Protecting freedom of speech - online

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09 Aug 2011 15:46:12.217

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Free speech online has just as much legal protection as it does in traditional media, according to a United Nations decision guided by a University of Nottingham academic.

A two-year negotiation process led by Professor Michael O’Flaherty has reaffirmed the UN’s commitment to freedom of expression – and stressed that new media such as blogs and social networking sites enjoy all the protection afforded to conventional forms such as newspapers, TV and radio.

Professor O’Flaherty, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, led the project on one of the most sensitive topics in international human rights law: the extent to which freedom of expression can be restricted by the state.

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The result is the UN’s new General Comment on Freedom of Expression, which has now been adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and will have a major influence on the development of legal standards globally.

The General Comment – a 15-page document drafted by Professor O’Flaherty – addresses many issues including blasphemy laws, so-called “memory” laws which penalise the expression of opinions about historical facts, new media, laws on treason, counter-terrorism, lese majeste, defamation of the head of state and public officials.

Professor O’Flaherty, Co-Director of the University’s Human Rights Law Centre, said free speech is one of the most cherished of all the human rights.

He added: “In the current debates around media activity in the light of the ongoing hacking scandal, the General Comment is a reminder of the importance of freedom and independence of the media and of the need to regulate the media only in exceptional cases.

“Without freedom of expression we have no politics. Without freedom of expression we have no assembly. What is the point of meeting if we can’t speak to each other and listen to each other? So it is vitally important for the well being of societies anywhere. Not just democracies, it’s crucial for democracy, it’s crucial for human life.

“The General Comment is a comprehensive response to numerous requests from lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, rights defenders and even journalists asking for clarification on many of the issues covered by the rights to freedom of expression and opinion.

“It is a strong reaffirmation of the central importance for all human rights of the freedom of expression and sets out the very strict parameters within which the right can be restricted by states.”

Professor O’Flaherty was the principal drafter, or ‘rapporteur’, of the General Comment. It is a legal interpretation by the most authoritative UN body in charge of monitoring whether countries are complying with international requirements on freedom of expression.

The General Comment also covers:

• the right of access to information, most notably an obligation of States to readily make available State-owned information of public interest which does not harm national security.
• ‘memory laws’, which penalise the expression of opinions about historical facts, are deemed unacceptable under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
• blasphemy laws are incompatible with the Covenant, except under very specific circumstances subject to strict requirements set out in the Covenant.
• the duty of States to foster a strong, free and plural media as well as access to new media information platforms.

The General Comment affirms that media freedom is entitled to high standards of protection, and that the protections afforded to traditional media extend in full to new media. It calls on states to “take all necessary steps to foster the independence of these new media and to ensure access of individuals” to it.

During the two years of negotiation of the text, the Human Rights Committee had to consider over 350 drafting proposals from 75 governments, non-governmental organisations, human rights bodies and others. An advanced, unedited version of the new General Comment No. 34 will be available shortly on the Committee’s webpage at, while translations in all official UN languages will be adopted at the next Committee session in October 2011.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee is a United Nations body of 18 experts that meets three times a year for four-week sessions. It considers reports submitted by member states on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ICCPR.

An interview with Professor O’Flaherty on the new General Comment on Freedom of Expression can be seen at:

Professor O’Flaherty has been an elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee Since 2004 and is currently a Vice-Chairperson. He is also a member of the UN Expert Group on Human Rights Indicators. He sits on advisory committees of the European Roma Rights Centre, the Diplomacy Training Programme, the UN-UK Association, the World Organization Against Torture, the Hilde Back Education Fund and a number of other groups worldwide.

Prior to December 2003, he served in a number of senior positions with the United Nations. He established the UN human rights field missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1994) and Sierra Leone (1998) and subsequently guided UN headquarters support to its human rights programmes across the Asia-Pacific region.

In July 2011 he was appointed the new Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The Commission advises the government and is responsible for protecting and promoting human rights throughout Northern Ireland; it also helps people whose rights may have been denied and can carry out its own investigations.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘Europe’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking, a league table of the world’s most environmentally-friendly higher education institutions, which ranked Nottingham second in the world overall.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 40,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. More news from the University at:

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Michael O’Flaherty, School of Law, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 8466313,

Tim Utton

Tim Utton - Deputy Director of Communications

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8092 Location: University Park

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