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Role of freedom of expression in democratisation processes: an ARTICLE 19 presentation

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 29 Mar 2012 - The following is a presentation by ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Agnes Callamard to the Conference on Media Development in Myanmar, Organised by the Ministry of Information and UNESCO Rangoon, Myanmar, March 19-20, 2012.

I am deeply honoured to be here today - in Myanmar in dialogue and open exchange.

I am very honoured and very surprised - I don't think I ever expected to be here today - yet time and time again world events and sheer human courage teach us that change is not to be predicted.

This is the story of the last 14 months. From January 2011 many of us, human rights activists, have been riding the roller coaster of human rights change, beginning with Tunisia and taking us right through to today in Myanmar.

Together we have witnessed the changes of these last months with some amazement and, of course, a degree of scepticism - greeting them with cautious optimism.

What is certain is that these changes that have spread across the Middle East and which are taking place in Myanmar must make us think again. For all of us, all who never imagined change would come in that way at this time, we have much to be humble about and much to reassess. Few of us saw this change coming and for those who did, very few, if any, thought they would bring democratisation.

The reality is that for all our expertise, even with all our data and despite all our reporting and careful analysis, it seems that still we under estimated a number of things. What those aspects are precisely remains for us to determine together. But what is clear already is that a main lesson that Myanmar teaches us all and experts in particular, is humility.

So today we are here in Yangon - present to offer our congratulations for the important steps already taken, to highlight our concerns over what has not yet been done, and, most importantly, to speak together about the challenges that lie ahead.

In this session, I will be focusing on the place of freedom of expression / media laws and legal reforms in the process you have undertaken.

I - WHY DOES FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND FREEDOM OF THE MEDIA MATTER?

Before focusing on the importance and role of a proper legal framework, we may need to reiterate a few things about why freedom of expression, freedom of the media matter.

Human rights are the foundation of human dignity, freedom, justice and peace. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights laid out equal rights for all people and three fundamental principles governing human rights: rights are universal, meaning that rights apply to everyone whoever or wherever that person is; inalienable, in that they precede state authority and are based on peoples' humanity; and indivisible in that all rights are of equal importance.

The UDHR was also intended to provide a common framework and understanding across nations for preventing the religious, racial, political and sectarian strife which plagued humanity throughout its history, culminating in the Second World War. This idea is forcefully expressed in the preamble of the UDHR, which explicitly mentions freedom of speech and beliefs together as the highest aspirations of the common people.

Expression and Information are two sides of the same coin.

At its very first session, in 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59(I) which states: "Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and . . . the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated."

ARTICLE 19 considers freedom of expression as a cornerstone right - one that enables other rights to be protected and exercised. The full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression is central to achieving individual freedoms and developing democracy and plays a critical role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty.

It makes electoral democracy meaningful and builds public trust in administration. Access to information strengthens mechanisms to hold governments accountable for their promises, obligations and actions. It not only increases the knowledge base and participation within a society but can also secure external checks on state accountability, and thus prevent corruption that thrives on secrecy and closed environments.

Freedom of expression and freedom of information are crucial to democracy and the enjoyment of other rights. The importance of freedom of expression was particularly emphasised by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights which stated:

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone upon which the very existence of a democratic society rests. It is indispensable for the formation of public opinion. It is also a condition sine qua non for the development of political parties, trade union, scientific and cultural societies and, in general, those who wish to influence the public. It represents, in short, the means that enable the community, when exercising its opinions, to be sufficiently informed. Consequently, it can be said that a society that is not well informed is not a society that is truly free.

If people are not free to say what they want, to disseminate information and expression their opinion on matters of political interest, and to receive information and ideas from a variety of sources, then they will not be able to case an informed vote or to participate in governance in other ways. The right to freedom of expression and freedom of information are also key in any system for protecting and promoting the enjoyment of all other human rights - whether civil or political rights, or economic, social and cultural rights.

The guarantee of freedom of expression applies with particular force to the media. The European Court has consistently emphasised the "pre-eminent role of the press in a State governed by the rule of law" and has stated: "Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.

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