On September 8 and 9, 2008, the Faculty of Political Sciences of the
University of Belgrade hosted the international conference on regulation
of freedom of expression on the internet, organized by the Programme in
Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP) of the University of Oxford.
Metamorphosis Foundation participated with presentation of the
Macedonian experiences in this area.
In her opening address, the minister for telecommunications and information society of the Republic of Serbia Jasna Matic emphasized that euro-integration is a priority for her country and the ongoing process of harmonization of the laws with the European Union (EU) standards. The dean of the Faculty of political sciences Milan Podunavac reported that as part of the efforts to overcome the negative legacy from the Serbian past—as a postwar, post-dictatorial and post-communist society—the faculty intends to introduce a subject for media law and new media law.
The ambassador of the Council of Europe (COE) Constantin Jerokostopulos indicated that the freedom of expression and communication must be respected, with an exception of the contents defined as illegal by the law.
USAID representative Marylin A Schmidt stated that Serbia will be assisted by the United States in developing new versions of the laws that are currently only referring to the traditional media. She stated that Serbian needs to ratify the European Convention on Cross Border Television and to adopt a law on media ownership, which would prevent creating media conglomerates. Bill Longhurst, Deputy Head of Mission the British Embassy Belgrade pointed out that UK child pornography watchdog mechanisms can be used as best practice when dealing with such issues in the region.
Jelena Surčulija, Assistant Minister of Telecommunications and Information Society and PCMLP representative for Serbia pointed out that regulatory challenges include authenticity of the information and availability of content published abroad in countries where such content is illegal. She differentiated between blogging as form of expression dealing mainly with personal information and perceptions, including publishing on Facebook.com-like systems, and citizen journalism as a new form of journalism which for the time being remains unacknowledged due to issues of ethics and media registration.
Prof. David Goldberg from the University of Oxford started with the basic assumption that "blogging is simply a form of expression, of writing, and as such it is entitled to maximum protection." He pointed out that it is a "misleading metaphor to speak about 'balance.' Default position is promotion of freedom of expression with some very limited exceptions."
Speaking about the challenges, prof. Goldberg suggested the possible need to define new term for political blogs – plogs, and also noted that current estimates on the number of blogs probably underestimate their quantity, considering also the fact that "22 of the 100 most popular websites are blogs."
Referring to a recent UK case when a convicted criminal posted a threat to his arresting officer ("PC Lloyd, God help your newborn baby") and was charged under Telecommunications Act, prof. Goldberg stated that there's "no need for new laws, there's plenty of legislation lying around" which can be used to tackle the blogging-related problems. On the other hand, the need for anti-SLAP legislation—preventing centers of power such as corporations to use strategic lawsuits against the public—grows, to insure freedom of expression for the individual authors or content providers.
Prof. Miroljub Radojković from the Faculty of Political Sciences pointed out that the new media bring about "deep tectonic change" in the society, because for the first time they lead to accomplishment of the utopian ideal for implementation of the right to communicate. He does not consider citizen journalism as new form of communication, but as a mash up of all previously known forms of communication, enabling the citizens to make (write) history, besides the elites. Since citizen journalists are not part of the profession which has its standards and codices, nor do they suffer professional editorial corrections, remains to be seen whether the outcome of this movement would be hyper production of rumors or better and more responsible journalism, when compared to the classical mode.
According to prof. Radojković, the future global risks includes responsibility for the veracity of content, endangering the human rights of others (hate speech), propagating faulty instructions (for instance unsound stock exchange advices), breaches of privacy (rise of paparazzi who work free of charge), and intellectual property abuse (if this concept survives). Melting of the sources and audiences complicates the issue of responsibility, so the solutions offered by old-style legislations are not always applicable.
Refering to the new regulatory framework for audiovisual sector prof. Snježana Milivojević, from the Faculty of Political Sciences stated that journalism as such exists since 1605, when the first modern newspaper was published. In the last 400 years the main issue was lack of information, while the emergence of the internet leads to information abundance. Issues of responsibility and accountability of information are central to the establishment of the new regulatory framework.
