Right to Communicate


An important debate is taking place over whether the World Summit on the Information Society should adopt a declaration on ‘the right to communicate’. Different rationales have been expressed in support of such a declaration but, in a broad sense, its advocates tend to act out of a concern that the media are becoming increasingly homogenised and that minority, dissenting or even local voices and issues are not being heard. Globalisation and commercialisation of the media is one of the concerns, along with the exclusion of the poor from decision-making processes due to a lack of information and access to the means of communication. Governments are part of the problem, for example where they impose restrictive rules and regulations on the media or telecommunications or where they seek to impose political control over these sectors. It is, however, also argued that developments in the private sector, particularly the increasing dominance of large media corporations, are now posing a paral

ARTICLE 19 has described the right to communicate, in its widest sense, as “the right of every individual or community to have its stories and views heard.” In principle, an authoritative elaboration of a right to communicate could serve a useful purpose. Numerous claims are made in the name of the right to communicate and it would be useful to promote consensus as to its content. Furthermore, authoritative clarification of the right to communicate would help promote its acceptance by decision-makers, courts and other influential bodies, leading to greater respect for human rights. At the same time, however, some of the claims made for this right undermine or directly breach established rights and it is important that these are not reflected in any authoritative statement.

The right to communicate should not be conceived as a new and independent right but rather as an umbrella term, encompassing within it a group of related, existing rights. This means that any elaboration of the right to communicate must take place within the framework of existing rights. There already exists under international law broad consensus on the basic content of fundamental human rights and we are of the view that the various legitimate claims made for the right to communicate can be accommodated within this framework. We note, in particular, that the right to freedom of expression is recognised to include a positive element, placing an obligation on States to take positive measures to ensure respect for this important right. Interpretation by courts and other authoritative bodies has started to elaborate on the nature of these positive rights and, collectively, this interpretation broadly encompasses the legitimate content of the right to communicate.

Full implementation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression is central to the realisation of the right to communicate. Communication is not a one-way process and the right to communicate therefore also presupposes a right to receive information, from both State and private sources. Key elements of the right, elaborated below, include the right to a diverse, pluralistic media; equitable access to the means of communication, as well as to the media; the right to practise and express one’s culture, including the right to use the language of one’s choice; the right to participate in public decision-making processes; the right to access information, including from public bodies; the right to be free of undue restrictions on content; and privacy rights, including the right to communicate anonymously.

This position paper will elaborate on the various constituent elements of the right to communicate, providing evidence of support for these ideas in existing or emerging international law.