Human Rights Committee outlines freedoms of expression and opinion
In an important new General Comment, the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) has provided an up to date and authoritative interpretation of the freedoms of opinion and expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- This is a highly relevant and important achievement by the Committee, says Gunnar M. Ekeløve-Slydal, Deputy Secretary General. - In times when many states tend to impose restrictive legislation and practices on fundamental freedoms, it is important that the Human Rights Committee contributes interpretations that clarify and strengthens these key human rights. Political leaders, courts and other state actors should take note.
The HRC General Comment No. 34 replaces General Comment No. 10, which was adopted in 1983, and reflects the dramatic developments and innovations in the field of mass media, internet and global ways of communicating. The comment is the fruit of two years of discussions and consultations, including with civil society organizations. The HRC members come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and nations, giving its views and comments increased importance.
- The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is in particular positive to the General Comment’s elaboration of the right to access to information held by government and other public bodies, says Ekeløve-Slydal. - Many countries lack proper legislation providing that authorities “should proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest (para. 19). The HRC has in clear words said that as parties to the Covenant, they should.
In many European and former Soviet Union countries restrictive media and defamation laws impede the legitimate work of independent media and human rights defenders. The HRC comment is clear that restrictions could not include “advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets and human rights”. Attacks on journalists and human rights defenders should be “vigorously investigated in a timely fashion.” (para. 23) The work of media and human rights organizations should not be obstructed by travel restrictions (para. 45).
It is not compatible with the Covenant to impose imprisonment as a penalty for defamation (para. 47). “The penalization of a media outlet, publishers or journalists solely for being critical of the government or the political social system espoused by the government can never be considered to be a necessary restriction of freedom of expression” (para. 42).
The HRC comment importantly includes “bloggers and other who engage in forms of self-publication in print, on the internet or elsewhere” in the protection provided by Article 19. Only restrictions that are compatible with Article 19(3) could be acceptable for these ways of expressing views and facts (para. 43).
The comment states at the outset that freedoms of opinion and expression “constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society” (para. 2). “Free media and journalism critical of the government and public institutions are essential in a democracy. Heads of states and prominent political leaders have a special duty to accept views critical of their person and deeds”, concludes Ekeløve-Slydal. “The comment is very timely when it states that “in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high. … [A]ll public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition. (para. 38)”.