International strategy for freedom of expression

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched its international strategy for promoting freedom of expression in foreign and development policy 29 June.

Preliminary short version of the strategy:

Free internet illustration

1 Introduction

1.1 Freedom of expression and democracy

The right to freedom of expression, including free access to information, is a fundamental human right. Freedom of expression is essential to enabling people to acquire knowledge and form their own opinions. Freedom of expression is also a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy where all members of society can take part in a free exchange of views and ideas and influence social development. In pluralistic societies, an open dialogue where opinions can be pitted against each other helps to promote democracy and safeguard human rights.  

1.2 Freedom of expression under pressure

In many countries, freedom of expression and freedom of the press are under severe pressure. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a negative trend in which democratic values and human rights are increasingly challenged, and autocratisation is deepening. Many countries, including a number of democratic countries, have introduced new restrictions that limit freedom of expression. Journalists and the media are being prevented from doing their job in various ways, and human rights defenders and other critical voices are being denied access to information and silenced.  Government-sanctioned censorship of the internet and media channels is a growing problem. It is essential to strengthen freedom of expression and freedom of the press in order to restore people’s trust in the public institutions and in each other, and to promote support for social development based on respect for human rights and democratic values.   

1.3 Human Rights in the digital space

The digital transformation is steadily gathering pace. New communication platforms provide greater access to knowledge and information, and give more people the chance to participate in the public debate. This strengthens democracy. Social media make it possible to reach out to large numbers of people across national borders and engage them in social and political change processes. However, there is significant variation between countries and population groups when it comes to internet access and use. Fewer girls and women use the internet than boys and men. Internet access, digital skills and digital safety must all be enhanced to reduce these disparities. 

Digital technology is used by both state and non-state actors for illegal surveillance, censorship, propaganda campaigns, online harassment and other forms of digital violence. Journalists, human rights defenders, artists and other cultural practitioners, minorities, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to online violence. [1]  Underreporting and widespread impunity for these kinds of attacks discourage those who are targeted and others from participating in the public debate. This poses a serious threat to freedom of expression.    

The sheer scale of hate speech, disinformation and propaganda online also increases polarisation in society and undermines trust in democratic institutions and values. Online search engines and social media channels control which opinions, news and information are made available and visible to several billions of users all over the world. This limits the public discourse and diversity in the public domain, and raises questions regarding the manipulation of public opinion.

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ (UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19).

Freedom of expression includes the freedom to choose to express oneself, or to remain silent. Information, ideas and opinions may be expressed in many ways either through words and pictures, and freedom of expression applies to the internet and social media as it does to all means of communication. Freedom of expression is further elaborated on in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’

173 countries have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and freedom of expression is protected under the constitution and legislation of most countries. Regional conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10), commit the states parties to protect freedom of expression. 

Article 100 of the Norwegian Constitution safeguards the right of all people to freedom of expression and the right of access to public information. It states that the grounds for freedom of expression are the seeking of truth, the promotion of democracy and the individual’s freedom to form opinions. It also sets out that the authorities are to ‘create conditions that facilitate open and enlightened public discourse.’

What limits should be placed on freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression also encompasses speech that may be perceived as controversial, shocking or offensive. Freedom of expression may only be restricted in exceptional cases. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states parties may only impose restrictions on freedom of expression if these have a clear legal basis in national legislation, serve a legitimate purpose, and are necessary in order to ensure respect for the rights or reputations of others or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.

States parties to the International Covenant are required to prohibit any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. Discriminatory or hateful statements that are not prohibited may also be harmful. There is no internationally agreed definition of hate speech. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recommended that the threshold test outlined in the Rabat Plan of Action should be used as a basis for determining whether a statement is a criminal offence. This test sets out six factors that must be taken into account: the social and political context, the status of the speaker, intent to incite the audience against a target group, content and form of the speech, the extent of its dissemination and the likelihood of harm, including imminence.  

