International efforts to promote freedom of expression and independent media

Freedom of expression is not only a prerequisite for democracy, it is also vital for the realisation of other fundamental human rights, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief. Promoting freedom of speech is therefore an important part of Norway’s foreign policy and human rights priorities.

Freedom of expression is protected and governed in international human rights conventions, and is enshrined in the constitution and national legislation of most countries. The right to seek and receive information and to express opinions is a prerequisite for participating in society and political life. Freedom of expression is not limited to what is broadcast or published in traditional mass media, such as newspapers, radio, television; it also applies to the arts and to views that are shared on the internet and social media.

Freedom of expression does not just apply to opinions and ideas that are popular or uncontroversial. Expressions that may be perceived as controversial, shocking or offensive are protected by freedom of expression as well. Those who express criticism of the abuse of power may have a particular need for protection. This does not mean that all manifestations of freedom of expression are allowed. It is in contravention of Norwegian law and Norway’s international human rights obligations to publicly make discriminatory or hateful statements. Nevertheless, there is a very high threshold for restricting freedom of expression. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a well-functioning state based on the rule of law, comprise the key instruments for combating hate speech. The rights and limitations that freedom of expression entails are regulated internationally by the OHCHR’s General Comment No. 11: Prohibition of propaganda for war and inciting national, racial or religious hatred, the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Misuse of legislation

Freedom of expression is restricted and obstructed by many regimes, in part through the misuse of national legislation on blasphemy and defamation. The obstruction of freedom of expression is a reliable indicator that a regime is becoming increasingly undemocratic. Any restrictions on the freedom of expression can only be justified in exceptional cases. For states that have ratified the UN’s International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and/or the European Convention on Human Rights, any restrictions on freedom of expression introduced must be necessary either to protect the rights and reputations of others, or to protect national security, public order, public health or public morality.

In Norway, the authorities are required to implement measures against manifestations of freedom of expression that encourage hatred and intolerance of individuals or groups. At the same time, they have a responsibility to protect and defend freedom of expression. Great importance is placed on knowledge, openness, freedom of information and dialogue in order to achieve this. The Government has drawn up a national strategy against hate speech (2016-2020) and an international strategy for promoting freedom of expression.

Freedom of the press and independent media

Free and independent media are a vital part of a vibrant democracy. They disseminate knowledge, views and ideas that are necessary for the development of society and the ability of individuals to exercise their rights. A strong, diversified and independent media sector can be a critical corrective to the abuse of power, corruption and lack of transparency in society.

In order for the media to be able to perform its role in society, it is necessary to have legislation that protects the confidentiality of sources and does not allow censorship. A framework for open, free and secure digital platforms is also important. Threats against and closing down of the media’s activities, not least on the internet, are common in many countries. Media licensing rules and tax legislation can be misused and the internet can be regulated, monitored and blocked, creating difficult working conditions for the media and media workers.

The concentration of media power in the hands of a few private owners can also limit the media’s ability to act as a watchdog in relation to the exercise of power in both the public and the private sector. In countries where the authorities own or control the media, the opposition may well not be given a voice when elections are held, which can be decisive for the election result.

The structure of the internet, including the use of algorithms, makes it easy for different actors to spread propaganda and disinformation, and to increase polarisation in order to promote political or commercial interests. This may undermine public trust, it may affect election results and democratic decision-making processes, and it is often to the detriment of the most vulnerable groups in society. At the same time, unsubstantiated claims of ‘fake news’ are used as a means to erode trust in the critical media and those with opposing views. Everyone has a responsibility to verify information and prevent the spread of misinformation.  

There is a high degree of freedom of expression in Norway. The Government and independent media, especially in conflict-affected areas and in countries where democracy is under pressure. Norway cooperates closely with both Norwegian and international organisations in these activities, which include helping to disseminate ethical guidelines for the press and strengthening verifiable media reporting during crises and conflicts. Norway works actively to promote access to reliable information. Gender equality is also given an important role in Norway’s efforts to promote freedom of expression at the international level.

Protection of journalists

Harassment and violence directed at journalists and media workers is on the rise. In many countries, journalists are harassed, attacked, arrested or killed. Photographers and photojournalists are often especially at risk. Women in particular are subject to harassment, both outside their organisation and internally, from their co-workers and managers. In a number of countries where journalists, media workers and editors are subjected to pressure, threats and harassment online, self-censorship is increasing and the freedom of the media is suffering as a result.

Norway takes part in efforts to stop attacks on and killing of journalists, and to ensure that when such incidents occur, they are investigated and the perpetrators punished. The UN has adopted several resolutions and a plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, which are supported by Norway. Norway also supports Unesco and media organisations that are working to improve the safety of journalists.

Norway’s priorities

  • actively promote, in multilateral forums and bilateral cooperation, and by providing support to Norwegian and international organisations, the right to seek and receive reliable information and to freely express opinions;
  • support the development of legislation and institutions that safeguard the independence of the media, combat censorship and promote public access to information;
  • protect journalists and media workers, bloggers, writers and others who practise free artistic expression. Combat impunity for attacks on and killing of journalists and media workers.

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