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Trolls, hate speech and crowd censorship: Seminar on modern limits on press freedom hosted on World Press Freedom Day

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Coinciding with the 250th anniversary of the Parliament of Sweden adopting its landmark Freedom of the Press Act, the Embassies of Finland and Sweden hosted a seminar titled “Trolls, hate speech and crowd censorship: Limits on press freedom” at the Museum of Occupations on Tuesday.

The two and a half-hour seminar, with opening remarks given by Finnish Ambassador Kirsti Narinen and closing remarks by Swedish Ambassador Anders Ljunggren, included three speakers: Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, Estonian media expert and blogger Daniel Vaarik, and project manager of nonprofit “Institute of Law and Internet” Ängla Eklund. The speakers also took part in a half-hour panel discussion moderated by's Editor-in-Chief Rain Kooli.

Themes of the seminar included the impact of aggressive online discussion on press freedom, the impact of internet “trolling” on targeted journalists, and the spread of crowd censorship and the potential threat it poses to freedom of speech and democracy.

Jessikka Aro, a journalist at Finnish public broadcasting company Yle and winner of a 2016 Bonnier Award, discussed how her investigation into the phenomenon of pro-Russian online trolling quickly found her a target of online attacks and abuse herself, including international harassment, smear campaigns, and dissemination of her personal information.

Daniel Vaarik, an Estonian media expert, member of the President’s Academic Advisory Board, board member at public policy think tank Praxis and winner of Estonia’s first annual Excellent Journalism Award in 2010, talked about the development of online discussion in Estonia, the concept of crowd censorship, and its impact on public discussion.

Ängla Eklund, project manager of nonprofit “Institute of Law and Internet” in Sweden, discussed how the issues of online harassment, freedom of speech and democratic society were related, citing among other factors the concern that current legislation in many countries remained unadapted to quickly-evolving modern technology and means of communication, which often left victims of online harassment and prosecuting authorities alike at a loss.

The event concluded with a half-hour panel discussion with the seminar’s three speakers, which began with a brief debate on the possible ramifications of Estonian writer Kaur Kender’s case, which went to trial on Monday, and wherein Kender was charged with the production of child pornography after publishing a short story about a pedophile which included graphic depictions of the sexual abuse of minors.

Also discussed were changes for the stricter in governments’ attitudes towards online hate speech after years of passivity on the part of authorities, the need to balance freedom of speech with more effective legislation for the punishment of its abuse, including focus on preventive rather than only reactive action, the pitfalls of lack of awareness, understanding, and resources necessary for the prevention and prosecution of online crimes such as hate speech and harassment.

According to the UN’s website, May 3, the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles put together during a UNESCO seminar in Namibia in 1991, has been celebrated worldwide since 1993 as World Press Freedom Day. In 2016, the day also coincided with the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the world’s first freedom of information law, which covers both modern-day Sweden and Finland, as well as the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Windhoek.

Officially hosted in Helsinki, Finland this year, according to the UN, this year’s World Press Freedom Day had three primary areas of focus, including freedom of information as a fundamental freedom and human right, the protection of press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach, as well as the ensuring of safety for journalism both on- and offline.

Editor: Editor: Aili Sarapik, Dario Cavegn

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