Democracy and civil society

Freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right of peaceful assembly and the right to vote are fundamental rights in any free and democratic society, in which all citizens are able to participate on an equal basis in political and public life.

Freedom of expression is also essential for enabling people to realise their right to freedom of religion or belief, to use their own language, to enjoy their own culture and participate in cultural life. These rights are all set out in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation provides a good basis for ensuring that new technologies promote respect for human rights and equal opportunities for all. Norway supports the EU initiative to develop a new regulatory framework for online platforms, which is intended to ensure greater transparency and accountability with regard to the development of these platforms, and to protect consumers and their fundamental rights online.  

Legislation and mechanisms that are intended to provide protection against harmful and illegal speech must be developed in a way that safeguards the most vulnerable groups but does not lead to disproportionate restrictions on freedom of expression and information. A strong, diversified and independent media sector that can provide critical, fact-based journalism, combined with a high level of public media and information literacy, is vital for protecting freedom of expression and information.

1.4 Strategic objectives and approach

Norway gives high priority to protecting freedom of expression in its international human rights work. This is primarily because freedom of expression is a fundamental human right in itself and a prerequisite for democracy and the realisation of other human rights as well. Protecting freedom of expression is also relevant in the context of Norwegian development policy because respect for human rights is essential for promoting inclusive and sustainable development.   

This strategy sets out the overall objectives and priorities for the continued efforts of the Foreign Service to promote a diversified, independent media sector, ensure access to information and protect journalists and other vulnerable groups. In the light of the rapid pace of development of digital technologies, importance will be attached to improving the protection of human rights in the digital space.    

It is necessary to take an integrated, long-term approach in the international efforts to promote human rights. Norway considers it important to view political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights in conjunction with each other, and bases its efforts to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on respect for human rights. Norway also promotes human rights through its participation in international and regional organisations, through bilateral dialogue and cooperation, and by providing support to civil society organisations and human rights defenders. These are all important tools for protecting and promoting freedom of expression as a fundamental right that is essential to democratic and sustainable development.

States have an obligation under international law to protect human rights. This includes taking appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises. The 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establish a global standard for corporate responsibility with regard to human rights.

Among other things, the Guiding Principles set out the responsibility of business enterprises to prevent and mitigate actual and potential adverse human rights impacts of their activities. Business enterprises should assess the possible human rights impacts of their activities on a regular basis, should draw on internal and external, independent expertise, and should consult with affected groups or other relevant stakeholders. In cases where the domestic context makes it impossible for business enterprises to fully meet their responsibility to respect human rights, they are still expected to respect internationally recognised human rights principles as far as is possible.

The UN and multilateral cooperation: As part of the effort to strengthen states’ compliance with their human rights obligations, Norway provides recommendations to individual countries through the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Norway participates in discussions on freedom of expression in the UN, supports the work of UN special rapporteurs and other special procedures, and supports the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Norway promotes freedom of expression and freedom of the press through its participation in regional organisations and forums, such as the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the EU/EEA cooperation. One of Norway’s priorities in the Council of Europe is to ensure that the Convention system continues to be robust and effective. The European Court of Human Rights plays an important role in protecting freedom of expression in Europe. The Court’s decisions are binding on the 47 member states that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights.

Through multilateral networks such as the Freedom Online Coalition and the Christchurch Call to Action, Norway cooperates with other countries, civil society, academia and the private sector to safeguard freedom of expression and other human rights in the digital space.

Human rights dialogue and open criticism: In its political dialogue with other countries’ authorities, Norway is a staunch defender of freedom of expression and other human rights. Norway voices clear criticism in the UN Human Rights Council of human rights violations in individual countries. In addition, Norway often raises concerns and expresses criticism jointly with other countries in connection with specific situations where journalists, human rights defenders, opposition activists and others have been subjected to threats as a result of their work. Norway attaches importance to promoting inclusive dialogue on human rights both with the authorities and with civil society in partner countries. Promoting the participation of civil society in UN human rights efforts and in the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Reviews is part of this work. Knowledge and analysis of the human rights situation in individual countries provide an important basis for Norway’s engagement.

