NEW YORK (17 October 2022) – The information environment has become a dangerous theatre of war in the digital age, Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, told the General Assembly last week.
Presenting her report on disinformation and freedom of opinion and expression during armed conflicts, Khan said that State and armed groups, enabled by digital technology and social media, were weaponising information to sow confusion, feed hate, incite violence, discredit human rights defenders, disrupt humanitarian activities and prolong conflict.
“Information has long been manipulated by States and armed groups to deceive and demoralise the enemy. But what is new and deeply worrying in today’s conflicts is the scale, spread and speed of disinformation, propaganda and hate speech, targeting civilians, particularly vulnerable and marginalised groups. It undermines human rights with audacity and impunity,” Khan said.
“During armed conflict, people are at their most vulnerable and in great need of accurate, trustworthy information to ensure their own safety and well-being. Yet that is precisely when they are being hit with manipulated information, internet shutdowns or slowdowns, information blackouts and other restrictions on information,” she said.
“The right to information is not a legitimate target of war,” the Special Rapporteur said.
Khan said the freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to seek, receive and disseminate diverse sources of information, must be upheld by States in times of crises and armed conflict as a precious ‘survival right’ on which people’s lives, health, safety, security and dignity depend.
The expert denounced State-led and State-sponsored disinformation and propaganda and said information was being instrumentalised to inflict harm on civilians. “Factual information and independent media are delegitimised as ‘fake news’, and UN human rights reports are discredited while patently false government propaganda is promoted as facts,” Khan said.
The Special Rapporteur urged States to ensure that all measures to combat disinformation online and offline were fully in line with international human rights standards.
“Using national security and counter terrorism laws to restrict speech, censoring critical voices, attacking independent media and disrupting the Internet do nothing to combat disinformation and much to erode freedom of opinion and expression as well as public trust in the integrity of information which is vital for preventing and resolving conflicts as well as protecting civilians,” she warned.
“The best antidote to disinformation is access to diverse and verifiable sources of information, independent, free, pluralistic and diverse media, trustworthy public information, and media, information and digital literacy,” she said.
Given the role of social media in amplifying manipulated information, the Special Rapporteur urged companies to carry out enhanced human rights due diligence in line with United Nations guidelines, adopt effective, human rights-compliant policies, processes and business practices, ensure user security and improve their own transparency and accountability.
Acknowledging measures by some companies to improve crisis response, she called on them to respond with equal commitment to all conflict situations in which they operate.
Khan noted that the new paradigm of information manipulation in the digital age has exposed gaps, weaknesses and ambiguities in international law. She called for international humanitarian law to be strengthened so that the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the information environment can be better protected during armed conflict.
The challenges and digital threats to information and the information environment are complex and must be tackled with collaborative multistakeholder approaches that fully engage civil society and traditional media alongside States, international organisations and digital companies in a range of legal and non-legal measures, Khan said.
Ms. Irene Khan was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on 17 July 2020. She is the first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993. Ms. Khan is a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and was Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009 and Director General of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) from 2012 to 2019.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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