Freedom of expression and new media

When the UN Human Rights Committee last clarified the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, use of the internet was limited and the effect it would have on the mainstream media was still the subject of speculation.

Today’s hand-held communication technologies have revolutionized  the media © EPA/Everett Kennedy BrownMore than two decades on, the Committee seeks to give practical application to freedom of opinion and expression in the radically altered media landscape which has the internet and mobile communications centre-stage.

Describing “a global network to exchange ideas and opinions that does not necessarily rely on the traditional mass media”, the Committee says “States parties should take all necessary steps to foster the independence of these new media and to ensure access”.

Any restrictions that might be applied to websites, blogs or any other internet-based networks or support systems should be limited, the Committee says, to content only and should not be applied to entire sites and systems.

In the context of permissible restrictions generally, the Committee recommends extreme caution and provides many examples of situations where the urge to restrict freedom of expression should be resisted.  There are no circumstances which justify limiting freedom of opinion, the Committee notes in its revised General Comment.

Lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists and others will turn to the General Comment for guidance on the scope and practical applications of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression.   

In the  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which sets out the right to freedom of expression, only two situations are described which justify its limitation: respect of the rights or reputations of others and protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals. The Covenant also prohibits advocacy of religious hatred.

Allowing for those very limited exceptions, the Committee says blasphemy laws and prohibitions on displays of disrespect for a religion or other belief systems are a contravention of the right to freedom of expression, as are laws which favour one religion over another, or religious believers over non-believers, or which prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine.

The Committee notes that the Convention places a particularly high value on uninhibited debate concerning political figures and public institutions.  Laws which prohibit or restrict criticism of important people and institutions are cause for concern the Committee says.  “The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties… all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition”.  The same should apply to institutions such as the army.

Committee member, Michael O’Flaherty says, “The main point of the general comment and of the Committee adopting it is that freedom of expression is at the heart of the entire human rights system.”

 “That means,” he says, “we have to put up with a lot of speech that we don’t like.

1 September 2011