27 Nov 2023 Celebrating the Universal Declaration, condemning attacks on media freedom
On December 10, 2023 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) will be 75 years old. As a benchmark of democracy, we rightly celebrate observance of its Article 19 on freedom of opinion and expression and the right to seek, receive, and impart information.
Often overlooked, as WACC Laureate Cees Hamelink points out in his new book Communication and Human Rights, is Article 28: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set out in this Declaration can be fully realized.” And that broader framework depends on the ability to communicate freely, safely, and with respect for human dignity.
Effective participation in society is founded on freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, and media freedom. And yet, according to Weaponizing the Law: Attacks on Media Freedom, a report published in April 2023 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation:
“Among the many and wide-ranging threats to media freedom that have proliferated in recent years is the mounting number of legal attacks on journalists and journalism, often used to silence public interest reporting and exert control. An array of sweeping and repressive legislative, regulatory, and other legal threats to journalists are stifling their ability to operate freely and independently, with grave repercussions for the journalists themselves and for the audiences they serve.”
Contradicting the vision of the UDHR, journalists are being threatened by abuse of defamation laws; criminalisation of criticism and social unrest; “catch-all” national security and public order offences; non-speech related crimes; and combining legal charges as a tactic to secure their conviction.
In Italy in October 2023, the Criminal Court of Rome convicted writer Roberto Saviano of libel and fined him €1,000. Initiated by current prime minister Georgia Meloni, the lawsuit came after critical comments by Saviano on the TV programme Piazzapulita about Meloni’s migration policies.
Sabrina Tucci, a spokesperson for Pen International, the global writers’ association, commented, “This verdict underscores the challenges writers and journalists face in their pursuit of free expression and reminds us of the critical importance of defending writers’ rights and freedom of speech – in Italy and beyond.”
Also in late October 2023, Chinese authorities in Hong Kong denied a visa to Rowena He, an eminent scholar of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown, preventing her from returning to her teaching post at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. China is not alone in cracking down on independent journalists and academics who criticize the regime, all of whom risk reprisals.
The Thomson Reuters report calls on advocacy groups, the legal community, democratic governments, intergovernmental organizations, and journalists themselves to play a key role in responding to this phenomenon. “Sustained international attention, tangible government action to curb negative legislative trends, and expanded access to legal support to prevent and defend against these threats are urgently needed.”
While celebrating the spirit of the UDHR, complacency is not an option when it comes to achieving its overriding aim: universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. People’s right to communicate is underpinned by media freedom, which requires constant vigilance and accountability if democracy is to flourish.