Freedom of expression in era of social media

ONE THING that I have been continually struck by during my three years in Kuwait is the increasing ubiquity of the Smartphone. Indeed, someone told me recently that Kuwait has the highest level of Smartphone usage per capita anywhere in the world. A fact I can well believe as I watch my media savvy Kuwaiti friends at their Diwaniyas. And of course the ubiquity of the technology goes hand-in-hand with the ubiquity of social media. Twitter in Kuwait is not a craze, it is part of the political landscape. Kuwaiti MPs have more followers on Twitter than their British equivalents, despite the fact that there are sixty times as many Brits as there are Kuwaitis. Kuwait’s accomplished and knowledgeable Twitterati are at the leading edge of every new story.

Such a change doubtlessly has a massive impact. Instinctively, for example, it seems clear that social media offers huge opportunities for freedom of expression. Individuals are able to see their thoughts traverse the globe in an instant; news - and its interpretation - is not automatically dependent on the filtering process of the media, or of government. Injustice, when it happens, can easily have light shone upon it. Contrast the international outrage, from ordinary people and their governments, over the barbarity in Syria today, with the quiescence in 1982 when Hafez al-Assad flattened the city of Hama. There was no YouTube video of that bloodbath.

But with rights come responsibilities. Unchecked, social media can also allow disinformation, slander, racism, incitement to hatred, victimization and a catalogue of ills, some - obviously - more serious than others. We are struggling with this issue in the UK. Our Crown Prosecution Service recently published a new set of guidelines on what, in the UK context, was required for the law to be broken on social media. The simple fact is that what is said on social media, merely by dint of the forum in which the view was aired, should not be a free pass to immunity.

In my view, if something incites violence or racism, then it should be prosecuted, regardless of whether it is said in front of physical people or their virtual avatars. But drawing this line is no easy matter. Going too far one way allows space for hatred and violence and undermines social cohesion; going too far the other impinges on fundamental human rights. It is therefore a controversial and contested subject in the UK, with various politicians, pressure groups, civil society orgnaisations and journalists weighing in on different sides of the debate.

That is why the Embassy has worked with the Euro-Gulf research unit at Kuwait University to organise a seminar on Monday Feb 4, bringing together British and Kuwaiti experts to discuss precisely these issues - an academic session looking at these principles and the issue their intersection throws up is far preferable to having them buried amidst the tumult of the daily political cut and thrust. The hashtag for the seminar is #Q8 expression and all are welcome to participate, whether in cyberspace or in person at KU. Hopefully, as befits this subject, the debates in the hall and more widely will feed off each other. It promises to be an interesting discussion, and I’ll certainly will be glued to my Smartphone to watch how it unfolds....

By Frank Baker
British Ambassador to Kuwait

By: Frank Baker

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