Speech of the UN special Rapporteur on freedom of expression

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Statement by Mr. Ambeyi Ligabo, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression addressing the Human Rights Council on 22 Sept. 2006. The SR addresses media freedom, the Danish cartoon crisis, WSIS and internet governance.

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Mr. Chairman, Members of the Bureau, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Freedom of opinion and expression is one of the pillars of a fair and democratic society. Indeed, the interpretation of principles related to its essence and implementation may extensively vary, particularly when it comes to the definition of opinion-related offences. Anyhow, the free flow of news, information and ideas, within and across national borders, contributes to the better understanding of societies that are culturally, and often physically, distant from each other. The increasing access to global information through modern technologies is also an essential component of a successful development strategy.

Regrettably, violations of the right of freedom of opinion and expression, at various extents and forms, continue to take place in many countries. Reinforcing the Rule of Law will contribute a great deal to decrease cases of impunity. Parliaments should also examine, in a speedily manner, new laws and regulations which could allow the full enjoyment and exploitation of new technologies available today.

Comprehensive and pluralist information can only be guaranteed if media professionals are allowed to work with sufficient protection and security, within freedom prerogatives. States have the primary responsibility to take all suitable measures to ensure that journalists receive support and protection while working on dangerous subjects and in unsafe areas. States are also responsible for ensuring that those committing crimes against media professionals are brought to justice.

I have received allegations concerning military operations that would principally have targeted media professionals and their work facilities.

Many other journalists were killed while investigating corruption cases and alleged mismanagement by States’ officials, or by criminal organizations acting with or without the support of States’ apparatus. According to reliable sources, from 1 January to 17 August 2006, 84 media professionals were killed while on duty: while in Africa and in the European continent figures are on the average, the situation is extremely serious in Asia and Latin American and absolutely appalling inthe Middle East.

I have been following with great interest the debate on the reinforcement of the security of media professionals on the proposed creation of a press emblem. Alternatively, some other media organizations have proposed that the Security Council adopt a ad hoc resolution. A third option, which in my opinion could be the most pragmatic and a step forward in enhancing security of media professionals, is the drafting of international guidelines and rules on this matter. This honorable Council may wish to consider the opportunity of convening a group of experts to prepare a wide-rangingstudy on the causes and consequences of violence against journalists and legal remedies available.

In recent years, several countries replaced, partially or totally, criminal defamation laws with civil defamation laws, a measure that also allows reducing the workload and costs of overburdened judiciary systems. Unfortunately, some of these judicial reforms did not abolish offences such as those that “insult national institutions and or national symbols” which can easily be used in relation to allegedly defamatory statements.

The issue of the decriminalization of defamation, slander and libel remains at the heart of a generalized progress in the field of freedom of expression: breaches of defamation laws are still sanctioned with prison sentences, suspended prison sentences, excessive fines, suspension of the right to express oneself through any particular form of media, or to practice journalism. In many countries defamation laws are too frequently used to stifle public debate about matters of general concern, and to limit criticism of officials.

I, therefore, wish to reiterate my support for the decriminalization of defamation and related offences. Public officials and authorities should not take part in the initiation or prosecution of criminal defamation cases and should not be granted greater protection than the ordinary citizen; they should instead tolerate more criticism because of the nature of their public mandates and responsibilities.

Distinguished delegates,

At the invitation of the Danish Human Rights Institute, I visited Denmark in April 2006 to participate in a number of meetings, including meetings with Government’s officials, in which I gathered significant information regarding the so-called “Danish Cartoons Affaire”.

In Denmark, Press and Media enjoy an extended editorial freedom and play a pivotal role in providing an arena for debate thus promoting the free exchange of opinions and ideas. However, the use of stereotypes, libeling and insulting ethnic, social and religious groups do not help in support of the relentless efforts to consolidate an open and multicultural society. Polarization of opinions, often based on distorted arguments and narrow-mindedness, can endanger constructive and peaceful dialogue among different communities thus causing disharmony and friction in delicate social and cultural balances.

