Tuesday, August 26, 2003

CORRECTION: This article incorrectly reported the outcome of a defamation court case against Dow Jones for an article published in the Internet edition of Barron’s. An Australian court has ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear the case, but no judicial decision has been made on the merits of the case itself.

Groups advocating freedom of the press warn that an upcoming U.N. summit concerning the Internet will be used by nations such as China and Saudi Arabia to justify existing restrictions on Web publishing.

At issue is the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society this December in Geneva, where about 185 U.N. member nations, 60 percent of which do not have free press, will have equal votes in the outcome.

“Press freedom itself is under threat from those who would claim authority to decide what is transmitted in cyberspace,” stated World Press Freedom Committee Chairman James Ottaway in the group’s newsletter.

The WPFC, an international group of 44 print and broadcast media companies, says the U.S. delegation to the conference has thus far failed to assure the meeting will not become a forum to clamp down on Internet news reports.

“They’ve been kind of timid in speaking up for press freedom,” said WPFC Executive Director Marilyn Greene in an interview. “We’re urging the State Department to step up to the plate and be more forceful.”

Countries where the governments control the press, such as Cuba, China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, are expected to push for restrictions on Internet sites with content they deem unsuitable for their citizens.

Some want to block sites promoting hate, Nazism or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, women’s swimsuits.

While some governments believe screening sites is beneficial, Dow Jones Electronic Publishing President L. Gordon Crovitz points out in the WPFC newsletter that there are detriments, such as the loss of “economic opportunities presented by the Internet.”

Internet publishers fear lawsuits in which they’re tried in countries with different laws and repressive governments.

Joe Gutnick, an Australian, sued Dow Jones, a U.S. firm, for publishing a piece in the Internet edition of Barron’s that Mr. Gutnick felt was libelous.

Dow Jones was tried under Australian law, which is stricter on defamation than American law, and lost the case.

Internet news sites “wouldn’t write stories [on the Internet] that might get them in trouble,” said Ms. Greene. “It’s too expensive and inconvenient.”

At a conference in Paris in November, organizations such as the WPFC, the InterAmerican Press Association and the International Press Institute issued a statement they say will help preserve press freedom.

The statement says it is crucial that the upcoming U.N. summit create an explicit “implementation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The United Nations, on its Web site, says that Article 19 “will be upheld by the summit.”

The worst-case scenario, said Ms. Greene, is that the summit “will adopt a declaration that says Internet content should be controlled by the government and restricted because that would mean the end of the free flow of information around the world.”

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