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Freedom of opinion and expression – how far the protections go: the UN Human Rights Committee

GENEVA (28 July 2011) – The UN Human Rights Committee has issued an authoritative new commentary* on one of the most challenged and sensitive topics in international human rights law – the extent to which the freedom of opinion and expression can be restricted by a state.

The General Comment by the Committee addresses the legality of restrictions, including blasphemy laws, “memory” laws, laws on such matters as treason, counter-terrorism, lese majeste, desacato, defamation of the head of state and the protection of honour of public officials. The General Comment also clearly confirms the extension of freedom of expression protections to new media actors, including bloggers.

“The General Comment is a comprehensive response to numerous requests from lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, rights defenders and even journalists asking for clarification on many of the issues covered by the rights to freedom of expression and opinion,” said Committee member Michael O'Flaherty, the principal drafter of the General Comment.

“It is a strong reaffirmation of the central importance for all human rights of the freedom of expression and sets out the very strict parameters within which the right can be restricted by states.”

The General Comment states that “memory laws”, which penalise the expression of opinions about historical facts, are unacceptable under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Blasphemy laws are incompatible with the Covenant, except under very specific circumstances subject to strict requirements set out in the Covenant.

It also offers the most comprehensive analysis yet in international human rights law of a right of access to information held by public bodies. It stresses the duty of States to foster a strong, free and plural media as well as access to new media information platforms.

"Freedom of expression is a necessary condition for the realisation of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, essential for the promotion and protection of human rights," the General Comment states.

“States parties should put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

(*) Download the Committee’s General Comments on freedom of expression: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/comments.htm

Learn more about the mandate and work of Human Rights Committee: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/

For more information and media requests please contact Ravina Shamdasani (+ 41 22 917 9310 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org) or Xabier Celaya: (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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