The document opens by highlighting that freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person and the foundation of every free, democratic society. The General Comment provides guidance to States on what freedoms of opinion and expression mean in practice.

The document is divided in nine sections:

(i) General Remarks;

(ii) Freedom of opinion;

(iii) Freedom of expression;

(iv) Freedom of expression and the media;

(v) Right of access to information, defined as the right of access to records held by a public body, regardless of the form in which the information is stored, its source, and the date of production;

(vi) Freedom of expression and political rights, with focus on the importance of freedom of expression for the conduct of public affairs and the effective exercise of the right to vote;

(vii) The application of Article 19 (3), which clarifies the legitimate grounds for restricting the right to freedom of expression and how such restrictions must conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality. The legitimate grounds for restriction listed in the ICCPR are 1) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; and 2) For the protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals.

In reference to these restrictions, General Comment 34 (paragraph 35) highlights that “When a State party invokes a legitimate ground for restriction of freedom of expression, it must demonstrate in specific and individualized fashion the precise nature of the threat, and the necessity and proportionality of the specific action taken, in particular by establishing a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat”. The General Comment also highlights how States parties have to be proactive in putting in place “effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression” (paragraph 23).

(viii) Limitative scope of restrictions on freedom of expression in certain specific areas - for example, in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions. The General Comment also looks at State obligations in relation to protecting freedom of expression over the internet, and ensuring media plurality, considering the decriminalisation of defamation and not abusing anti-terror laws.

(ix) The relationship between articles 19 and 20 ICCPR, where Article 20 addresses propaganda for war and hate speech. 

Tags: Freedom of expression Media pluralism Media Law Human rights Media freedom Access to information
Publication Date: 11/09/2011
Research and Editorial Team: United Nations Human Rights Committee