The Right to Blog: Q&A

The Right to Blog: Q&A - Digital

In The Right to Blog policy paper, ARTICLE 19 offers a set of recommendations to state actors and policy makers about what they should do to promote and protect the rights of bloggers domestically and internationally. It also gives practical advice to bloggers about their rights and explains how – and in what situations – they can invoke some of the privileges and defences that traditional journalists have found vital to the integrity of their work.

What is an official definition of “blogger”?

There is no officially agreed definition of “blogger” or “blogging”. In the most basic sense, a blogger is anyone who writes entries, adds materials to, or maintains a blog. A “Blog” (short for “weblog”) is a personal record or log published on the Internet. Blogging allows anyone to self-publish online without editing or commissioning by a third party. Publication can be immediate, and anonymous, if the blogger so desires. Although blogging originally began as an informal activity, blogs have come to be used on a widespread basis, including by scientists, academics, lawyers and journalists.

What is a relationship between bloggers and journalists?

In the digital age, the boundaries between blogging and traditional journalism are often blurred. This raises difficult questions about who is a ‘journalist’ and what counts as ‘media’. However, it’s important to remember that there is no officially agreed definition of “journalist” either. Importantly, several international standards note that it is not appropriate to define journalism and journalists by reference to recognised training, affiliation with a news entity, or a professional body. Journalists should be defined broadly as any natural person who is regularly and professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information for the public via any means of mass communication. All of these factors contribute to confusion around legal status of bloggers and the rules that may apply to them.

Should bloggers be licensed or registered?

Some countries try to introduce ’licensing schemes’ for bloggers, requiring them to get permission from the government to blog or publish information or to register their blogs on official lists controlled by the government. ARTICLE 19 believes that such schemes for bloggers violate international standards on freedom of expression. There is no legitimate reason why bloggers – or the general public – should be subject to mandatory licensing to express themselves.

Do bloggers need to reveal their real names? Can they be anonymous?

ARTICLE 19 believes that real name registration systems for bloggers should be abolished as they are disproportionate restrictions to the right to freedom of expression. Real name registration schemes can be easily abused by the authorities and can become a tool of repression. Also, anonymity has been used for years in print publishing (e.g. people write under pen names) and cannot be fully avoided in ‘real life’ (e.g. it is still possible to send anonymous letters, make anonymous phone calls, or distribute anonymous leaflets). Anonymity is also used in investigative journalism.

When can bloggers get “press cards”?

States usually impose some limits on the right of journalists to gather information, such as prohibition to enter sensitive military or civilian installations, or to attend certain court hearings. The same applies to bloggers.

States also often run “accreditation” schemes to, for example to prevent overcrowding in the press gallery of large institutions. Usually, this means that journalists can apply for a press card, which must be produced upon entry on days when the audience exceeds the number of seats available.  Holders of press cards are sometimes granted certain privileges, such as access to communication facilities and front row seats. ARTICLE 19 believes that accreditation schemes should not be limited to professional journalists but should also be available for bloggers when they are engaged in the gathering and dissemination of information to the public. Some states are already moving towards this practice: for example, Indonesia and Canada.

Do bloggers have a right to protect their sources?

The protection of sources is a vital element in the news gathering process. ‘Informants’ or individuals holding highly sensitive information are far more likely to come forward in the knowledge that their identity will not be disclosed. The question whether bloggers can avail themselves of the legal principles governing the protection of sources remains unsettled and there are currently no clear international standards on this issue.

ARTICLE 19 argues that the extent that they are engaged in journalistic activity, bloggers should have the right to protect their sources. We also believe that any request to disclose sources should be strictly limited to the most serious of cases. It should be approved only by an independent judge in a fair and public hearing and the judge’s decision should be subject to appeal before an impartial body.

Are states obliged to protect bloggers from attacks for the work they do?

It is matter of concern that many bloggers have recently become targets of physical attacks, death threats and murders because of what they say.

ARTICLE 19 argues that states should promote the safety of bloggers using a variety of measures, including prohibiting crimes against freedom of expression in domestic law.  This means that states should take reasonable steps to protect bloggers when they know, or ought to know, there that is a real and immediate risk to the life of a particular blogger as a result of the criminal acts of a third party.

In cases of attacks against bloggers, states authorities should carry out independent, speedy and effective investigations into threats or violent attacks against bloggers or other individuals engaged in journalistic activity online.

Can bloggers be sued for defamation, incitement and other speech offences?

It is often said that the Internet is like the ‘Wild West’ and is not regulated. This is very far from the truth. In reality, bloggers are subject to all the general laws of the land. These include laws prohibiting defamation, incitement, copyright infringement and many others. However, it is important to bear in mind that laws governing the liability of bloggers, including defamation law, incitement and other speech-related offences, should comply with international freedom of expression standards. This is often not the case.

Can bloggers be held liable for comments people make on their blogs?

Bloggers’ liability for comments made by others on their blogs is another complex issue. As a general rule, ARTICLE 19 argues that bloggers should not be held liable for comments made by third parties on their blogs, if they have not intervened or modified those comments.

We also believe that bloggers should not be required by law to monitor content posted by third parties. For certain types of content, for example content that is defamatory or infringes copyright, consideration should be given to adopting ‘notice-and-notice’ approaches where bloggers would be required to pass the complaint to the person who originally posted the content at issue, without being required to remove the material immediately upon notice.

Should bloggers be held to the same professional and ethical standards expected of a journalist? In what circumstances can they be held liable for what they say online? 

One of the most vexed questions about blogging and its relationship to traditional journalism is the question of ethics and, more generally, the ‘duties and responsibilities’ of bloggers. While ARTICLE 19 recognises the value of professional and ethical standards in relation to news gathering and reporting, we strongly believe that it is not appropriate to judge bloggers by reference to the standards of professional journalists working in traditional media.

However, we encourage bloggers to voluntarily follow the ethical standards of traditional media. They can also develop their own code of practice either for their own blogs or for associations they voluntarily join. We also encourage people to use alternative dispute resolution systems to resolve possible problems. However, if bloggers produce a piece for a traditional newspaper, they should be subject to the newspaper’s editorial control, and abide by the ethical standards of journalists.