for the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information
Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the UN system made up of 47 States responsible for the universal promotion and protection of human rights. Two important mechanisms for freedom of expression and media under the mandate of the Human Rights Council are the Universal Periodic Review and Special Procedures.
1. Universal Periodic Review
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is the ‘human rights exam’ all UN Member States take every 5 years. 42 States are peer-reviewed in Geneva each year during three Working Group sessions. The UPR is a unique mechanism of the Human Rights Council (HRC) aimed at improving the human rights situation on the ground of each of the 193 United Nations (UN) Member States. NGOs can actively contribute to the UPR process through so-called stakeholder submissions.
Each UPR review is based on 3 reports about the human rights situation from the State under Review (SuR) that are produced by 1.) the State under review, 2.) civil society and national human rights institutes, and 3.) the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
During the UPR Working Group review at the Human Rights Council, all governments can provide recommendations to the SuR for improvements to their laws and policies. The SuR will be represented at the UPR itself, where they will respond to these recommendations. At the end of the review the SuR can accept or ignore recommendations made. An ‘outcome’ document is produced after the dialogue. This document includes recommendations given to the SuR. When they accept a recommendation, States are expected to implement it. The outcome document is officially adopted during the regular meeting of the Human Rights Council.
Geneva-based NGO UPR-Info, established in 2008, raises awareness on the use of the UPR and provides capacity-building tools to NGOs who want to engage in the UPR process. On their website one can find all information about States under Review, roadmaps, resources about how to engage and more. They also organise UPR pre-sessions where civil society actors who have made a stakeholder submission can engage with the government representatives of the State under Review, other civil society actors and Geneva-based delegates of the Permanent Missions of UN Member States.
The Danish Institute for Human Rights has developed the Human Rights Data Explorer. It is a one-stop database containing all recommendations made to UN Member States that can be filtered to explore human rights recommendations and their connections to the 2030 Agenda on SDG target level, including 16.10 (see below).
Read more on the UPRUPR page of United Nations Human Rights Council (This website contains all relevant documentation, including recommendations and responses by and dates of states under review)
Tutorials (including tests) on the UPR process (Geneva-based NGO UPR Info has made these short slide presentations giving you a short run-down of what the UPR is)
The Civil Society Compendium. A comprehensive guide for Civil Society Organisations engaging in the Universal Periodic Review
UPR Info Pre-sessions: Empowering human rights voices from the ground (Information guide about the pre-sessions organised by UPR Info, an advocacy opportunity to engage state representatives in Geneva before the ‘human rights exam’ takes place)
2. Special Procedures
Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures mandate holders are made up of special rapporteurs, independent experts or working groups composed of five members who are appointed by the Council and who serve in their personal capacity. Special procedures mandate holders undertake country visits; act on individual cases and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to States and other actors bringing alleged violations or abuses to their attention; conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations; contribute to the development of international human rights standards; engage in advocacy; raise public awareness; and provide advice for technical cooperation.
In particular, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression is an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Special Rapporteur’s main responsibility is to study cases and write reports on the global situation of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as to develop standards for issues connected with the protection and safeguarding of this right.1 There are other rapporteurs who work on themes that overlap with freedom of expression and media freedom issues, such as cultural rights, minority issues, arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances.
Some of the reports written by the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression can be accessed at the OHCHR website.
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression
On the website of the current UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, one can find information on international and regional standards, annual thematic reports and comments on legislation and policy. The first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993, she is a former editor of the Daily Star in Bangladesh and former Secretary General of Amnesty International.
Read more on the Special RapporteurMore about the mandate and working method of the Special Rapporteur:
The website of the previous UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye is a useful repository i.a. containing thematic reports, joint declarations on freedom of expression as well as resources to understand, track and respond to disinformation:
Contacting a Special Rapporteur
On the Protecting Defenders website, you can find information how a Special Rapporteur works and how they can be contacted (in this case the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders).
United Nations Human Rights Committee
The United Nations Human Rights Committee is the body responsible for overseeing compliance with the rights enshrined in Part IV of the ICCPR (including article 19). The Committee has issued various Comments regarding freedom of opinion and expression, as well as specific country reports describing the progress made and the challenges faced by Member States in the protection of this right. In General Comment no. 34, of particular relevance, the main elements of the right to freedom of expression within the universal system of human rights are developed.
