Mapke de Boer, Internal Voices, 05.05.2013 “When I talked about technologies impacting human rights and democracy in 2009, people looked at me as if I was speaking a different language.”
Digitisation has had a great impact on free speech, the media and journalists. This year’s theme of World Press Freedom Day is: “Safe to speak: Securing freedom of expression in all media”. The rise of social media, opportunities and threats as a result of the use of new technologies, can therefore not be left unexamined. Who better to talk about recent developments in freedom of speech in online media than “Europe’s most wired politician”: Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake (D66, ALDE). Since she was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 - then only 30 years old - Schaake has been very involved with topics related to freedom of expression, particularly in a hyper connected world. Where does your interest for internet freedom come from? It is related to the political family which I belong to, liberals. I think free speech is an essential human right. If you cannot express yourself, it is very difficult to be yourself and to enjoy press freedom and to access information. I have always been fascinated by the world of technology. It constantly changes and I think, especially in this decade, we see an exponential impact in the way technology has empowered individuals: how, on the one hand, they are able to express themselves more easily to a larger group of people. It is now possible for people to access information even if they live in societies where censorship is common. People can document and share human rights abuses and assemble through online media and technologies, and so there are a lot of opportunities for empowering and emancipating the individual. I think that is very exciting. On the other hand, digitalisation also brings threats to freedom of expression. The internet is not just a Utopia. Governments that are worried about losing grip or losing control are also using technologies to track people, to restrict their speech or to deploy mass surveillance and later to put together the pieces of the puzzle to see who was where at what time. To find dissidents and human rights defenders in their homes, and to look at who said what that was critical of the government. What can EP politicians do to ensure the human right of freedom of speech in online media? As politicians we are in a position of responsibility to tilt the balance towards more freedom and opportunities for people. But at the same time our decision-making process is running behind the speed of technological developments. I think there is a real urgency to increase the involvement of the way technologies change the world in our policies. So to mainstream it, to see it as a layer to almost everything that happens: whether it is economic development, innovation, development aid, or human rights programs. There is a very wide spectrum of issues that are impacted by technological developments. We can only be a leading continent if we get this right. In Egypt we saw an example of people expressing and organising themselves through social media leading to the massive uprisings. Under the new regime the situation of freedom of speech has not improved. I am very worried about what is happening in North Africa. The promise after the uprisings in Egypt was that the government led by Mohamed Morsi would actually want to make a difference. What we see now is just as repressive, or sometimes even more repressive, than the Mubarak regime. Ordinary people feel restricted, censored and self-censored. Even famous comedian Bassem Youssef - the John Stewart of Egypt - is now facing trial. The government wants to show that it is capable of taking on anyone: not even a big rock star is safe. Is it realistic to think that the EU can play a great role in such a global problem? I think we can and should do something. We should realise that we have to break with the past when it comes to policies toward North African and Middle Eastern countries. For too long the EU supported dictators at the expense of people's human rights. The big claim was that they would bring stability, that that was in our interest, and that they would also help for example with 'migration management'. This is a very euphemistic term for making sure that people from Sub-Saharan Africa would not reach the EU. That was the deal with Libya for example. Now, we must acknowledge that this does not work and such strategies do not lead to stability. The strategy failed. It is now time to make a rigorous break with the past: to stand with the people of these countries, their rights, opportunities and freedoms; to promote the rule of law, to talk about good governance and to help facilitate that where necessary; to give advice, knowhow, etc. How does this work in concrete terms? Oftentimes statements are made when governments in different countries violate human rights. These should be very critical statements that need to be matched with actions. There has been an offer of a total of around 5 billion euros of EU loans, assistance and grants to Egypt. This aid should be conditional. If the government does not reform and develop the rule of law sufficiently, aid should be frozen. Or it should be given to civil society organisations and never at all to the government if the government does not respect the rights of the people. I think many people in the EU are actually too afraid to follow through with a whole new strategy. We risk developing the same kind of relations with the Morsi government as we did with the Mubarak government while the people suffer equally. In that sense we are not doing what we should be doing. How do you change that? We do that by making budgets more flexible, to give an incentive to these governments - but also by speaking out. I want the Egyptian people to know that there are people in the EU who do not agree with current policies. I want them to see that we are a diverse continent, that we have a parliamentary democracy where we can discuss the different approaches. And I am trying to convince my colleagues. I think that in direct terms there is not very much we can do to change Egypt - it is in the hands of the Egyptian government. So the least that we can do is to stick with our values. There is a young generation growing up in North Africa that is looking towards the EU. They know we have a high quality of life, they know we stand for democracy and we have to show them that it means something; that these are not just empty words. In your report on 'Freedom of the Press and Media in the Word', which has not yet been adopted by the Parliament, you noted that the European Commission lacks a specific focus and vision on press and media freedom. What should be the focus? It begins with streamlining the EU's programs in a more targeted way. Right now, if you open up the Commission and see where media freedom is, there is little bits in the enlargements directorate-generals, there is little bits with development aid, and there is program money that can be given to civil society: there are parts everywhere. Sometimes these different desks do not talk to each other, and so there is not one clear goal or set of goals that are accomplished together. There are loose ends and that is not effective, and often costs more money. This report seeks to push press and media freedom and also digital freedoms higher up on the political agenda. You have been in the European Parliament for almost 4 years. What has the European Parliament done since then to improve freedom of speech in online media? The good news is that we freed up money to help human rights defenders and to work on internet freedom globally. Also, I was able to take the lead on a report that was adopted by the European Parliament that has a wide strategy on how to combine technology developments and foreign policies in a way that enhances freedom. It can be applied very concretely. When I started in the EP over 4 years ago, I wouldn't have thought there would be political room for this kind of topic. Because in 2009, when I started talking about technologies impacting human rights and democracy, people looked at me as if I was speaking a different language. They thought Facebook was something for young people: a hobby that their kids might have. But only later, after the uprisings in North Africa and developments like WikiLeaks, they developed a different picture on how important and how decisive these technologies can be. The developments around cyber security have made people aware that there is a deeper layer to what technology means for our fundamental rights and freedoms. So a lot has changed in the past four years. Not enough, but in politics you are never done. How do you see your specific role in this as a MEP? If I look around me I think there is a lot of education to be done. So I think this is an issue where I can make a difference and where I can try to connect different worlds to each other: between people who understand technologies and people who are decision makers; between foreign policy - sort of traditional political thinkers - and the tech community; between an established and a younger generation. It is a very exciting field to work in. What is a topic that should be changed in the near future? If the EU believes that human rights are universal and that the EU as a community of values has a responsibility in the world, it means we should not only talk about it - we should take action! We have to limit the European export of companies that are selling what I call 'digital weapons': the technologies that are used for surveillance, for tracking and tracing of human rights defenders. A lot of them are made in Europe. That is not OK, and nothing is happening! It is an unregulated, often very grey market that has huge consequences for human rights - but also for our strategic interest. Because if we are allowed the export of surveillance technologies to Syria for example, it does not only impact the human rights of the Syrian people but it also impacts companies that are European and are working on the ground, who may have all their email filtered. And so we make a country - with whom we are in conflict -stronger. We bring them tools that can help them break into computer systems, to track and trace communication. There is no way of knowing that they will not use it against us. We have to see the broader picture of a globally connected world - that is the reality we live in now. We are not there yet, there is a lot that we have to do.