Governments that have no intention to respect the right to freedom of expression are fond of pointing out that this freedom is not absolute anywhere in the world – even liberal democracies, even the United States with its First Amendment, apply some limits. Such arguments encourage totally relativistic perspectives, such that there are no universal standards and no difference between right and wrong, only infinite shades of grey.
It is true that freedom of expression is not an absolute or unlimited right. It is also true that all states apply some restrictions on this right. But it is not true that all restrictions are morally equivalent, or that they are all equally acceptable from an international human rights perspective. A set of clear standards has evolved from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These are summarised in the “three-part test” link on this site. You can study Article19.org’s summary here.
Types of violation
Freedom of expression is threatened by a wide range of restrictions, from various directions.
Where threats come from
- The state. This is usually the most important threat, because the state controls most of the means of violence.
- Business. In most countries, business power is a major source of restrictions, in the form of advertisers or media owners themselves.
- The people. In some societies, angry mobs (usually instigated by radical groups) are able to force their views on the media.
- Media organisations, e.g. through licensing and ownership.
- Media workers, e.g. attacks on journalists, imprisoning editors.
- Media owners, e.g. using advertising as an economic threat.
- Media content, e.g. censorship of stories.
- Media audiences, e.g. banning people from owning content.
Read pages 4-7 of this document to get an idea of some of the most common ways in which freedom of expression is being threatened. This report was prepared by United Nations Special Rapporteurs, who are independent experts given the responsibility to monitor a topic and report back to the UN.
Freedom of expression monitors
Several NGOs publicise violations of freedom of expression on their websites. Click on the following links to familiarise yourself with them and get examples of current cases.