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European Commission

Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

Protecting a free media in Azerbaijan

Internet Governance Forum, Baku, Azerbaijan

7 November 2012

The European Union is not just a common market; and not just a guardian of peace.

It is a place of fundamental rights: rights that we treasure, protect and assure for our citizens.

The internet is not just a technology; and not just a space for business opportunities. The internet is the new frontier of freedom and a new tool to exercise this freedom.

The right to self-expression is safeguarded and championed by a free media.

Because a free media guarantees a way to challenge authority and expose abuse of power; it ensures awareness and tolerance for other views; it safeguards liberty and human rights.

In that respect, it's clear that journalists, bloggers, activists and human rights defenders are an instrument of democracy. Holding up a torch to reveal acts of despotism.

Let me give you just one example of how powerful the internet can be. I'm sure many of you have seen the amazing story of Malala Yousafzai. For several years, this Pakistani girl has been blogging about life under Taliban tyranny, and calling for the right to women's education. A young girl, with a fierce, brave sense of justice, is able to spread her story to the world. One young girl, armed only with access to the internet, is able to expose and challenge the Taliban.

The Taliban were so scared of Malala, they attempted to assassinate her: but they failed. That cowardly attempt to murder a 14 year old girl won't silence her. And it certainly won't silence her message.

That is the power of free speech to spread truth and promote liberty. That's how much we need it. Wherever it is: whether it's Pakistan, Egypt, or Syria.

Or here in Azerbaijan. Eynulla Fatullayev, an Azeri journalist, human rights activist and winner of the 2012 UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, dared to speak up to defend freedom of expression — and was imprisoned for having done so.

In this very country, we see many arbitrary restrictions on the media. We see the exercise of free speech effectively criminalised. We see violent attacks on journalists. And we see activists spied on online, violating the privacy of journalists and their sources.

I condemn this. The restrictions must end. And attacks must be investigated and punished. Promptly, thoroughly, transparently.

The Azeri government had promised earlier this year (before the Eurovision Song Context) to ensure press freedom, but the situation actually got worse.

We are taking action to defend these human rights, both within the EU (openly criticising Member States where needed), and beyond. Our "No Disconnect" strategy will help online activists use technological tools in their struggle for democracy.

Like by promoting technologies that help journalists avoid surveillance, and safeguard their right to privacy. By providing funding to fight cyber-censorship, under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. And by ensuring that EU companies are aware of the human rights implications of the technologies they sell. In more serious cases, using ICT export controls.

But most of all, I want those in power, in Azerbaijan and elsewhere, to know that these repressive restrictions on media freedom, of whatever kind, are unacceptable.

Legally unacceptable. Members of the Council of Europe, including Azerbaijan, should follow the standards they have committed to. I want to pass this message to the President of Azerbaijan.

To deprive of human rights not just journalists and bloggers, not just their sources – but the citizens who have a right to know the truth is not acceptable. And it will not serve the economic growth of the country. A free internet, a free country is also the path to a more prosperous future.

Violations of media freedom don't stand alone: they are linked to failures in other human rights, too. Because a government that arbitrarily restricts the media is, without doubt, restricting other freedoms too. A government with nothing to hide would not fear people exposing the truth.

So I welcome today's discussion. It underlines our determination, all of us, to protect a free and open media. I am here to listen to you and to learn what you think needs to happen! And I hope that, between us, we can ensure that we keep alight this flame of freedom and fundamental rights. In Azerbaijan, and throughout the world.


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