Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore declared today that protecting online freedom of expression will be given “top priority” during his country’s 2012 chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In remarks made to an OSCE Permanent Council meeting at the group’s Vienna headquarters, Mr. Eamon set out what he later called an “ambitious agenda” to protect Internet freedom in OSCE member states.

Mr. Eamon, who is also Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs and trade, said the “threat to freedom of expression online is ever-present in the OSCE region, and appears to be growing”. In an effort to counter the trend, he announced that a meeting of “key stakeholders”, including representatives of OSCE member states, the media industry, and civil society groups (whose role he termed “crucial”) would be convened in Dublin in June in order to discuss the current situation and agree on a set of clear, common principles.

Rejecting the notion that the regulation of online media was a right reserved for individual countries, the deputy prime minister reminded the 55 other member states of their obligations to uphold international human rights agreements. While acknowledging “complex issues” raised by the Internet, he emphasised that “human rights and fundamental freedoms do not change with digital technologies”.

In remarks to members of the press following the speech, Mr. Eamon was even more direct, terming increased controls on electronic media by OSCE member states “regrettable” and said that those countries’ adherence to OSCE media-freedom standards was “imperative”.

Asked by the International Press Institute (IPI) to name specific countries whose actions were of particular concern to Ireland, Mr. Eamon demurred, saying that he did not want to “point fingers”. He did, however, note that a set of “common issues”, including censorship, attempted censorship, and invasion of privacy were on the rise across the OSCE.

Observers such as IPI have been deeply troubled as of late by an apparent crackdown on digital media freedom in Turkey, an OSCE member. The Turkish government recently introduced what is for the time being a voluntary Internet search filter that blocks approximately 130 search terms deemed ‘harmful’ by the government. Turkish media experts told news outlets in late 2011 that the filtering would render thousands of websites de facto inaccessible. Plans for more expansive filtering were scuttled in August, 2011 after thousands protested against what they perceived as an attempt at censorship by the government.

For its part, Turkey has claimed that the measures are necessary in part to restrict children’s access to adult content.  Mr. Eamon declined to discuss Turkey specifically, but told IPI that while certain content-related concerns raised by states may be valid, these “need to be addressed in a way that is genuine and not being brought forward as an excuse for wider censorship”.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: “We welcome the Irish Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks and we are very pleased to hear that Ireland will make protecting Internet freedom a priority in 2012.  As more and more countries resort to Internet censorship as a method of controlling the media, it becomes absolutely essential that international organisations such as the OSCE take a loud and unequivocal stand against this practice.”

Founded in 1973, the OSCE encompasses all European countries in addition to all former Soviet states and the United States and Canada. Ireland took over the organisation’s annually rotating chairmanship from Lithuania on 1 January.