Defining defamation: Principles on Freedom of Expression and Protection of Reputation

These Principles set out an appropriate balance between the human right to freedom of expression, guaranteed in UN and regional human rights instruments as well as nearly every national constitution, and the need to protect individual reputations, widely recognised by international human rights instruments and the law in countries around the world. The Principles are based on the premise that in a democratic society, freedom of expression must be guaranteed and may be subject only to narrowly drawn restrictions which are necessary to protect legitimate interests, including reputations. In particular, they set out standards of respect for freedom of expression to which legal provisions designed to protect reputations should, at a minimum, conform.

These Principles are based on international law and standards, evolving state practice (as reflect­ed, inter alia, in national laws and judgments of national courts), and the general principles of law recognised by the community of nations. They are the product of a long process of study, analysis and consultation overseen by ARTICLE 19, including a number of national and international seminars and workshops. The final steps in this process were a Workshop on Defamation Law, held from 29 February – 1 March 2000 in London, United Kingdom and broad consultation around the draft that emerged from that Workshop.

The scope of these Principles is limited to the question of striking an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and injury to reputation. By reputation is meant the esteem in which an individual is generally held within a particular community. These Principles should neither be taken as foreclosing nor as approving restrictions designed to protect other interests – including in such areas as privacy, self-esteem or hate speech – which deserve separate treatment.

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