic growth, human rights promotion and activist empowerment.

On the other hand, the censorship imposed by governments on these platforms has carried serious public access limitations to the Internet and harsh violations of information rights for citizens. Moreover, these same platforms have also often been used by governments to circulate propaganda messages.

Hence, while the introduction of these platforms can improve political action and participation among citizens, it also opens up opportunities for repression and surveillance from the state.

Shutting down the internet makes a country poorer

One of the most successful outcomes of the digitisation of communication and its channels is undoubtedly found in the influence that social media platforms have had in shaping government policies through the input offered by the public.

Yet, Internet disruptions at the hands of the authorities have become more and more frequent. These have involved complete shutdowns of the line or the blocking of specific messaging services. Hence, while improved access to digital technology, affordable internet service and the provision of skills for citizens to use that technology are key factors for a country’s development, this may be hindered by restrictive measures adopted by specific governments.

A recent report from Deloitte has demonstrated that Internet shutdowns, even temporary ones, can impact the GDP of a country significantly. Other negative consequences are the inability of citizens to connect with family and friends or to seek help in the event of an emergency.

In contexts of political unrest, this can have dangerous implications for human rights abuses. Obstructions to a free flow of information and reporting, and limitations to freedom of opinion and expressions – notions on which the democratic functioning of a country lies – appear to take place especially during political elections.

Improved channels do not automatically mean better communication

The benefits brought by digital communication technologies are not felt in countries where communication rights are not upheld by the government. Improvements in infrastructure, quality of the service and cost of the Internet are not sufficient for development, unless they are accompanied by a rights-based approach to policy-making in the sphere of digital media access.

As we state in our study, ‘the right to communication is a concept that must be placed at the centre of human rights technology. It must also be further developed and adapted to the internet era.’

Guaranteeing that digital media are free and accessible to all at all times goes with the recognition that connectivity and communication are key notions in human rights principles, and they must be applied in driving the formulation of future developmental policy.

By Dr. Valentina Baú, Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia).

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