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Not the headlines you want…

November 17, 2009

While many at the UN are trying to grapple with the rapid evolution of digital communications and exploring ways to incorporate and leverage it in public information campaigns, the message the organization sends out on the issue free speech on the Internet is not always as crystal clear as it could be. Yesterday, the BBC reported the unfortunate chain of events that unfolded at the Internet Governance Forum in Egypt under the headline ‘UN slated for stifling net debate’. You can read the full report here.

 This led to the following exchange and clarification at the UN Spokesperson’s noon briefing in New York:

 Question:  One more about the freedom of expression question.  At this Internet Governance Forum (IGF), there has been an incident in which a poster about Internet censorship in China, about what they call the “Great Firewall” was taken down by the United Nations after the complaint by an unnamed delegation.  It may seem like a small thing to you, but I’m wondering, given what you just said that the Secretary-General’s focus was on freedom of expression, does he think that that type of removal is consistent with his position?

 Associate Spokesperson:  Well, in terms of that, I do have the facts of this from our colleagues in Sharm el-Sheikh.  The Internet Governance Forum secretariat approved the request by a group called the Open Net Initiative for a room on the first day of the Forum to promote a book, and a room was allocated for that purpose.  Subsequently, United Nations officials were alerted to a flyer being distributed at the event promoting a film on Tibet, which was not mentioned in the original request for the room.  Officials from the Forum secretariat requested the organizers not to distribute the flyer or show the film, as this was not what the room was requested for, and concerned a political issue not related to the Internet Governance Forum.  The IGF secretariat requested the organizers of the event not to distribute the flyers and they agreed. 

 Subsequently, other delegates complained to the Forum secretariat about a large poster displayed outside the room, which again was not pre-approved for posting outside the allocated room.  In response to this complaint, officials from the Forum secretariat went to the room to discuss the issue with the organizers.  Officials found that the poster was already on the floor of the room lying face up.  No United Nations official was involved in throwing the poster on the floor.  Following repeated requests from the IGF secretariat to remove the poster from the floor, United Nations security removed it from the floor and folded it undamaged.  The organizers were told that they could pick it up anytime later that evening.  And so that’s where we stand on that.  But, the point to reiterate on that is that the request was made to the non-governmental organization involved not to distribute the flyers and they did agree to that.

 Question:  From the way that you say it, do you acknowledge that the poster had to do with Internet censorship in China and not Tibet, an issue that was related presumably to Internet governance?

 Associate Spokesperson:  These are the details that were provided by colleagues in Sharm el-Sheikh.  That’s what I’ve got.

 Question:  Can you ask them what the poster… just to confirm that the poster was about Internet censorship?

 Associate Spokesperson:  Sure. 

 It would be good to think that the UN will be able to avoid controversy like this in the future, but as long as it has to balance the positions of all 192 Member States and their (in some cases restrictive) attitudes towards Internet use, there are bound to be incidents borne out of the various sensitivities at play.