Freedom of religion and freedom of expression must walk together. There will be no freedom of expression without freedom of religion, because creeds and beliefs are an essential, deep-rooted component of the life of billions people. The spiritual urgency to express, both publicly and privately, one’s own faith cannot be repressed. All believers, regardless of their faith or creed, have the right to practice their own religion without any restriction, the only limit being the respect of others’ rights and freedoms.

The final phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005, was marked by strenuous debates around issues like the global access and exploitation of Internet resources, and enhanced dissemination and availability of information. The Internet revolution has definitely opened a new era for freedom of opinion and expression, especially for the numerous opportunities for the dissemination of education and knowledge. Internet availability may have a terrific impact on the quantity and quality of information at the disposal of the most disadvantaged classes, especially the rural poor. The international community at large, including private enterprises, should take this opportunity to provide a chance for substantial humanand economic development in the less developed countries through the exploitation of Internet resources.

The establishment of an intergovernmental organization on Internet governance must be solidly anchored to the principles of freedom of opinion and expression as enshrined in international human rights instruments. Private corporations, which have been playing a crucial role in the promotion of modern technologies, the United Nations, States and civil society, will need to cooperate closely in order to make sure that human rights will be a fundamental and unavoidable component of the future of Internet governance.

However, much has still to be done to reach a collective concept of Internet Governance. Regrettably, I have received numerous reports of harassment, arrest, trial and detention of Internet writers in several countries. Law-enforcement agencies closed several websites and arrested ordinary customers and bloggers, who have subsequently been charged of opinion-related offences, such as defamation or slander, and terrorist-like activities such as “acts against State security”.

Mr. Chairman,

Since my presentation before the 61th session of the Commission, I participated in the celebration of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2005, organized by UNESCO in Dakar. The theme of the Dakar meeting was the role played by the media in promoting democracy and good governance by ensuring transparency and accountability, promoting participation and the rule of law, and contributing to the fight against poverty.

I was also invited to the International Press Institute World Congress and 54th General Assembly, held in Nairobi, from 21 to 24 May 2005, where I participated in a panel entitled “Pluralism and democracy, the African experience”. In my speech, I pointed out that the quest for freedom of opinion and expression by all African peoples was higher than ever and the access to modern communication technologies may open new opportunities for human and economic development.

On 3 May 2006, I was invited to the celebrations of the World Press Freedom Day, organized by the Department of Public Information of the United Nations Office in Geneva, where the participants discussed the role of the Press and the Media in general for enhancement of democracy and the advancement of human rights.

On 24 June 2006, I participated in the 8th Annual NGO Forum on Human Rights, organized by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Ireland. The theme of the Forum, chosen to coincide with the inaugural session of this honorable Council, was “Global Human Rights Protection-the way forward”.

In June 2005 and 2006, I attended the twelfth and thirteen meeting of the special rapporteurs/representatives, independent experts and chairpersons of working groups of the special procedures and advisory services programme held in Geneva.

Mr. Chairman,

I would now like to update this honorable Council on my activities with regard to urgent appeals and allegations letters, sent to Governments for their comments, observations and eventual remedial action. In 2005, I signed or co-signed with my fellow special rapporteurs and experts 490 communications on allegations of human rights violations, to 96 different countries, regarding 1328 individuals. Replies were numerous, 42%, but I wish to encourage again Governments to include in their responses exhaustive information on human rights violations, thus avoiding political statements. I also wish to thank all those components of the civil society for providing my mandate with credibleinformation. Distinguished Delegates, I would now like to update the Commission on my country visits programme.

I also wish to express my appreciation to the Governments of Algeria, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Honduras, Libya Jahamairia, Macedonia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Ukraine for inviting me to visit their countries, a task that I intend to accomplish within the time-framework of my mandate.

I thank you Mr. Chairman.

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