Council of Europe Expert Ad Van Loon also pointed out that human rights protection, and especially freedom of expression, lies at the core of the COE regulatory framework for content on the internet. These rights remain under threat in countries which do no implement their international obligations, but can also be influenced by other factors, such as copyrights.
Dragan Janjić, Assistant Minister of Culture in charge of Media in his expose reaffirmed the commitment by Serbian institutions to harmonize their media laws with EU and CoE Standards.
Legal experts Slobodan Kremenjak, Attorney-at-Law, and Snežana Smolović-Green from the Association of the Independent Electronic Media presented the legal framework for protection of personal data and privacy protection in online and offline media. Serbian institutions responsible for these areas include the Ombudsman and the Representative for information of public importance. In this context, prof. Dirk Voorhoof from the University of Ghent, Belgium pointed out that the related right to anonymity can be jeopardized by various threats, both legal and technical.
Media law expert Inger Hoedt-Rasmussen provided insight in the Danish experiences from the area of protection of rights of children on the internet, based on the premise that bad things are just a small part of the possibilities offered by the new technologies. The threats can be minimized through awareness raising and increasing of knowledge much better than through state mechanisms of control and censorship. She noted that kids as digital natives have far more knowledge and skills about the new technologies than their parents who attempt to help them. The dangers, such as pedophile predators, did not appear because of the internet, they were part of life in the past too. Caregivers had modes of preventing such threats in the past, such as instructing choir boys when going on tour to immediately report if some "uncle" follows them around claiming he's very interested in music.
During the panel devoted to regulation and/or self-regulation on the internet, Andrei Richter, the director of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute pointed out the serious issues present in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The most drastic example is the arrest and murder of the owner of the website Ingushetia.ru. Referring to the little known fact that Belarus among the most productive post-Soviet republics in terms of internet content production, second only to EU-member Baltic States, while the states of Central Asia, which have very liberal legislative framework, lag behind. Prof. Richter pointed out that repressive legal frameworks often take the back seat to education levels and cultural factors in preventing content creation, which in turn incites freedom of expression. Due to its size, Russia has biggest content production in absolute terms, and "it is clear that [the Government] cannot control the internet any more." Influencing factor is whether the states treat the internet as mass media or not, which implies varied status in legislative terms. For instance in Georgia where mass media have nominal protection this lead to increased freedom of expression on the internet. In Russia, sadly "the whole system of self-regulation consists of a telephone call from the security services." Participants in the discussion concurred that the situation in Serbia used to be similar.
Metamorphosis Foundation representative Filip Stojanovski spoke about the situation in Macedonia as an example of a Western Balkans country. In general there is no formal regulation of the internet. ISPs claim that they do not filter the content published on their servers, and remove content only by court order. In some cases the generally accepted value of freedom of expression leads to tolerance of forms of hate speech. Lack of official standards for the governmental websites combined with the silence of the administration makes it harder for the citizens to get the information from the state structures. SPAM is form of regulated content – forbidden by the Law on Electronic Communications (2005) but to the best of the public knowledge, the regulatory body in charge of enforcing this law (www.aek.mk) has not implemented these provisions so far. Positive examples of self/regulation include the house rules of blogging service Blogeraj, the efforts to increase privacy protection by the Directorate for Personal Data Protection and the NGO sectors, chiefly the project Children’s Rights on the Internet – Safe and Protected.
Slobodan Marković, president of the Center for Internet Development from Belgrade addressed freedom of expression issues related to the internet domain names. On global level ICANN implements the Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policies. Through an inclusive consensus building process, the relevant stakeholders in Serbia established a new domain registrar. The mechanism for resolution of disputes relies on court arbitration, which is part of the original contract for purchase of domains. In a similar painless fashion the process of migration from the old .yu to the new .rs top domain is taking place. The owners of the old domains have an advantage in the process of (re)registration, and the old addresses will remain valid for about a year more.
Participants of the conference included representatives of the state institutions, regulatory bodies, the nongovernmental and the business sector of Serbia. Both the panels and the subsequent discussions served to pass on the knowledge helpful to inciting reform processes toward harmonization of the legal and institutional frameworks with the European standards.