Support for partner organisations: Providing support for a wide range of civil society organisations working at the local, national and international levels helps to foster freedom of expression. Norway also promotes freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Europe through the EEA and Norway Grants scheme and civil society support in all the beneficiary countries. Collaboration with civil society, Norwegian institutions and international organisations and networks is important for building alliances and strengthening international cooperation to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Grant schemes administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and the Norwegian embassies  will support the achievement of the objectives of this strategy, and activities are to be coordinated with other donor countries and international funds. Norway will continue to play a key role in efforts to strengthen the protection of human rights defenders, i.e., individuals or groups that work to promote or protect human rights, and will continue to provide substantial support for their work. This includes support to strengthen national human rights institutions.

Don’t stop the press!

An independent, critical press is one of the most important institutions in any democratic society. It is the task of the media to report on matters of public interest, expose issues of concern and abuses of power, and facilitate an open and informed debate in which differing views and ideas can be aired. A wide range of independent media channels, including local media outlets in various languages, is of great importance in ensuring that all social groups have the chance to gain insight into and influence matters that affect them.  

In the new digital media landscape, edited journalism is an even more important source of reliable information and news. It is essential to safeguard media diversity and editorial freedom both through national regulation and ethical guidelines for the press that are in line with international standards.  

Journalists often face great danger in the course of their work. [2] Journalists who investigate and report on abuses of power, corruption, human rights violations, environmental crime and other criminal activities are particularly at risk of persecution and reprisals aimed at silencing them.

Developments in digital technology have also led to an increase in threats against, harassment and surveillance of journalists. Women journalists and media workers are particularly vulnerable to gender discrimination, sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. [3] This poses a threat to gender equality in the media and in society as a whole. Failure to hold the perpetrators accountable serves to increase tolerance of,  and heightens the risk of, abuses. Widespread impunity also leads to self-censorship and restricts freedom of expression in society. 

2.1 Strategic objectives

Protection of freedom of expression for journalists

Action points:

  1. Enhance journalists’ access to secure communication and  training in security in the digital and physical space, with a focus on women journalists and other particularly vulnerable journalists and media workers.
  2. Support international efforts to protect journalists and combat impunity for abuses.
  3. Raise awareness of journalists’ need for protection in connection with election processes, protests and in conflict situations.

Greater diversity of independent and free media outlets

Action points:

  1. Support the development of national legislation and institutions, including self-regulatory bodies, that safeguard media diversity and editorial freedom, protect the confidentiality of sources and prevent censorship and surveillance of the media.
  2. Work to increase the representation of women and minorities in the newsroom and news content.
  3. Support cooperation and exchange of expertise between Norwegian and international media institutions on sustainable business models, editorial freedom and accountability.

High-quality journalism that adheres to ethical standards

Action points:

  1. Ensure that journalists, media workers and media leaders receive training in investigative journalism, press ethics, human rights, gender equality and anti-corruption.

3 Right to know

Freedom of expression and free access to information are critical if the international  community is to succed in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Today, access to the internet, digital platforms and social media is a prerequisite for equal participation. And yet, although most people have wireless broadband within reach, only just over half the world’s population use the internet.

Countries have a responsibility to safeguard freedom of expression and access to public information. However, a third of the world’s countries have not made access to public information a statutory right.  

Using digital tools and artificial intelligence, state and non-state actors motivated by political, ideological, commercial or other interests, including violent extremists and terrorist groups, are increasingly able to spread misinformation and disinformation. Disinformation and propaganda campaigns undermine public trust in democratic processes and institutions, have a polarising effect, and fuel intolerance and hatred.   

