It has been almost two weeks since cablegate.wikileaks.org, the website hosting leaked US diplomatic cables, was taken down, and the right of Wikileaks to publish truthful information was immediately besieged. Since then, human rights organizations around the world have condemned the attacks on WikiLeaks and have raised their voices to protect freedom of expression online.
EFF has noted that Wikileaks has suffered as a result of corporate policies that suppress free expression on matters of intense public importance. In such cases, readers lose their right to read the information that Wikileaks published, and online publishers lose trust in those companies that have demonstrated a willingness to bow to political pressure to remove unpopular or controversial content. EFF has also launched the Say No to Online Censorship campaign, drawing public attention to the fact that shutting down publishers like Wikileaks is a very serious attack on freedom of expression.
To help illustrate what human rights and other organizations are saying internationally, we have highlighted some excerpts from their own institutional statements over this David-Goliath style battle.
International human rights law recognizes freedom of expression
• On December 10, International Human Rights Day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed this issue in her statement: “While it is unclear whether these individual measures taken by private actors directly infringe on states' human rights obligations to ensure respect of the right to freedom of expression, taken as a whole they could be interpreted as an attempt to censure the publication of information thus potentially violating Wikileaks' right to freedom of expression.”
• Amnesty International ~ “Freedom of expression is an internationally recognized human right that limits the power of the state to prohibit the receipt and publication of information. The burden is on the state to demonstrate that any restriction is both necessary and proportionate, and does not jeopardize the right to freedom of expression itself.”
• Human Rights First ~ “This issue transcends the particulars of the Wikileaks case. No matter what you think of Julian Assange, anyone who cares about Internet freedom should be concerned that in its zeal to cripple Wikileaks, governments and companies are taking steps in this case that pose a threat to fundamental rights.”
• Reporter without Borders ~ “We stress that any restriction on the freedom to disseminate this body of documents will affect the entire press, which has given detailed coverage to the information made available by Wikileaks, with five leading international newspapers actively cooperating in preparing it for publication.”
Several organizations have also commented on the behavior of companies that took down domain names and have denied hosting, financial and Internet services to Wikileaks.
• Internet Society ~ “Removal of a domain is an ineffective tool to suppress communication, merely serving to undermine the integrity of the global Internet and its operation.”
• ARTICLE 19 ~ “Blocking or removing information from sites, restricting domain names, limiting donations and other restrictions on access to information should be based only on a court order approved by a judge taking into account domestic and international laws on freedom of expression. Such action should not be based on extra-legal government pressure.”
Several NGOs have also called attention to the worldwide impact of Internet censorship.
• Human Rights Watch ~ “This is a signature moment for freedom of expression and information in both the US and abroad. Prosecuting Wikileaks for publishing leaked documents would set a terrible precedent that will be eagerly grasped by other governments, particularly those with a record of trying to muzzle legitimate political reporting.”
• Reporters Without Borders ~ “This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed.”
• The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has warned about the harassment of Lebanese news websites after they published U.S diplomatic cables that were first disclosed by Wikileaks. CPJ has also called attention to the fact that the Tunisian government blocked domestic access to the site, while Saudi officials blocked access to the independent website Elaph, which also published some of the cables.
EFF joins human rights organizations worldwide in opposing attempts to suppress freedom of expression. EFF and activists around the world are calling on Internet users to stand up to defend free expression. With the help of volunteer translators and colleagues, our campaign against online censorship has been translated into several languages, including French, Finnish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish – with more languages planned.
We must stand up for the right to publish, read and discuss truthful information. Democracy depends on the right of people to know the truth. Let governments and corporations know that free expression is a human right that they should not suppress. We are all involved. Join the campaign now!
This article has also been published in Global Voices Advocacy