Freedom of Expression Principles in Law

Published: 1 July 2015

Region: Worldwide

Defence_Handbook_for_Journalists_and_BloggersAround 160 bloggers and nearly the same number of journalists are currently imprisoned around the world because of their work. Not only journalists in the countries with repressive regimes are prosecuted, but restrictions and regulations with characteristics of violation of freedom of expression have been introduced in developed countries too. It is often, especially after the attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, that media experts and journalists are debating what freedom of expression means today and what are the limits in exercising the right of free speech.

In the most recent debate on freedom of expression organised by CIMA and MDI in Washington, panellists expressed a strong position on the importance of social responsibility, critical discussion and good journalism practices stressing as vital to respect context and different minority groups in each society. In a slightly different tone, prominent panellists of Thomson Reuters Foundation argued for example, that world media should have shown a greater solidarity and republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

“The terrible Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and horrific murders by Islamic State are what we remember most, but the reality is that they job of a journalist has become increasingly dangerous for a whole set of reasons,” Monique Villa, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation, said at the gathering in London on 29 June.

While French lawyer specialising in human rights William Bourdon argued that free speech should be exercised with some level of personal responsibility, so as not to offend cultures or religions, others said that this would lead to confusion. “What people find offensive varies enormously, so it becomes a blurred line, this is why it is vital to protect the right to free speech,” said Sylvie Kauffman, editorial director of Le Monde. She gave an example of a ‘line of division’ seen after the attacks in Paris in January 2015, between Anglo-Saxon and Continental Europe, as well as between traditional and digital media.

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, also wanted to see more solidarity with the French magazine and thought that republishing the cartoons would end isolation.

Journalist and the BBC World Service correspondent from Pakistan Owen Bennett-Jones said that free speech shouldn’t be argued as rights issue but contextualised. ‘You have to strike a balance in terms of culture and context,’ said Bennett-Jones admitting that he himself couldn’t publish stories on corruption in cricket and the government because of the libel law in the UK.

The reason Thompson Reuters Foundation held a debate on freedom of expression was the launch of a Defence Handbook for Journalists and Bloggers. The Handbook produced in partnership with Reporters without Borders and the law firm Paul Hastings,  aims to help protect journalists and writers from threats, harassment, intimidation and imprisonment, even from death, by informing them of freedom of information principles in international law.

The Handbook was written with the help of more than 70 lawyers worldwide.