1 September 2003

Leading journalists, media lawyers and online news executives, meeting in New York, urged observance of 16 basic principles for maintaining and protecting the freedom and independence of Internet news, and suggested actions to support this.

The conference endorsed a Statement of Vienna, adopted earlier in Vienna, Austria, by leading press freedom groups as the fundamental guidelines for protecting press freedom on the Internet.

"News media in cyberspace and via international satellite broadcasts should be afforded the same freedom of expression rights as traditional news media," the Statement affirms. "News on the Internet is the same as news everywhere. New technology does not require any reconsideration of fundamental rights such as freedom of the press."

The New York conference, titled "Press Freedom on the Internet," was organized by the World Press Freedom Committee and co-sponsored by the Communications and Media Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

"Press freedom itself is under threat," said World Press Freedom Committee Chairman James H. Ottaway, "from those who would claim authority to decide what is transmitted in cyberspace. It is incumbent on those of us who are dedicated to the freedom and independence of news flow to stand up now to proposals that could be interpreted as endorsing restrictions on Internet news."

Such concerns are especially acute in the period leading up to a UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, scheduled to begin this December in Geneva and continue in 2005 in Tunis.

All 185 UN member states - a majority of which do not have a free press - have equal voice at the Summit, where proposals for international and national policies on governing, and restricting, the Internet are already in play.

Already, many countries monitor, filter and censor Internet news. Under varied pretexts, governments frequently block news and information sites that they would simply rather their citizens not read.

"Journalists and their institutions face increasing threats from press-controlling authorities worldwide," said Leonard Sussman, senior scholar in international communications at Freedom House and founder of the organizationís global Press Freedom Survey.

Techniques vary, but obviously the press is not free if a state owns or controls all Internet service providers.

Although the phrases "press freedom" and "freedom of the press" are nowhere mentioned in draft versions of a Summit Declaration and a Plan of Action, by one count there are at least 80 provisions that could restrict free and independent news, if applied to the press.

Many of these are identical to ideas raised - and rejected - during the 1970s and 1980s under the mantle of a "new world information and communication order."

One draft text cites as a guideline an international text that, a WPFC survey showed, set out principles employed nearly 1,200 times in 109 countries to justify prosecution or jailing of journalists, closure of independent news media and other actions.