International law – the rights of journalists
As well as national law codes, the media operates within an international legal framework, based on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its various supplementary codes and conventions, as well as (for Africa), the Windhoek Declaration – which highlighted ownership monopolies as a threat to press freedom – the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights and later declarations adopted by the African Parliament. Countries that are signatories to these documents are expected to uphold them; even countries that are not signatories are often judged by their standards.
One key aspect of this international framework is that while interpretations may differ slightly between documents, it upholds freedom of expression and information; something that, as long ago as the 18th century, was recognised (in the words of French revolutionary Mirabeau) as “the freedom without which other freedoms cannot be gained”.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines this freedom through the following clauses:
- Article 15: the right to form, hold, receive and impart opinions
- Article 16: free and equal access to information inside and outside state borders
- Article 17: freedom of speech and expression, equal access to all channels of communication, and no censorship (though restrictions under defamation laws are allowed; see below)
- Article 18: the duty to present news and information fairly and impartially
- Article 19: the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information through any media, regardless of any frontier…”
If they are met, these requirements are designed to set up a broadly free framework within which media organisations and other civil society bodies can operate.
The circumstances in which governments can limit these rights are outlined in Article 29 of the Universal Declaration. The Political Covenant of the Declaration details the restrictions on these rights article by article, as follows:
- To ensure respect for the rights and reputations of others (anti-defamation)
- To protect national security, ordre public (the circumstances necessary to keep a state governable), public health or morals
- To prevent incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence