Free speech rapporteurs: A blueprint for politicians and public officials

Free speech rapporteurs: A blueprint for politicians and public officials - Civic Space

Today, on 20 October 2021, in Washington D.C., the four international Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression released their 2021 Joint Declaration on Politicians, Public Officials and Freedom of Expression. The Declaration responds to growing concerns about the rise of populism and “strongman politics” and intolerant and divisive public communication by many politicians and public figures that undermine democratic institutions, civic space and the protection of human rights. The rapporteurs offer detailed guidelines on steps that states, politicians and political parties, the media and social media companies must take to respond to these problems in compliance with their international commitments to free speech. ARTICLE 19 welcomes the Joint Declaration, which sets out important standards.


Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, comments: 


ARTICLE 19 shares many concerns expressed by the Special Rapporteurs on this occasion. Over the last few years, we have been warning that the overall decline in freedom of expression has been matched by a rise in ‘strongman’ politics, leaders with autocratic tendencies, and a desire to silence criticism and opposition who try to shift away from debate, democracy and accountability. Too often, they have also targeted media, especially investigative reporters, human rights defenders, minorities and civil society. Too often, these narratives silence minorities and groups at risk of discrimination and lead to further exclusion and polarisation in society. Media freedom is a cornerstone of democracy and media and civil society must be able to criticise political leaders and challenge them without fear of retaliation, whether their expression be on or offline. 

“The special rapporteurs remind us that in our polarised societies, politicians have the power to shape public debate, shift public opinion and establish a political culture of tolerance and public service for public interest. Politicians, public officials and political parties must lead by example in order to secure public trust in democratic systems. They also have a crucial role in countering hate speech, racism and intolerance.Open public debate is crucial in any democratic society and helps foster healthy overall political engagement. 

“Importantly, special rapporteurs also provide guidance for other stakeholders, in particular social media companies and the media. This is crucial, especially since political debate, campaigning and political advertising have moved to online platforms. Social media companies have an important role to play in creating spaces for open and inclusive debates about matters of public interest. We urge these companies to follow the recommendations in the Joint Declaration, including improving their content moderation practices, increasing transparency of their decision making and adopting more detailed rules on political advertisement on their platforms.” 

The 2021 Joint Declaration offers detailed recommendations on how states, politicians and public officials, as well as social media companies and outlets, can respond to issues arising from the actions of politicians and public officials. The recommendations include:


  • States should ensure that the legal environment enables full protection of freedom of expression and freedom of the media as well as providing a high level of protection to political speech. This extends to protecting journalists and others when reporting on political speech or on matters of public interest. In particular, criminal defamation laws should be abolished and any laws that provide greater penalties for statements criticising heads of states or public officials should be repealed due to their chilling effect on freedom of expression and public debate. 
  • States should adopt measures to counter hate speech, while politicians and political parties should use their positions as public figures and public organisations to counter any discriminatory speech by promoting intercultural understanding and social inclusion. 
  • States should never engage in or finance coordinated inauthentic behaviour that influences or interferes with the public’s views or attitudes. 
  • In order to prevent and hold politicians and political parties to account, political parties should adopt policies or codes of conduct that set standards of behaviour for officials and candidates. This could ensure that they do not make statements likely to promote intolerance or dis/misinformation. 
  • Social media companies need to ensure that their content moderation rules and practices comply with international human rights law, particularly freedom of expression standards. They should also ensure that their political advertising rules are clear, transparent, fair and non-discriminatory. Users should be able to know who is targeting them and why they are being targeted by particular political advertising and be able to opt out of such advertising if they so choose. 
  • The media should have clear policies in place for how they report on statements made by politicians and political parties that are likely to exacerbate intolerance, so that their reporting informs the public about those statements and policies but does not itself promote or exacerbate intolerance. 


Read the 2021 Joint Declaration in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic and Russian 

 To follow the discussion online please use: #2021JointDeclaration



The four international experts on freedom of expression are:

  • Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression;
  • Teresa Ribeiro, the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe;
  • Pedro Vaca Villareal, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the Organisation of American States; and
  • Jamesina King, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.


Joint Declarations by the four special rapporteurs have been adopted annually since 1999, covering current universal challenges to freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 has been coordinating the drafting of these Joint Declarations since 1999.