By Katerina Nicolaou
In the old days, so old that people didn’t have TikTok, there was a beautiful princess named Naomi Campbell. One day she was caught by a paparazzo leaving a rehab clinic after public denials that she was a recovering drug addict. The photographs were published in the Daily Mirror, owned by MGN. To cut the long story short, she took them to court in England, and won. MGN appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which ruled that the recoverable success fee violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of Expression).
A photograph, even if it’s one of those thousand-word ones, seems so innocent compared to the shame that would follow a similar post on the internet and especially in the comments below, further down in cyber hell, where anyone, even non-existent zombies, would have dragged her through the meat grinder not only for a narcotics issue, but also for botox to love affairs.
Is everything being so widely available the end of reason and responsibility? Are journalists allowed to write whatever comes to mind? Should the reputation of public figures be protected to the same degree that children and vulnerable people should be protected from online attacks? How much bullying can a child endure? How much criticism can a politician withstand?
These controversies have mutated as real life has moved into the digital world. It is clear that in the days of Elon Musk, as the power of the internet grows, so do the chances of defamation. As cyber pirates become more numerous in cyberspace, cyber security will also increase. This is common sense. But since it’s human rights and basic freedoms that are at stake precision is crucial.
The intersection between freedom of speech and the right to privacy in the online context has been the subject of several cases before the United States Supreme Court, the European Union as well as member states including Cyprus. Specifically, the island’s House legal committee is discussing a bill on the criminalisation of electronic communication via public networks, which has been publicly referred to on multiple occasions as a bill that criminalises fake news.
Among other things, the bill states that a person who posts content that they know is false with the purpose of causing serious annoyance to another person via public electronic communication networks is guilty of a criminal offence and is subject, if convicted, to imprisonment and fines. Both House committee chair (and Disy MP) Nicos Tornaritis and the justice ministry have expressed the view that the bill is ready to be sent to the plenum for passage into law.
At this stage of the consultation, satire is excluded but not journalists, who find this particular framework extremely vague, and ask – after all it is their job – who thought of such a law and why? And how can a journalist’s source be protected? And at the end of the day what constitutes fake news?
Journalists have requested through the Media Ethics Committee for the law to be clear about the distinction between ordinary users and the media, and certainly not to endanger the constitutionally enshrined right of freedom of expression, nor the citizen’s right to information.
In a time when threats against journalists are increasing, it is unacceptable to cultivate fear before the journalist even writes. Wouldn’t that constitute censorship a priori?
Following the latest intervention by media and civil society, the discussion continues with the hope that responsible journalism will be safeguarded by any new law, so fingers crossed! Because freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. As cliché as it may sound, it is vitally important.