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Speech during the Conference of Ministers responsible for Media and Information Society – 11 June 2021

Dear Ministers,

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am particularly pleased to address you on this second day of the Conference, to present you the views of the Parliamentary Assembly which I have the honour to chair, on the very important issues on your agenda.

Starting with a general assessment: the Covid-19 health crisis and its serious negative impact on the various aspects of our life, out of which media freedom and the protection of journalists.

During the pandemic, in several of our member States, information has been essential and sometimes vital for the public to be aware of the dangers of the crisis and safety measures in place.

But as shown by the increased number of alerts signalled by the Council of Europe Platform for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists, threats to those at the forefront of making such information available and accessible to the public - journalists and media outlets, have intensified. The number of journalists who are victims of harassment, physical attacks and violence has sharply increased. The working conditions have also deteriorated. Some businesses are also using the fight against fake news as a pretext for intimidating media outlets, by initiating legal proceedings against publishers and seeking substantial damages.

Our Parliamentary Assembly, representing parliaments from 47 member States, has adopted a series of reports to address the issue of the consequences of the pandemic, highlighting its impact on media freedom and the safety of journalists. Member States must fulfil their positive obligation to protect media freedom and the safety of journalists by using all necessary means to end physical and verbal attacks on media professionals.

I welcome the fact that this issue is addressed at the Ministerial Conference, and reiterate the call that it is vital to ensure freedom of expression in general and freedom of the media in particular. Let’s not forget that quality information is of vital importance for democratic processes and for effectively fighting the virus and its consequences.

Another challenge, which is also one of my political priorities, is to ensure a meaningful use of Artificial Intelligence. The growth of the information society and rapid technological progress have had a profound impact on the way we communicate and how we receive and share information and opinions.

Artificial intelligence-based systems bear risks, including regarding the respect for our fundamental rights and freedoms. It can be used to control and filter information flows or to exercise automated censorship of content published on social media. In addition, there is a growing concentration of technological and economic power in the hands of large internet companies that can shape online information flows.

It is of utmost importance to strike the right balance between mitigating the risks and making full use of the advantages that AI can offer, and I believe that one of the first steps to build citizens trust in AI and its benefits is to set the rules of the game.

There is a need to establish a transparent and clearly defined legal and ethical framework that must be respected by all.

I am politician and a parliamentarian, and was also a Minister of Telecommunication, Public Enterprises and Public Holdings for my country, Belgium.

The role of Parliaments is to adopt laws, putting forward normative standards and regulations. This is why the issue of regulating – in a human-rights-compliant manner - the use of AI is at the centre of the priorities of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Just last year, in a thematic debate, the Parliamentary Assembly adopted a series of 7 reports dealing with different aspects of the use of AI.

We examined a variety of issues, ranging from the role of artificial intelligence in policing and criminal justice systems, to medical, legal and ethical challenges posed by the use of A,I or its use in labour markets, to name but a few.

The Assembly’s resolutions contain practical proposals to national parliaments and other authorities, which are intended to ensure that AI is used in a way that respects Council of Europe’s common standards on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

They include adopting national legislation, ensuring that there is a legal basis for the use of AI applications by public authorities, consulting the public on the introduction of AI applications in certain sectors, conducting human rights impact assessments prior to the introduction of AI applications and establishing national registers of AI applications being used by public authorities.

We endorsed universally accepted and applicable core ethical principles upon which AI regulations should be based such as:

  • transparency, including accessibility and explicability;
  • justice and fairness, including non-discrimination;
  • human responsibility for decisions, including liability and the availability of remedies;
  • safety and security;
  • privacy and data protection.

We are currently working on other specific reports, dealing with the control of online communication as a threat to media pluralism and freedom of media and information.

Our research and debates have shown that what is needed is a common European legal framework for artificial intelligence. That is why we called on the Committee of Ministers to elaborate a legally binding instrument governing artificial intelligence that is based on a comprehensive approach, dealing with the whole life cycle of AI-based systems, addressed to all stakeholders, and which includes mechanisms to ensure the implementation of this instrument.

I particularly welcome the fact that the 131st Ministerial Session in Hamburg decided to give priority to the work on an appropriate legal framework for the development, design and application of artificial intelligence.

At the PACE we believe that co-operation of all stakeholders is essential to achieve the maximal impact, and we strongly support the work by the CAHAI, the CDMSI and of the intergovernmental sector in general, as well as the German and Hungarian Presidencies of the CM, which established AI as a priority of their Presidencies.

When the international legal framework is finally in place, Parliaments will have to ratify it and adapt the relevant legislation. All the more, it is important to have our Assembly fully on board.

I wish you all the best in your important work.