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The hypocrisy of the European Union’s Freedom of Expression guidelines

Posted by on May 20, 2014.

In the blue corner...

Last week the Council of the EU published the EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline. It is really aimed at non-EU states that show little regard for human rights — but the reality is the EU should look closely at its own behaviour.

Consider just three extracts:

1. Free, diverse and independent media are essential in any society to promote and protect freedom of opinion and expression and other human rights. By facilitating the free flow of information and ideas on matters of general interest, and by ensuring transparency and accountability, independent media constitute one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. Without freedom of expression and freedom of the media, an informed, active and engaged citizenry is impossible… Efforts to protect journalists should not be limited to those formally recognised as such, but should also cover support staff and others, such as ”citizen journalists”, bloggers, social media activists and human rights defenders, who use new media to reach a mass audience…

2. Support the adoption of legislation that provides adequate protection for whistleblowers and support reforms to give legal protection to journalists’ right of non-disclosure of sources…

3. The right to seek and receive information
The right to freedom of expression includes freedom to seek and receive information. It is a key component of democratic governance as the promotion of participatory decision-making processes is unattainable without adequate access to information. For example the exposure of human rights violations may, in some circumstances, be assisted by the disclosure of information held by State entities. Ensuring access to information can serve to promote justice and reparation, in particular after periods of grave violations of human rights. The UN Human Rights Council has emphasized that the public and individuals are entitled to have access, to the fullest extent practicable, to information regarding the actions and decision-making processes of their Government…

These are, put simply, ‘a free and independent press, including bloggers’; ‘protection for whistleblowers’; and ‘freedom of information’ — all of which are necessary to and in a democratic society.

Independent press
The UK seeks to curtail an independent press. It does this through threats (such as using the Leveson proposals against journalists and editors), abuse of the Terrorism Act (just as Obama abuses the Espionage Act), and pure and simple bullying.

Example: When Guido Fawkes’ political blog scooped the mainstream press on the arrests of Max Clifford, Jim Davidson and Rolf Harris, Fawkes wrote,

No judge has ordered reporting restrictions in relation to Rolf Harris, no super-injunctions prevent the reporting of news concerning him, instead his lawyers Harbottle and Lewis are citing the Leveson Inquiry’s report in letters to editors of newspapers – cowing them into silence. The Leveson effect is real and curtailing the freedom of the press through fear.
Leveson Effect: Can You See What It Is Yet?

Terrorism Act
Example: David Miranda was arrested, detained at Heathrow, and had his computer equipment confiscated when he was merely passing through Heathrow on the way from Berlin to Brazil. To achieve this, the UK government had to classify him as a terrorist for possibly carrying Snowden files.

Example: Government officials insisted on and oversaw the physical destruction of The Guardian’s hard disks that contained Snowden files.

Manning, Assange & Snowden – the 3 great whistleblowers of the modern age

Manning, Assange & Snowden – the 3 great whistleblowers of the modern age

Protection for whistleblowers
The three great whistleblowers of the modern age are Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. Manning is in prison and likely to stay there for many years to come; Assange has a European Arrest Warrant against him and is effectively imprisoned for life in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London; and the whole of Europe has refused to provide asylum to Snowden.

At the Stockholm Internet Forum set for the end of May, and hosted by the Swedish government,

.SE – the only non-governmental organization among the hosts – made a list of possible candidates. The most important name on it: Edward Snowden. Further names included journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists that informed the world about the NSA’s activities, Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger as well as hacker Jacob Appelbaum, who found the mobile phone number of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Snowden’s database. The list of candidates was sent to the Swedish Foreign Ministry for approval.
Swedish Foreign Ministry prevents Snowden’s invitation

In the event, Carl Bildt’s foreign ministry vetoed all except Laura Poitras, who declined the invite because of the blacklist.

If the European Union was serious about protection for whistleblowers, it would provide protection for Assange and Snowden. For the former it is assisting the US attempts at getting him into the USA; and for the latter it is doing nothing to prevent it.

Dr Helen Wallace – executive director of GeneWatch

Dr Helen Wallace – executive director of GeneWatch

Freedom of information
This, says the EU, is a necessary ingredient for democracy — but denies it to its own people. In April, Dr Helen Wallace of GeneWatch announced

GeneWatch has spent 12 months battling to reveal documents showing extensive government contacts between the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the GM crop lobby crop the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC).

“These partial documents strongly suggest the Government is colluding with the GM industry to manipulate the media, undermine access to GM-free-fed meat and dairy products and plot the return of GM crops to Britain”, said Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK, “The public have a right to know what is going on behind closed doors”.

She was complaining about missing and redacted documents from the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Early in May she commented,

These documents expose Government collusion with the GM industry to agree PR messages and blacklist critical journalists. Scientists have been cherry-picked to push GM industry PR, as it seems the Government has made promises of research funds tied to public-private partnerships with Monsanto or Syngenta dependent on supporting commercial cultivation of RoundUp Ready GM crops in Britain. Disturbingly, the Government has also been kept in the loop over lobbying by GM feed importers behind closed doors to stop supermarkets offering their customers the choice of GM-free-fed meat and dairy products. British consumers have lost out to boost Monsanto’s profits, as more GM RoundUp Ready soya is shipped in for use in feed, harming the environment abroad.

In short, the UK government systematically denies information to the UK people where the democratic process might disturb its autocratic purposes. This is contrary to both the spirit and word of the EU’s freedom of expression guidelines.

The only realistic conclusion that can be drawn from the EU guidelines is that they are nothing other than propaganda designed to make European citizens believe that they live in a democracy. It wants the world to believe that it has high ideals over freedom of expression and access to information, but does little to ensure it within its own borders.

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