To Defend Freedom on Social Media but also to Increase Accountability

The right to freedom of expression in democratic societies should be restricted only when there is an urgent need for it  and this restriction should be the exception. In Montenegro there is no law that regulate area of social networks, but that does not mean that citizens are not sanctioned, sometimes justifiably, sometimes unjustifiably, for acting on the internet and these networks. Media literacy must be one of the priorities and it is necessary to include this subject in primary school as well.

These are some of the key conclusions from the yesterday’s Panel Discussion “Freedom of Expression on the Internet: A Common Challenge for Montenegro and the EU”. Discussion was organised by the Institute Alternative (IA) within the “Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective” project, funded through the Europe for Citizens Programme.

During his introductory speech, Stevo Muk, President of the Managing Board at IA, pointed out how important is to talk about freedom of expression on the Internet. This especially at the time when we are somehow forced to move some of our activities to online space and perhaps to use Internet and social networks more than would be case in some other circumstances.

”Developing and implementing appropriate policies to address the challenges posed by social networks has become a topic of transnational importance”, stated Muk, adding that this project aims to encourage participation of young people in discussions on issues that directly or indirectly affect them.

Muk also said that Institute Alternative held a closed consultative meeting with young people “Young online”. Topics of the event were positive and negatives sides of Internet and social networks, ideas and potential solutions for regulation of this area. During this meeting various perspectives and views on this issues are highlighted. It is very commendable that young people have recognised both sides of this topic: the importance of freedom of speech and the breadth and pluralism that networks provide, but also the dangers of cyber violence, hate speech and the spread of misinformation.

On behalf of the young participants, the conclusions from the consultative meeting were conveyed by Lazar Vujačić and Milovan Marković.

“Young people think that social networks are good because they enable fast flow and availability of information and communication with other people as well”, said Marković at the panel discussion. Vujačić stated that the bad sides are that social networks affect human psyche, create unrealistic standards through the influence of famous people, create addictions, but also emphasised that social networks are place where untruths spread quickly and easily.

As ideas for regulating this area of social networks, young people stated the formation of an independent expert body at the EU level that would deal with these issues, systematic education on the digital sphere is necessary as well, and that the improvement of media literacy would lead to safes use of social networks.

Siniša Gazivoda, lawyer and expert on freedom of expression, consider that society is not sufficiently familiar with the regulation of the online sphere since it has not been talked about much so far.

“We do not have a law that deals with social networks, but we have an international legal framework that is binding. When we say the right to freedom of expression, it includes speaking on networks. The only law that partly regulates freedom of expression on the Internet is the new Law on Media, which regulates Internet publications for the first time. The Law stipulates the obligation of media portals to act on comments that have unwanted content”, said Gazivoda, explaining that portals are obliged to delete comments below the post on the portal, but not on the social network. He also added that in case that the use of the right to freedom of expression violates someone’s right to privacy, it is necessary to balance which right is more predominant in that particular case.

Marija Vesković from the Human Rights Action presented several cases where citizens were prosecuted for posting on personal profiles on one of the social networks. “In these cases, citizens are prosecuted on the basis of the Criminal Code or the Law on Public Order and Peace. It should be noted that these are private profiles and that in that case citizens do not have a certain degree of responsibility that journalists, for example, can have when transmitting news”, stated Vesković. She added that “freedom of expression allows citizens unverified information, half-truths, rumors”.

“Any prosecution of citizens for the use of freedom of expression has no consequences only for that person, through prison sentences, detention, imposition of high sentences – but this sends a message to all citizens to be careful what they post on social networks. So, we can not talk about democratic society in which individuals are feel free to comment on the actions of high officials, to express constructive and critical views,” Vesković concluded.

Olivera Nikolić from the Montenegro Media Institute said that fake news is transmitted faster than true news because it is more attractive. “We have an inadequate state response to freedom of expression on the Internet and a lack of a more proactive approach to the problem of misinformation. Smart societies have long been making strategies to better deal with the amount of information we are exposed to on social networks, develop skills of critical perception of media content and better management of digital content”, Nikolić said. She added that education from the youngest age is very important. Also, they advocate media literacy to be a subject in primary schools as early as possible, and not only in high schools, as is currently the case.

Milana Bojović from the Institution of the Protector of Human Rights and Freedoms pointed out that they recognise that there is a great need to talk about freedom of expression on the Internet, but also about the abuse of this right through hate speech, insulting speech and the like. “We are aware of the problem, but also we need tangible solutions to transfer those limitations from the real world to the online space” Bojović said.

Milica Žugić from the organisation Mladi Info that there is still no regulation of what we share from the portal to a social network, and that it is difficult to respect journalistic ethics on the one hand, and on the other hand provide information and provide people opportunity to say what they think.

Dragana Jaćimović from the Institute Alternative, who was also a moderator of the panel discussion, said that it is necessary to include as many actors as possible in the discussions on these topics. This is something that affects all users of social networks regardless of their age or position in society, and it is important to include in education also how to behave in the digital sphere.

Recording of the Panel Discussion you may find here.

This public discussion is organised within the project “Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective”, implemented by a network of think tanks from 6 countries in the region (Think for Europe Network – TEN), together with International Affairs Institute in Rome, Bronislaw Geremek Foundation in Warsaw and European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels. The project is funded by the European Union through the Europe for Citizens program.

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