As promised, our petition to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was delivered yesterday at their Headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Over 20,000 people, from no less than 130 countries (!) signed it.

At ICT we are very proud and inspired to be part of a global movement of citizens who are concerned both about the well being of the Tibetan people, and the status and future of civil liberties in our democratic countries.

I would like to personally thank each of you who signed and shared this initiative with friends and family. I am firmly convinced that by uniting individuals of good will we can make change happen in this world, and ICT is fully committed to continuing to work hand in hand with you. We will reach out to you asking for your involvement and engagement with our work, and I really hope that you will continue to respond positively and take action.

To deliver the petition, I took the time to fly to San Francisco and joined our partners at Care2 to go to Facebook Headquarters. Before arriving I wrote to Debbie Frost, the VP for International Communications and Public Affairs who had been kind enough to respond to our petition on my blog, requesting a meeting to deliver the petitions and to further discuss this very important issue.

I never received a response, but I thought that since Zuckerberg stated that freedom of expression is very important to Facebook, they would find someone to receive a petition signed by over 20,000 people - many of them Facebook users - who are concerned about their policy regarding the deletion of videos of Tibetans’ self-immolations.

I was wrong. When the receptionist reached out to her office it turned out that she too busy to meet us and nobody else was available. We were instructed to leave the petition with the security guards and leave, which we did.

I am neither disappointed nor surprised; I am just sorry for Facebook, a company that is playing an important role for the future of freedom of expression in the world. They found time to give a warm welcome to the head of China’s censorship machine, but did not find the time to listen to the concerns of over twenty thousand citizens.

As a Member of Parliament and of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I have met with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Members of Parliament and business leaders all over the world. When someone does not respond to a request for a meeting on an issue of public concerns it means either that there is a lot of confusion on how to respond, or there is something to hide.

In any case, rest assured that we will continue to watch and monitor closely the status of freedom of expression on Facebook.

It has now become tradition for Pope Francis to hold informal press conferences with journalists traveling with him on the plane while returning to Rome from his trips abroad. The last trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines was no exception and the Pope commented on a wide range of issues with some quite candid remarks. Among them, there was also an interesting comment about his missed meeting with the Dalai Lama last month in Rome. Questioned by Anaïs Feuga of Radio France about why he hadn’t met the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis said (transcripts are available in Italian) that according to the Protocol of the State Secretary “Heads of States or persons of that level are not received when in Rome for an international meeting. For example, during the FAO summit in Rome I did not meet anybody. This is the reason why I did not meet him.” The first observation to be made is that Pope Francis has publicly confirmed the high regards in which he holds the Dalai Lama – as also stated by the Vatican’s spokesperson last month in Rome - rightly comparing his stature to that of a “Head of State or person of that level.” At the same time, he referred to the “Protocol of the State Secretary” to explain why the meeting did not take place. This would seem, at first glance, an uncharacteristically bureaucratic explanation for a Pope who is universally known (and has become popular for this) for not mincing his words and for taking the Vatican’s bureaucracy to tasks on many issues: from the constant call on the need for the Church to stick to the values it preaches, to the promotion of transparency and accountability of its administrative structures. Also, the Pope felt the need to add something to the official answer provided by the Vatican last December, which included reference to “the delicate situation” with China (and which irritated many Catholics and many others all over the world), probably with the goal to reassure them of his intentions: “I have seen that some newspapers have written that I did not meet him for fear of China: this is not true. In that moment the reason was that one [the protocol].” Then he went on saying “He [the Dalai Lama] had asked for an audience and he was given a date at some point. He had asked before, but not for that moment, but we are in contact. But the reason was not the rejection of the person or the fear of China.” So these remarks clearly indicate that the Pope was and still is willing to meet with the Dalai Lama, but that some “protocols” of the State Secretary (the Vatican Government) did not make it happen last December. These protocols, and the reference to the “delicate situation” with China, probably did not make him very happy. This is a positive shift that other world leaders should watch and follow closely, to avoid becoming hostages of Beijing’s desiderata. Now, the ball is in Pope Francis’s court and to reach the goal he will probably have to have another match with the Vatican’s bureaucracy, in addition to China. Matteo
The terrorist attack of last week in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is sparking a debate that goes beyond reflecting on the killings of innocent people for political or religious reasons. Unfortunately, the killings of innocent people as a result of different extremist ideologies happen every day and in huge numbers in many parts of the world. Sometimes, the violence comes from individuals, sometimes it comes from organized armed groups, and sometimes it comes directly from authoritarian governments. We should all remember that the loss of innocent lives is always unacceptable and we should learn to stay away from the moral double standards that the media inevitably impose on us by choosing which events (often tragedies) should deserve our attention instead of others. Having said this, the genuine outpour of indignation and attention that has emerged as a result of the Paris terrorist attack has an objective basis. A satirical magazine represents the essence of freedom of expression in any free society, and to violently and brutally target its employees, as it happened in Paris, has raised the concerns of every citizen who is interested in protecting this right. What is now becoming clear is that while the “international community” generally agrees to “condemn” this kind of violence, it has not yet agreed on the central issue that is at stake here: how to advance the fundamental human right of free expression for billions of people who do not yet enjoy it. Globally, nation states have approached this issue with too many different laws and regulations, many of which are in direct contrast with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the UN General assembly in 1948 after a war that left millions upon millions dead after the rise of authoritarian ideologies. Article 19 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 technological revolution of the last decades has made the visionary aspiration of sharing information “regardless of frontiers” a concrete daily possibility. In fact, the advent of the Internet makes it possible for everyone not only to express, but most importantly, to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. But this can happen only if one fundamental condition is met: that national governments do not censor the information that citizens are entitled to receive. There are an increasing number of countries that explicitly limit this right by censoring media content available on the Internet. This is allowed to happen without serious challenges from the UN or democratic governments. Pay attention, freedom of speech is the battleground chosen by extremists and authoritarian governments to change the way in which democratic societies operate. In fact, by focusing on “offensive”, “immoral” or “graphic” manifestations of freedom of expression, the goal is to intimidate and limit the right of the people to freely express themselves on sensitive political or social issues, as clearly emerged by the Chinese state news agency’s comment on the Paris attack. The reasons are simple: the main enemy for any authoritarian government or extremist group is the people’s capacity to question or criticize its actions and motives. Imposing fear, and then silence, through violence, imprisonment, and torture are the means used to achieve this goal. Democratic societies have ignored the importance of this issue for too long, and the future of freedom of expression cannot be left to Internet companies to negotiate or decide. It is urgent for our countries to start publicly contrasting the measures that are taken by national governments to limit the right to access information through the Internet. China is leading this effort, having built a firewall and having set up a huge censorship machine, and putting pressure on Internet companies that want to do business in China. And this is why, even before the Paris attack, we were worried to see Facebook, a giant and global social media enterprise, deleting the post of a video of a Tibetan monk’s self-immolation (videos that are censored in China) citing “graphic” concerns regarding a purely political action; and that is why we decided to launch a petition to restore it that has now been signed by over 17000 people. Worryingly, earlier this week, while meeting in Paris also a number of EU Ministers of the interiors called on Internet providers to increase their surveillance capacities. This is the wrong path to follow. It is not by increasing censorship and controls on the general public, like China does, that terrorist attack will be prevented. This will only increase abuses. Experience tells us that a society is more secure when civil liberties are respected. We at ICT are following very closely this debate. We do not want our societies to follow China’s censorship practices on the Internet and we are working to make sure that the opposite happens and that, one day, the flow of free information will break China’s firewall and reach the Chinese and Tibetan people. Matteo

