Key aspects

As its formulation in Articles 19 of the UDHR and ICCPR shows, the right to freedom of expression is very broad in scope. It could be said to have six main aspects.

1) “Everyone shall have the right…”

The right to freedom of expression belongs to everyone. No distinctions are permitted on the basis of someone’s:

  • level of education
  • race
  • colour
  • sex
  • language
  • religion
  • political or other opinion
  • national or social origin
  • property
  • birth or any other status. 

2) “…to seek, receive and impart…”

The right to impart information and ideas is the most obvious aspect of freedom of expression. It is the right to tell others what one thinks or knows in private or via the media. But freedom of expression serves a larger purpose. It enables every person to access as wide a range of information and viewpoints as possible. Known as the right to information, this includes:

  • reading newspapers
  • listening to public debates
  • watching the television
  • surfing the internet
  • accessing information held by public authorities.

The right to information has emerged as a new right, distinct but inseparable from the right to freedom of expression.

3) “…information and ideas of any kind…”

The right to freedom of expression does not just apply to information and ideas generally considered to be useful or correct. It also applies to any kind of fact or opinion that can be communicated. The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRCm) has stressed that ‘expression’ is broad and not confined to political, cultural or artistic expression. It also includes controversial, false or even shocking expression. The mere fact that an idea is disliked or thought to be incorrect does not justify its censorship.

4) “...regardless of frontiers...”

The right to freedom of expression is not limited by national boundaries. States must allow their citizens to seek, receive and impart information to and from other countries.

5) “...through any media...”

The right to freedom of expression includes the use of any media, modern or traditional.

6) “ respect and to ensure...”

The right to freedom of expression means that states must ‘respect’ free expression and not interfere with it. The right also places a positive obligation on states to actively ensure that obstacles to free expression are removed. Examples of ensuring free expression include:

  • ensuring that minorities can be heard
  • preventing the monopolisation of the media by the state or private companies.