The companies that own the digital and social media platforms are among the world’s largest companies. They exert considerable influence on the public space for freedom of expression. However, this influence brings with it a significant social responsibility. Greater transparency is needed about how the use of algorithms and content moderation by the companies to determine how widely content is spread, and about the associated impacts on human rights and democracy. 

3.1 Strategic objectives

Universal access to digital tools and online communication platforms

Action points:

  1. Promote increased access to, and use of, communications technology and digital public goods.
  2. Improve digital skills through education, gender equality and digitalisation programmes in the development cooperation.

Greater access to reliable information

Action points:

  1. Support the development and enforcement of national legislation that safeguards the right of the media and of individuals to request access to and share public information.
  2. Support projects that enhance media and information literacy among the population, particularly in connection with elections and in conflict situations. 
  3. Play a proactive role in international cooperation between governments, technology companies, civil society and independent media on mapping and countering disinformation.
  4. Support international cooperation to ensure greater transparency and democratic control of content moderation processes on the large social media platforms.

4 Safe environment for freedom of expression

Freedom of expression means that all people have the right to express themselves freely in the public domain without fear of surveillance, censorship, discrimination, intimidation, or other forms of abuse. Many individuals and groups lack both the opportunity and the safe environment to be able to participate in the free exchange of views, and there is a particular need to protect their right to freedom of expression.  
Although digital communication tools and social media have made it possible for many more people and groups to share information and opinions directly with others, it is precisely in these online forums that minorities, women and girls and people with disabilities are subjected to hate speech and abuse that threaten their right to freedom of expression and personal privacy.

Minorities are particularly vulnerable to hate speech and incitement to hate crimes. [4] This type of speech reflects and reinforces existing discriminatory and racist attitudes in society, and at worst can lead to a rise in social tensions and increased oppression and persecution of minority groups.  

Anti-terrorism legislation and blasphemy laws often have a discriminatory effect and can be misused to persecute religious minorities and opposition groups.

The right to freedom of religion or belief does not protect any religion or belief system from criticism or ridicule. Freedom of expression is vital to ensuring an open and constructive dialogue on religion and belief, and without freedom of expression, it is not possible to safeguard the right of individuals to practise his religion or belief. 

Freedom of artistic expression is crucial to enabling people to freely express their identity, values and ideas. 

The arts and culture sector is an important arena for change and critical thinking. Artists and other cultural practitioners are often to be found on the barricades fighting against injustice and oppression. For this reason, cultural rights and artistic freedom are under pressure across the world. In many countries, musicians, writers, filmmakers, artists and others working in the arts and culture sector are subjected to censorship, discrimination, and persecution, [5] and cultural professionals and the public alike are being denied the right to take part in cultural life. Blasphemy laws and anti-terrorism legislation are increasingly used to persecute and detain artists of all kinds and to censor artistic expression.

4.1 Strategic objectives

A safe environment for freedom of expression

Action points:

  1. Prevent and combat intolerance, hate speech and discrimination through intercultural dialogue, education and awareness-raising campaigns.
  2. Work to promote the development of an international regulatory framework that ensures effective reporting on and the removal of illegal hate speech on social media sites. 
  3. Support efforts to map and combat online violence against women, girls and other vulnerable groups.
  4. Work to reform and repeal national legislation that is not in line with international norms for freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

Protection of artistic freedom of expression

Action points:

  1. Defend the right to express opinions and ideas through artistic expression, and support cooperation between international, regional and local organisations working to promote artistic freedom and cultural rights.
  2. Support international and national safety nets for artists who are at risk and in need of legal assistance, protection and psychosocial support. 

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[1] Norwegian national guide to help services, information and expertise on rape, other sexual abuse and violence in close relationships
[2] Council of Europe: Platform to promote the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists
[3] UNESCO: Global Survey on Online Violence against Women Journalists, 2020
[4] UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues: Hate speech, social media and minorities, 2021
[5] Freemuse: The State of Artistic Freedom, 2021