“A small window to freedom”
International visitors to the German Bundestag: On 6 April 2011 members of the Study Commission on the Internet met with bloggers from countries including Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Azerbaijan and Romania.
“The internet is the world’s freest and most efficient forum for information and communication. It is playing a major role in the development of a global community.” This is the first sentence of the decision to set up the Study Commission on the Internet and Digital Society. The head of the Commission, Axel E. Fischer (CDU/CSU) read it to the group of bloggers, eleven men and three women, on 6 April 2011.
In the history of the Study Commission, the significance of this sentence has rarely been as tangible as it was at this event. As part of a blogger trip, the Federal Foreign Office invited the international bloggers to join five Members of the German Bundestag for a meeting at the Bundestag. The trip will include visits to constitutional bodies, media organisations and NGOs, and will give bloggers the chance to learn about the political situation in Germany.
For the members of the Study Commission, the meeting was a valuable opportunity to get first-hand information about the bloggers’ own experiences. Welcoming the international guests to the Jakob Kaiser House of the German Bundestag, Fischer said, “We are delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you.” He then went on to present the work of the Study Commission.
The questions raised by both sides showed how interested each party was in the other. The Members of the German Bundestag asked the visitors about their experiences of repression, about how politics and parliaments in other countries are responding to the future of the internet, and about how efforts such as those by the German Study Commission are perceived abroad.
Tunisia: situation is improving but remains unstable
The bloggers gave insights into the very different conditions in their respective countries. In Tunisia, as one blogger reported, the situation for bloggers before the revolution was catastrophic. The country had various types of bloggers, and those who were political activists were persecuted particularly intensively, with many of them being imprisoned.
The blogger explained that some bloggers from academic circles were able to circumvent government censorship methods and to find the technical means to voice their opinion. He went on to say that the revolution has completely changed the situation, that the internet is no longer seen as a threat, and that the state has a progressive and modern attitude. The mission of bloggers now, he said, is to make sure that pre-revolution conditions are confined to history and that a closer relationship to those in government develops. It is therefore very much in bloggers’ interests to gather information on how countries like Germany have firmly established freedom of expression in their laws and their society.
Government against internet activists
The bloggers also reported on ongoing repressive measures in their countries. They explained how blogs are being deleted and how governments are taking targeted action against internet activists. Some activists had spent long periods in jail. The bloggers also talked about organisations that support the government by developing special software that filters out critical opinions from social networks, or by setting up automatic deleting mechanisms to control blogs.
Blogs: crucial sources of information
Reports from other bloggers showed that a lack of freedom of expression is closely linked to other problems. The biggest problems, in the opinion of one blogger, were corruption and poverty. Another identified mafia-like structures and economic corruption as problems that make blogs a crucial source of independent information. One participant said that because the government controlls the public media, the internet offers a “small window to freedom”.
“How do you control blogs?”
The bloggers also asked specific questions about the internet here in Germany. One blogger wanted to know whether Germany had special legislation and copyright regulations for the internet, and whether websites generally have the same status as the mass media. The blogger also asked, “How are blogs controlled in Germany?” The Members of the German Bundestag explained that they were not controlled, that the fundamental principles of freedom of expression and freedom of the press applied. Website operators are prosecuted if they publish libellous content or break the law. But even banning extremist parties requires a decision by the Federal Constitutional Court.
The Members of the German Bundestag did say that there are limits in Germany, too. If unconstitutional opinions are expressed on the internet, a decision has to be made. Does the principle of freedom of expression apply, or is the content unconstitutional and a violation of the free democratic basic order? In such cases, the courts decide. However, this point also highlights the problem of law enforcement on an international level. For example, content published in the US that counts as unconstitutional in Germany is still be available online in Germany. However, the Members of the German Bundestag were of the general opinion that compared to the problems some of the bloggers present faced, those in Germany have relatively little to complain about.
Freedom of expression, free elections, independence from economic actors
Besides issues of internet policy, some countries are tackling quite different problems. This was clearly revealed by one blogger’s questions on social security. He said that the German system was of particular interest to him, because his government is currently developing a social security system of its own. The final question one of the bloggers asked the Members of the German Bundestag was not about the internet, but about democracy in general: What advice can the Members of the German Bundestag give to young democracies? The response was freedom of expression, free elections with public counting, and independence from individual commercial enterprises – these were the foundations that the young Federal Republic of Germany consciously chose over 65 years ago in the wake of its devastating dictatorship.
Background: Federal Foreign Office blogger trip
The visit to the Bundestag was the first stop on the bloggers’ eight-day trip around Germany. In the next few days they will visit Hamburg, among other places. Their schedule also includes meetings with German bloggers and other media representatives. In addition to their meeting with the Study Commission, the bloggers’ visit to the Bundestag included an introduction to the German blogosphere by journalist Robin Meyer-Lucht, and a talk by media lawyer Jan Mönikes on the legal framework for bloggers in Germany.
German version Here
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