UN: ARTICLE 19 Welcomes General Comment on Freedom of Expression

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05 Aug 2011



ARTICLE 19 congratulates the UN Human Rights Committee for the adoption of General Comment No 34, which constitutes an authoritative interpretation of the freedoms of opinion and expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The General Comment, finalised on 21 July 2011, strengthens the protection of international law on freedom of expression and provides authoritative guidance to state actors, including courts, on the development of policies and adjudication of matters affecting this right.

After two years of intense discussions and consultations with states and civil society, the Committee adopted General Comment No 34 on the interpretation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as protected by Article 19 of the ICCPR.  The agreement of the General Comment marks a significant achievement for the Committee, whose members come from a range of national and cultural backgrounds. 

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the General Comment for its progressive and detailed elucidation of international law on freedom of expression.  The General Comment reflects developments in law, practice and understanding of the right, as well as technological advances (notably the internet), since it last addressed Article 19 of the ICCPR through General Comment No 10 in 1983. 

In particular, ARTICLE 19 welcomes the Committee's clear statement that Article 19 of the ICCPR encompasses “a right of access to information held by public bodies.”  This requires states to “proactively put in the public domain Governmental information of public interest …[and]… make every effort to ensure easy, prompt, effective and practical access to such information” (para 19).  

We also welcome the recognition of the importance of new media and impact of information and communication technologies, such as internet and mobile based electronic information systems on freedom of expression.  The General Comment recommends the states take all necessary steps to foster independence of these new media and ensure access of individuals to them (para 15).  Furthermore, the General Comment reinforces media freedom in numerous provisions and specifically indicates that “operation of websites, blogs or other internet-based, or other information dissemination system [sic], including systems to support such communication, such as internet service providers or search engines” (para 43), need to be compatible with paragraph 3 of Article 19 of the Covenant.

Finally, ARTICLE 19 appreciates the efforts of the Committee in developing paragraphs 48 and 49 of the General Comment. In particular, in paragraph 48 the Committee asserted that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant”, which prohibits “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Paragraph 48 reflects not only the Committee's earlier jurisprudence, but also reinforces the position of other UN human rights bodies, notably the UN HRC which dropped any reference to “defamation of religions” in resolution 16/18 of April 2011 and the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion or belief and racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance who condemned laws prohibiting “defamation of religions” and/or blasphemy because they are relied upon to persecute religious minorities and dissenters.

ARTICLE 19 urges states to follow the General Comment as a minimum set of standards on the implementation of Article 19 of the ICCPR.  ARTICLE 19 encourages non-state actors, including NGOs and the media, to support states in these efforts by drawing attention to ways in which state laws and practices fall short of these standards. 

For more information please contact: Dr Sejal Parmar, Senior Legal Officer, or +44 20 7324 2513