I’d like to begin by thanking UNESCO and the Government of Latvia, and all the sponsors of World Press Freedom Day, for making this day such a central focus for freedom of expression worldwide. Since I took on the responsibility as special rapporteur last August, UNESCO has been a welcome partner and counselor.
For over twenty years, the international community has celebrated, advocated, and defended press freedom in the context of World Press Freedom Day. For nearly forty years the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has been in force, guaranteeing everyone, under Article 19, the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of borders and through any kind of media. For nearly seventy years that same guarantee has been the global standard under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And during these many decades, the rights that guarantee a free press have been restated in instruments and courts at the regional and national levels, UN declarations, and resolutions of the Human Rights Council.
All this law: what does it mean? First, it protects everyone: the professional journalist gathering and reporting information; the blogger and social media poster sharing information and opinions with the world; and everyone who enjoys or seeks access to others’ expression. Second, the law protects the activities of a free press to challenge or verify official narratives and conventional opinion, by seeking and gathering information, analyzing and interpreting it, sharing it through any media, regardless of frontiers. States have a positive obligation to promote a free press, not merely protect it against interference and attack, and that means taking steps to ensure a diversity of media. Other basic rules of human rights law, such as the prohibition of discrimination, obligate States to promote and protect the equal access and participation in the media of women and members of vulnerable groups.
Human rights law also acknowledges the responsibility of States to protect the right to life, national security, public order and health, and the rights of others. Sometimes it may be that access to information jeopardizes one of these legitimate interests. In such situations, States may impose restrictions but only where provided by clear and preexisting law and when strictly necessary and proportionate to that legitimate objective. Particularly noxious to freedom of expression is the web of government secrecy, employed by nearly all countries, that makes it nearly impossible for citizens to challenge restrictions.
I am summarizing and simplifying a rich body of law. I look around this room and see the leading practitioners of press freedom, those of you who know how to make the law’s protections real for people around the world. Your work of protection and promotion matters as much as the practice of journalism itself.
But here’s the thing: Everyone in this room or listening outside it knows we are in a crisis of implementation, promotion, and protection. And in crisis, we may be forgiven for considering the thought that these laws mean little in the face of the attacks on free expression that have increased in recent years. We here in Riga stand secure while many journalists around the world are in detention, missing, buried, or deterred from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression.
You may be calling to mind any number of names of those detained or charged who represent often dozens of others in these countries, such as: Mazen Darwish in Syria; Jason Rezaian in Iran; the Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia; Ihlam Toti in China; Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan; Thulani Maseko in Swaziland; Mahmoud Abou Zeyd, or Shawkan, in Egypt; Zunar in Malaysia; and many others in Eritrea, Vietnam, Myanmar, and elsewhere. And there are those killed, such as the satirists of Charlie Hebdo; the brave journalists killed by the Islamic State; and the recent brutal hackings to death of two Bangladeshi bloggers. These are merely a few of those subject to today’s crisis of protection.
You may also be thinking of the military leader of Thailand claiming “the power to close down the media, arrest people, order for people to be shot;” the attacks on and intimidation of journalists by local police in Ferguson, Missouri; the recent adoption of laws in Europe to restrict expression, including a new law in Spain that purports to ban video recording police at protests; or the widespread pressure on journalist sources.
These attacks on a free press violate the letter and spirit of the freedom of expression.
To clamp down on unwanted expression or seal off information from the public, those in power often deploy pretexts instead of legitimate justifications genuinely rooted in the protection of national security or public order. Or, in the pursuit of legitimate objectives, they adopt disproportionate rules that sweep in or deter a wide range of legitimate expression, often in hurried and anxious reaction to real threats, undermining the work of NGOs and others.
What can one do to respond to these challenges? Tomorrow morning, my colleagues from the OSCE, inter-American and African systems and I will jointly declare our commitment to promotion and protection of freedom of expression in contexts of conflict. I want to emphasize five areas where we should all challenge governments to meet their obligations and let journalism thrive:
First, online surveillance poses a direct threat to the ability of the media, NGOs, academics and activists to seek and receive information without interference. Technology has responded with tools to protect the privacy of our communications, the two most important of which are encryption and anonymity. Ongoing debates over encryption and anonymity all too often focus only on their potential use for criminal purposes, but encryption and anonymity mainly exist to empower individuals to browse, read, develop, and share opinions and information without interference, and enable journalists, civil society organizations and many others to exercise the rights to freedom of opinion and expression. A number of States are adopting laws which seriously limit the capacity of individuals to communicate securely and anonymously. Because of their importance, restrictions on encryption and anonymity must be avoided and only limited, if at all, according to strict application of the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimacy.
Second, protection of sources: Journalism relies on access to sources who feel sufficiently safe to share information, experiences and testimony on sensitive matters. Yet in many countries journalists suffer reprisals for their investigative work, forced to reveal their sources – who are also often harassed, attacked, prosecuted. In this context, I will report to the UN General Assembly in the fall on the protection of sources, including the scope of protection human rights law provides whistleblowers.
Third, accountability for attacks on the media. Attacks on journalists are almost never met with genuine investigation and prosecution. Even in those cases where there is some form of investigation, victims and survivors must wait years for any sort of reckoning, as in the case of the Maguindinao massacre of journalists for which the Philippines court process grinds on more than five years after that hideous attack. This paradigm of impunity has to stop and be replaced with a paradigm of monitoring, investigation and prosecution.
Fourth, an end to laws designed to deter criticism of government officials and religious institutions. We see such laws in the form of criminal defamation; sedition; lese majeste laws and their cousins prohibiting insult of government officials. We see the same spirit in laws that criminalize blasphemy. These laws are regularly applied to target those working in the media, civil society activists, academics, and others. They are incompatible with freedom of expression and a free press and must be abolished.
Finally, all of these measures connect to state censorship. Whether applied as prior censorship, as in the case of film and news censors, or as punishment after the fact, the efforts of governments to suppress information and ideas ultimately succeed only to breed cynicism and resentment, undermining every people’s right to govern themselves freely and with full information for public debate. Censorship is, in a very real way, the underlying policy that fosters insecurity for journalists everywhere.
I do not want to close on a down note. For all the threat and risk to the media today, we also live in an age of inspiring bravery, long and short-form brilliance, and a world awash in information, media platforms, ideas, images, sounds, all of which cross borders and inform global debate. Daily we see remarkable individuals and enterprises struggle against the current in the most difficult environments and succeed in informing us on matters which so many powerful States and groups try to hide. Journalism thrives where there is safety, equality, and fine reporting, and I’m happy be a part of this joint effort to tear down the barriers to these critical goals.