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Freedom of expression

France and the defence of freedom of opinion and expression

Freedom of opinion, expression and information and freedom of the press constitute one of the essential pillars of a democratic society.

In 2012, according to figures published by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), 90 journalists and 47 netizens and citizen-journalists were killed and over a thousand arrested and imprisoned. In many parts of the world, freedom of expression is shackled by legislative or regulatory measures allowing State interference in the editorial independence of the media.

France’s commitments

France has ratified all the main international legal instruments on human rights in which freedom of opinion and expression is enshrined. Freedom of expression is expressly recognised in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in articles 19 and 20 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

France supports the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, established in 1993. In his latest report to the 20th session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations included greater protection for journalists on the Internet and the need to combat impunity and the use of criminal legislation to restrict or suppress media freedom.

A number of resolutions on freedom of opinion and expression, co-sponsored by France, have been adopted by first the Human Rights Commission and then the Human Rights Council over the years, reaffirming the principle that freedom of expression is an essential freedom in a State under the rule of law.

France also supports freedom of expression through the Council of Europe. France is subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights as regards the implementation of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in which freedom of expression is enshrined. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has also adopted the Guidelines on protecting freedom of expression and information in times of crisis.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) appointed a Representative on Freedom of the Media in 1997.

Freedom of expression in the digital era

France is committed to defending freedom of expression, including on the Internet. The Internet today is a planet-wide means of circulating information and opinions much used by opposition movements, human rights defenders and journalists. It can also be used, however, as a vehicle for the propaganda of hate and for material potentially prejudicial to public morals and health or to the security of the State.

The spread of social networks has been accompanied by an increase in violations of human rights committed by States considered to be "Enemies of the Internet", to employ the term used by Reporters Without Borders.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media have incorporated this issue into their investigations and recommendations. These two experts, alongside their counterparts at the Organisation of American States (OEA) and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, issued a joint declaration in March 2010 identifying ten key challenges to freedom of expression worldwide, including efforts by some governments to control or limit the Internet.

The initiatives taken by international organisations fall mainly into two categories:

-  the defence of freedom of expression on the Internet is an issue regularly addressed by the Human Rights Council;
-  the OSCE and the Council of Europe have taken steps to combat racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda on the Internet, with the latter establishing an international standard (the Additional Protocol of 28 January 2003 to the Convention on Cybercrime, which France ratified in 2006).

France and the protection of journalists

France is particularly committed to press freedom and the protection of journalists. Media professionals are often the first to fall victim to restrictions on freedom of expression, particularly in times of armed conflict.

Although international humanitarian law as expressed in the Geneva Conventions recognises an obligation for belligerents to afford journalists, media professionals and associated personnel the same protection as civilians (article 79 of Additional Protocol I to the 3rd Geneva Convention), it makes no specific provision for the protection of journalists present in areas of armed conflict.

In the wake of a joint initiative by France, Greece and Reporters Without Borders, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1738 (2006) on the protection of journalists in conflict situations, with the aim of preventing acts of violence against journalists.

The resolution requires all parties to an armed conflict to comply with their obligations under existing international law to protect civilians in armed conflict, and emphasises in particular their obligations with respect to protection, prevention and the fight against impunity. It also requests the Secretary-General to include as a sub-item in his reports on protection of civilians in armed conflict the issue of the safety and security of journalists, media professionals and associated personnel.

The resolution has become the benchmark standard for the protection of journalists and is cited in a certain number of Security Council resolutions on this issue, in particular resolutions 1910 on Somalia (2010), 1973 on Libya (2011) and 1974 on Afghanistan (2011).

France is also closely involved in the protection of journalists through other UN agencies, most notably UNESCO, which has incorporated the safety of journalists into its mandate. The Third Report by the Director-General on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was presented in March 2012. In April 2012, UNESCO also adopted a "UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity". The report aims to introduce a coordinated strategy into the United Nations system to guarantee the safety of media professionals.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also has an important role to play in raising awareness of the issue, in particular through its reports to the Human Rights Council. A panel discussion on the protection of journalists in armed conflicts was held at the 14th session of the Human Rights Council. France, which was present at the discussion, emphasised that the protection of journalists could only be achieved as the result of political will on the part of States to implement the international legal instruments available.

France also supported the adoption of the resolution presented by Austria to the 21st session in September 2012 on "the safety of journalists".

On 22 and 23 November 2012, the 2nd UN Inter-Agency Meeting on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was held in Vienna. It was attended by representatives from UN agencies, the media, governments and civil society and by independent experts, seeking to formulate a concrete implementation strategy for the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

Updated on : 01.03.13

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