Article 1 of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) constitution states that this organization will “[c]ollaborate in the work of advancing the mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples, through all means of mass communication and to that end recommend such international agreements as may be necessary to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image.”. In particular, UNESCO stands up for freedom of expression, as a fundamental right and a key condition for democracy and development. The Communication and Information Sector strives to foster freedom of expression, media development, and access to information and knowledge in line with UNESCO’s mandate to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”. The Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists Section is responsible for implementing the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity and for monitoring SDG indicator 16.10.1 and global trends in freedom of expression, both online and offline. The Section is in charge of awareness-raising campaigns for World Press Freedom Day (3 May) and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (2 November). It develops standard-setting frameworks for freedom of expression and freedom of the press at the national, regional and international levels, in contexts including online environments and conflict and post-conflict zones.
UN Sustainable Development Goals Voluntary National Reviews
UN Sustainable Development Goal 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies
In 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)5. Goal 16 calls on all UN member states to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, and target 16.10 refers to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”. UN Member States are expected (but not required) to report progress by collecting data on two indicators through so-called Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). There is a clear advocacy role for civil society organisations to hold governments accountable for progress of the SDGs in the form of shadow reporting.
Learn moreSaferworld has issued this practical guidance document how to engage in the VNR process.
SDG Indicator 16.10.1 Journalist and media killings
Definition: Indicator 16.10.1 is the
number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months.
SDG Indicator 16.10.2 Public access to information
Definition: Indicator 16.10.2 is the
number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information.
Similar mechanism also appear at regional level where human rights commission and regional courts play a fundamental role.
African Commission of Human and People’s Rights (African Union)
The African Commission of Human and People’s Rights was established by the African Charter. Its main role is to protect human and peoples’ rights through its communication procedure, friendly settlement of disputes, state reporting, urgent appeals and other activities of special rapporteurs and working groups and missions.
In 2004, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights established the special mechanism of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information. The Special Rapporteur undertakes a number of duties, including providing guidance on alleged violations, analyzing States’ domestic laws and their compliance with international standards, and conducting visits to Member States and make appropriate recommendations to the African Commission.
African Court on Human and People’s Rights
The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights is a continental court established by African countries to ensure the protection of human and peoples’ rights in Africa. It complements and reinforces the functions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Court has jurisdiction over all cases and disputes submitted to it concerning the interpretation and application of the African Charter, the Protocol and any other relevant human rights instrument ratified by the States concerned.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Organization of American States)
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a principal and autonomous organ of the Organisation of American States (OAS) whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere. The work of the Commission rests on three main pillars: the individual petition system; monitoring of the human rights situation in the Member States, and the attention devoted to priority thematic areas.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in 1997. This Special Rapporteurship was created as a permanent, independent office that acts within the framework and with the support of the Commission. The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression advises the Inter-American Commission, carries out promotional and educational activities on the right to freedom of thought and expression, conducts visits to OAS Member States, provides technical advisory support and promotes and reports on OAS Member States, particularly through an annual report on the situation regarding the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Americas, which is considered by the full Inter-American Commission for its approval and inclusion in its Annual Report to the General Assembly.
IACHR decisions can be found by topic on the page of the Special Rapporteur on the OAS website, and are classified under:
- Violence, threats and hostilities against members of the media
- Subsequent imposition of sanctions due to expression
- Direct and indirect censorship
- Access to information
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is an autonomous legal institution whose objective is to interpret and apply the American Convention. The Inter-American Court exercises a contentious function, in which it resolves contentious cases and supervises judgments; an advisory function; and a function wherein it can order provisional measures.
Council of Europe
As previously mentioned, the CoE is the leading human rights international organization in Europe. The Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, assisted by committees such as the Steering Committee on Media and Information Society, adopt soft law standards that guide and assist in the interpretation of the Convention. The CoE keeps freedom of expression and media standards under constant review and provides assistance to ensure their respect, in line with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights particularly through the Information Society and Action against Crime Directorate, which includes the Directorate General Human Rights and Rule of Law. There are three mechanisms that are particularly relevant for the legal, political and economic enabling environment.
- The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) is based on the three ground principles of the European constitutional heritage: democracy, human rights (including freedom of expression) and the rule of law. The Venice Commission’s primary task is to provide states with legal advice in the form of “legal opinions” on draft legislation or legislation already in force which is submitted to it for examination. It also produces studies and reports on topical issues.
