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Special Rapporteurs Define Ten Key Challenges to Freedom of Expression in the Next Decade

To mark their tenth year of collaboration, the four rapporteurs on free expression issued a joint declaration last week outlining the ten main challenges to free expression in the next decade. The initiative was organised by ARTICLE 19 and the Centre for Law and Democracy.

The statement emphasises the critical role of freedom of expression, including diversity and pluralism, as an "essential tool" to defend other rights and "as a core element of democracy." It also acknowledges the tremendous power of the Internet as a mechanism for "realising the right to freedom of expression and information."

One key point made by the rapporteurs is that women, minorities, refugees, indigenous peoples and sexual minorities continue to struggle to have their voices heard and to access information that would empower them. The underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups within the media environment and insufficient coverage by the media of issues relevant to minority groups are obstacles to freedom of expression.

Another far-reaching issue is state interference in the media. This influence includes political manipulation of public media so that it becomes a state mouthpiece, registration requirements for print media or Internet access, and government control over licensing or regulation of broadcasters.

Criminal defamation continues to be a major impediment to free speech, say the rapporteurs. Most countries have laws that make it a crime to defame, insult, slander or libel someone or something, and only about 10 countries have fully decriminalised defamation. The rapporteurs are concerned by the "failure of many laws to require the plaintiff to prove key elements of the offence, such as falsity and malice" and laws that penalise true statements, accurate reporting or statements of opinion. Journalists face severe prison sentences, loss of civil rights and excessive fines as a result of repressive laws.

The rapporteurs bring attention to the commercial pressures that shape the media's ability to disseminate information. Increasing concentration of media ownership can have a great effect on content diversity. Also, the "fracturing of the advertising market" can lead to "cost-cutting measures such as less local content" and "a decrease in investigative journalism."

Violence against journalists is an ongoing threat, with "more politically motivated killings of journalists in 2009 than in any other year in the past decade." Other issues covered by the rapporteurs include: limits on the right to information, public funding support for public broadcasters, the idea of national security distorted and used to impose restrictions on free expression, blocking of websites and web domains. The rapporteurs also point to the fact that the majority of the world's population does not have access to the Internet, with the poor and those in remote, rural communities unable to access information relevant to their lives.

The four special mandates on freedom of expression are Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Miklos Haraszti, the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; Catalina Botero, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the Organisation of American States; and Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information for the African Commission on Human and People's Rights.


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