Legal analysis

Middle East and North Africa: Historic opportunity for freedom of expression

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ARTICLE 19

16 Dec 2011

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In the last twelve months, the mass demonstrations against autocracy and injustice in the Middle East and North Africa have inspired people globally to expect more of their governments, and to hold them to account when they do not deliver. People across the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated en masse that the rights to freedom of expression and information are critical for achieving political change. Incumbent regimes resisting change also recognise this; responding to the exercise of freedom of expression and association with violence aimed at silencing criticism and maintaining the status quo.

ARTICLE 19 believes that integrating robust protections for the rights to freedom of expression and information is essential to guaranteeing democracy and protecting all human rights in the MENA region. The momentum for change that currently exists provides a historic opportunity to safeguard the rights to freedom of expression and information through comprehensive legal, political and institutional reform. 

This report highlights that there have been positive steps in this direction already. Transitional governments are proactively engaging with civil society and enacting protections for freedom of expression through constitutional reforms, access to information legislation, and changes to safeguard the independence and plurality of the media. While there is still a lot of work to be done, progress is already being made.

At the same time, we have seen in almost all countries across the region evidence of regression in terms of respect for freedom of expression. In practice, this has included violent crackdowns on demonstrators, and violence against journalists, human rights defenders and bloggers. A variety of existing legislation, including national security provisions and criminal defamation laws, have been used as pretences to intimidate and incarcerate those exercising their rights to free expression and association. The pursuit of activists onto the Internet through the proliferation of on-line surveillance and cyber-security laws is a further cause for concern.

The situation for the right to freedom of expression and information is still precarious in the MENA region; now is not the time for complacency. Constitutional reforms that are on the way must include robust guarantees for freedom of expression and information.  Significant legal, political and institutional reforms are required to ensure appropriate protections for freedom of expression and information, and this will take time. Priorities for the year ahead include: protecting journalists, human rights defenders and bloggers from attacks and threats to their safety; guaranteeing the right to peaceful assembly and protest; enacting comprehensive access to information reforms; ensuring freedom of expression and information on the internet; decriminalising defamation, and ensuring an independent and pluralistic media.

ARTICLE 19 will continue to monitor progress on these issues, and stands ready to assist governments and civil society organisations in the region in advancing legal reforms in this area.

 

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