Summit delegates clear free speech hurdle

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong demand press freedom and the release of an imprsioned journalist Keystone

As the World Summit on the Information Society gets underway in Geneva, delegates have succeeded in hammering out a compromise deal on the issue of free speech.

This content was published on December 8, 2003

During last-minute talks over the weekend, negotiators agreed on wording in draft documents to be presented to world leaders later this week.

Throughout preparatory meetings ahead of the summit, the issue of free speech created deep divisions between government delegations.

The United States, Switzerland and the European Union had been pushing for an information society built on human rights and freedom of expression.

But countries like China, Egypt, Vietnam and Cuba insisted that national legislation had priority over universal human values.

“They are two different concepts,” said Wolfgang Kleinwächter, professor for international communication policy and regulation at Aarhus University in Denmark.

“The question is how you bridge the unbridgeable and find a language which saves face for both sides.”

The wording they reached late on Saturday night includes references to respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a "commitment to the principles of freedom of the press and information".

Human rights

In earlier rounds of talks, the 1948 human rights declaration - which is a political recommendation - lay at the heart of the debate.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings have “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Meanwhile, the draft text agreed for the summit documents states that the "freedom to seek, receive, impart and use information for the creation, accumulation and dissemination of knowledge are important to the information society".

Although the UN declaration is not cited in full, the Swiss secretary of state to the summit, Marc Furrer, said he was satisfied with it.

"It's always a compromise," said Furrer. "However, as a former journalist, I can stand behind the wording.

Countries that uphold the idea of a free media can live with it," he added.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon and Anna Nelson

Key facts

The World Electronic Media Forum (WEMF) is a side event of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
The world’s media leaders are meeting in Geneva from December 9-12.
The WEMF will highlight the contribution of broadcasting and broadcasters to the information society.
Media executives, communications specialists, representatives from civil society and NGOs will consider key issues such as media freedom and universal access to information.
Cultural diversity, social cohesion and education are some of the other issues that will be explored.

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In brief

Human rights has been one of the key stumbling blocks to reaching an agreement on a draft declaration and plan of action for the summit.

The US, EU and Switzerland were pushing for an information society founded on freedom of expression.

Other countries like China, Vietnam, Egypt and Cuba said national laws should take priority over universal human values.

A compromise text was reached during marathon, last-ditch negotiations over the weekend.

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