facebook"Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences, particularly when they're connected to controversial events. Where such expression involves graphic videos, it needs to be shared responsibly, so that younger people on Facebook do not see it, and it doesn't appear without warning in peoples' News Feeds. While we continue to work on ways of giving people ways to share graphic expression responsibly, we will remove video content of this nature from our service. 

We took the action in question because of violations of our Community Standards. These standards apply to everyone who uses our service regardless of where there are located. Any suggestion that we took action because of politics, philosophy or theoretical business interests is completely false."

sign petitionOn Tuesday, Debbie Frost, VP for International Communications and Public Affairs at Facebook posted the above response to my blog, in which I explained the reasons why ICT launched a petition to Facebook concerning the deletion of a post by Woeser that included a video of the self-immolation of Kelsang Yeshe. First of all, let me say that I welcome the decision by Facebook to respond. I appreciate the opportunity to have a dialogue on a critical issue that has raised the concerns of Facebook users and many other citizens. At the same time, I believe that this response misses the main point that led us to take the decision to launch this petition. The point is that the existence of freedom of expression can be seriously assessed only when “controversial” issues, and in particular social and political events, are considered. Strong emotions can be stirred up in the political arena, and only there can the respect of freedom of expression, and its limits, be properly evaluated. Now, clearly, a public self-immolation is an inherently political action (whether or not one agrees with this kind of action is not the point under discussion here) and although the images can be very graphic and disturbing, the decision to ban or delete such videos from Facebook is not purely a technical choice, but rather a very serious political decision. The International Campaign for Tibet’s petition, quickly signed by almost 8,000 people from all over the world so far, calls on Facebook to consider these videos for what they are: a tragic call for attention by people who have no freedom of expression and who are crying for the help of the outside world to end China’s repression in Tibet. Facebook operates in the so-called free world and these individuals are taking these actions in a closed society precisely so the free world will take note and do something to intervene. Banning such videos means first of all denying Tibetans the right to be heard. Sadly, 136 of them have taken this tragic decision since 2009 inside Tibet. What was also disturbing was to see this video deleted on the Facebook account of Woeser, a Tibetan who posts critical information about the situation in Tibet from China, while the same video continues to be available on other Facebook accounts. Also, although previous posts by Woeser about self-immolations were not removed, this happened for the first time a few weeks after the head of the Chinese internet censorship machine was welcomed at Facebook headquarters and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly praised a book of speeches by Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, telling his staff that "I want them to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics”. If Facebook wants to be believed when saying that “Any suggestion that we took action because of politics, philosophy or theoretical business interests is completely false,” it has only one simply way to prove it: restore the video on Woeser’s account. If you wish, as we do, you can add a warning about the graphic images for the viewers to see, so they can make an informed choice. Deleting it is not really the way to go. To our members and Tibet supporters around the world: please continue to sign our petition until we achieve our goal and restore freedom of expression on Facebook. Matteo