- The Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists is a public space to facilitate the compilation, processing and dissemination of information on serious concerns about media freedom and safety of journalists in member States. This is a project launched upon the signature of an agreement between the CoE and a series of international NGOs and associations of journalists. As of 2021, the Platform counts of 14 partners from this field (including Free Press Unlimited). The Platform allows the contributing partners to post alerts, subject to their own verification processes and standards. Each contributing partner is responsible for information which it posts. When the circumstances allow it, the Council of Europe and a member State which is directly referred to in information posted on the platform may post reports on action taken by their respective organs and institutions in response to that information.
- The European Audiovisual Observatory provides a comparative European overview of the audiovisual industry in 41 different countries as well as detailed analysis of national and even regional industries. In particular, it issues the monthly IRIS Newsletter, which reports on the most important legal developments for the audiovisual industry in 39 European countries.
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights rules on individual or State applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is an inter-governmental organization covering 57 participating States. It addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence and security building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities.
In 1997 participating States decided by consensus the creation of the institution of the Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM). The RFoM observes media developments as part of an early warning function and helps participating States abide by their commitments to freedom of expression and free media. The RFoM focuses the work on 8 main areas:
- decriminalisation of defamation
- digital switchover
- hate speech
- media freedom on the internet
- media laws
- media pluralism
- media self-regulation
- safety of journalists, with a specific accent on safety of female journalists online.
The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provides support, assistance and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections, reviews legislation and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions.
The European Union (EU) is not an international or inter-governmental organization. The EU is based on a series of treaties that create a group or “confederation” of States which operate as a union in relevant political and economic aspects. It is also important to note that a key element of the EU is the cession of sovereign powers and functions from member States to the EU institutions. EU treaties contain strong commitments to the protection and promotion of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, within and beyond the borders of the EU. Regarding this last purpose it is important to take into consideration the Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline.
EU action in the field of human rights is based on the already mentioned EU Charter, which is legally binding on the EU institutions and national governments when they are implementing EU law. The EU Charter is fully aligned with the provisions contained in the European Convention. As it was also mentioned, the Convention was adopted in the framework of the CoE and it is important to underscore that all member States of the EU are at the same time members of the latter. The EU Charter is not a declaration of new rights, but a compilation of existing protected fundamental rights in one single document for the purposes of their application under the EU system.
A few relevant and more specific initiatives by the European Union include the European Democracy Action Plan as an instrument to empower citizens and build more resilient democracies across the EU, which incorporates a series of actions to strengthen media and counter disinformation, and the Rule of Law Report (launched for the first time in 2020) as an assessment of the rule of law situation in the EU and each member State. The Report pays particular attention to media pluralism and media freedom as key aspects in this field.
In the European Commission, multiple Commissioners deal with the legal, political and economic environment for the media:
- Commissioner Values and Transparency and Vice-President Věra Jourová is responsible for freedom of expression, freedom of the press and media pluralism
- Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, responsible for the enforcement and reviewing of EU market competition rules, big data and artificial intelligence
- Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, in charge of updating the Digital Education Action Plan and raising awareness of disinformation and other online threats
- Commissioner Thierry Breton, who is leading the work on a new Digital Services Act to reinforce the single market for digital services, clarify obligations of online platforms, and give smaller businesses legal clarity and a level playing field
- Vice-President and High Representative Joseph Borrell, responsible for Democracy and Human Rights within the External Action of the EU (the EU’s foreign policy).
The European Parliament has several committees dealing with legislative initiatives affecting the right to freedom of expression, particularly the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).
The European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) helps policymakers safeguard the rights, values and freedoms enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. The FRA collects and analyses law and data; provides independent, evidence-based support for and expertise on fundamental rights; works alongside EU institutions, Member States, national human rights institutions, equality bodies and other stakeholders, and helps policymakers understand how they can do more for EU citizens.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is an EU institution, and therefore not an international court. The CJEU interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries, and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions. It can also, in certain circumstances, be used by individuals, companies or organisations to take action against an EU institution, if they feel it has somehow infringed their rights. When assessing a possible violation of citizens’ rights the CJEU will of course take into consideration the text of the European Charter. In any case, fundamental rights as guaranteed by the European Convention, and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, also constitute general principles of the Union’s law and inform the decisions of the CJEU.