Brainboost session


Freedom of expression, disinformation and democracy debated at UNESCO brainboost session

UNESCO and the Freedom Online Coalition, with the support of the Permanent Delegation of Canada and the Presidency of the UNESCO General Conference, co-organized a brainboost session on “Freedom of expression, disinformation and democracy” at UNESCO Headquarters, in Paris, on 8 July 2022.

The keynote speaker of the conference was Minister Luís Roberto Barroso, Justice of the Supreme Federal Tribunal of Brazil and former President of the Superior Electoral Court who brought alive the challenges faced by courts and regulators all over the world on freedom of expression and elections in the new technological ecosystem. He divided his address into three key topics: democracy and authoritarian populism; the digital revolution; and social media and freedom of expression.

The conference, held in a hybrid format, was attended by diplomats from the Permanent Delegations to UNESCO, as well as by academics and UNESCO staff connecting from all our Field Offices. It is an initiative of Assistant Director-General Tawfik Jelassi to open up lively discussions on issues pertinent for the Communications and Information sector to a wider audience inside and around UNESCO.

The brainboost session served as a trigger for dialogue and discussion among peers to explore how freedom of expression, disinformation and democracy are interlinked and the best ways to enhance the role of the judiciary and electoral regulators to guarantee freedom of expression and, more broadly, to ensure the rule of law and respect for human rights.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Tawfik Jelassi, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, highlighted the importance of freedom of expression, not only as cornerstone of democratic societies, but also as enabler to the enforcement of other fundamental rights, including the right to vote, and the right of assembly.

Elections constitute a key moment in political life and, therefore, it is crucial that the public is informed in an accurate way and from a plurality of sources about political choices available to them. The judiciary also play an essential role in the protection of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and access to information.

Widespread misinformation and disinformation are often instrumentalized during election times to sow division, target certain groups, or seek political gain. It is for these reasons that UNESCO addresses misinformation and disinformation through a human rights-based approach. We advocate for aligning national laws and policies aimed at addressing disinformation with international standards on freedom of expression.
Tawfik Jelassi UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information

Natasha Cayer, Permanent Delegate of Canada to UNESCO, who serves as the chair of the Freedom Online Coalition, spoke on its behalf and described the integrity of information online and offline as a critical component of democracy and that countering the spread of disinformation has been one of Canada’s priorities.

Her words were echoed by H. E. Santiago Irazabal Mourâo, President of UNESCO's General Conference, who underlined the crucial role of freedom of expression to ensure good governance and the rule of law, to consolidate just and cohesive societies, and to advance sustainable development and peace.

He also quoted UNESCO’s Report on Global trends in freedom of expression and media development, according to which journalism has emerged weakened from the Covid-19 pandemic, not only in economic terms, but also in terms of freedom and safety of its professionals. He also raised the issue that if the use of digital technologies is offering great opportunities for freedom expression, allowing more and more people to access, produce and share information, is also favoring deliberate attacks on the press as well as the dissemination of false information.

It is extremely necessary not to confuse criticism of the media with hate speech, which has particularly been spread through social networks. Hate speech is a crime and must be treated as such – and we need to the support of the State institutions to fight against impunity.
Santiago Irazabal Mourâo President of the 41st session of UNESCO's General Conference
Brainboost session
Three observations have to be made: first, in nowadays world access to the public space is not an issue anymore, these days the problem is to catch the attention of the audience; second, according to several studies false, defamatory and sensational contents produce much more engagement than rational and moderated speech; third, hate speech, fake news and sensationalism give the wrong incentives to amplify and publish this kind of contents on social platforms.
Minister Luís Roberto Barroso Justice of the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil

In his conclusions, he stated that “despite not being easy to moderate content and sources, we all agree that some kind of regulation is necessary. To this effect, self-regulation also plays a very important role, so we all need to be pro-active in moderating content. However, regulation of platforms remain the main mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability of information sources and media”.

The audience showed interest and engagement, particularly during the Q&A session, which led to an open debate at the end of the conference.

The event was also the opportunity to officially launch UNESCO’s handbook Elections in Digital Times: A Guide for Electoral Practitioners. The handbook offers a comprehensive overview of international and regional standards regarding the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, political participation, and privacy in the context of electoral processes.

These guidelines serve to provide electoral management bodies, electoral practitioners, the media, political parties, civil society organizations, and other key stakeholders with the necessary tools to help prevent online and offline electoral related violence and manipulation.

This event was supported by the Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists and organized in the framework of UNESCO’s Judges Initiative, which aims to reinforce the capacities of judicial actors on international and regional standards on freedom of expression, access to information and the safety of journalists, thus ensuring prosecution and trial of those responsible for attacks against journalists, as well as more broadly preventing indiscriminate actions against free speech.

Under UNESCO’s Judges Initiative, over 23,000 judicial actors, including judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, have been trained on these issues in over 150 countries around the world since 2013, notably through a series of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), on-the-ground training and workshops, and the publications of a number of toolkits and guidelines.

Freedom of expression, disinformation and democracy

Brainboost session on at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 8 July 2022.