First Draft Network Meeting

Strasbourg, 3 July 2017


Dear members of the First Draft Network,

Dear Colleagues,

The rise of disinformation, often referred to as “fake news”, is of major concern to the Council of Europe and its 47 member States, including the 28 EU member states, with some 820 million citizens!

The Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, publishes an annual report that examines the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law on the continent.

This year’s report, published in April, is entitled: “Populism – How strong are Europe’s checks and balances”. This shows how important the phenomenon of misinformation and propaganda has become in Europe today and how seriously we take it.

We take the deliberate manipulation of news and the repurposing of personal data for message targeting services in the context of electoral campaigns very seriously.

There is clearly a link between that and the rise of populist discourse in Europe. As a result, citizens lose trust, they lose trust in their governments, trust in their institutions, and trust in the media!

When we speak about freedom of expression today, we often hear a “but” - and then mention is made of “hate speech” and “fake news”.

At the Council of Europe, we believe that we have to be very careful with that “but” after freedom of expression. We are talking about one of the most important foundations of democracy, one of the most important foundations of democratic security.

If we hear references to an “information war” being launched against European values or European societies, is more information not the best response?  More information, more exchanges of information and dialogue, and more freedom of expression?

The Secretary General’s Report paints an alarming picture of the state of freedom of expression in Europe. Findings from the assessment of conditions across Europe show that member States fail to guarantee an enabling environment for the freedom of expression.

Journalists and other media actors are exposed to threats and violence, a growing number have been imprisoned and there are increases in other restrictions, often justified by national security concerns.

Of course, the freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It can be interfered with in order to protect the rights of others or other legitimate interests, as long as the interference is provided by law, serves a legitimate aim, and is necessary and proportionate to the pursued aim. These are the conditions laid down in Article 10.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Independent and pluralist media play a crucial role for the exercise of the freedom of expression and are central to the functioning of democratic societies. They help to ensure the availability and accessibility of diverse information and views, on the basis of which individuals can form their options and express and exchange information and ideas.

This is why I am particularly pleased to welcome you all here at the Council of Europe! Our societies need you. We need critical journalists to be heard. We need them to question the false and biased information that is out there and to discuss openly what motivation may be behind it, what are its causes and context, and why it appears plausible and trustworthy to some.

Before I let you delve into your very important discussions, I want to take this opportunity to tell you very briefly about the various initiatives that the Council of Europe is engaged in when it comes to mis- and disinformation, or “fake news” in Europe.

First of all, we believe that it is important to clarify what we actually mean when we say “fake news”. It is a very vague notion and that is probably why we often see it in inverted commas.

Clearly, it is a complex phenomenon and that is why we (within the Information Society and Action against Crime Directorate) are trying to develop a comprehensive and nuanced approach that addresses different perspectives:  the freedom of expression perspective, the data protection perspective, and the criminal law and cybercrime perspective.

As regards the cybercrime/criminal law perspective, some forms of disinformation actually involve crime.  The intentional publication of false information for political or financial gain may be a form of fraud, for instance, or there may be links with cybercrime, such as when hacking of accounts is involved.

Tackling crime effectively across borders remains difficult today because of uncertainty and inconsistencies in legislative frameworks across borders, as well as between national regulations and international obligations.

The Committee of the Parties to the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Convention (which has 55 states parties, including non-member States of the Council of Europe) facilitates co-operation between multinational service providers and law enforcement authorities to more speedily obtain subscriber information for accounts and websites affected by criminal activities. This is very practical support in an area where mutual legal assistance procedures often still take months.

“Fake news” in Europe is very often related to migrants and religious or ethnic minorities, apparently intending to spread anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments, which are then harboured for political gain. The Council of Europe’s No Hate Speech Movement supports the development of counter, and alternative narratives which challenge and replace “fake news”.

The Council of Europe is also promoting digital citizenship education and media and information literacy programmes for all age groups, including in schools, to help citizens from young ages on to develop the necessary critical thinking skills that they need to decide whether or not to click the re-tweet or share button.

There are initiatives in some Council of Europe member States to penalise “fake news”. Overall, prohibiting or censoring speech has never shown to be effective. We believe that it is rather by more speech including counter-speech, and by promoting media literacy, independent media and public interest journalism that our societies, confronted with the new challenges you are discussing today, will be helped.

We are pleased to welcome and support First Draft News and its Network Partners for this important meeting today, and look forward to actively co-operating with you, not only from the media community, but also with other stakeholders, governments, private sectors, and civil society, to better understand and address the phenomena of “fake news”.

I wish all of you a successful meeting and fresh inspiration in this house of human rights.

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[Au 01/07/2018]