A high-level global campaign has been launched to push for the recognition, speedy and competent prosecution of crimes agianst freedom of expression by states.
The campaign is spearhead by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organization of American States and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
On June 25, the four institutions adopted in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, a joint declaration building on previous efforts to ensure better enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression.
The declaration underlined “the fundamental importance of freedom of expression both in its own right and as an essential tool for the defence of all other rights [and] as a core element of democracy and for advancing development goals.”
Crimes against freedom of expression include killings, death-threats,dissapearances, abductions, hostage takings, arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments, torture and unhuman and degrading treatment, harassment, intimidation, deportation, and confiscation of and damage to equipment and property.
Those often targeted are journalists, other media practitioners and human rights defenders. The aim is to create “a chilling effect” on the free flow of information and ideas in society, the declaration says. It also highlighted the challenges and danger faced by women exercising their right to freedom of expression to denounce gender specific crimes of intimidation, including sexual assaults, aggression and threats.
Professionals who investigate and report on human rights abuses, organised crime, corruption, and other serious forms of illegal behaviour are susceptible to criminal retribution and therefore in need of protection. Yet impunity for crimes against freedom of expression prevails and there is apparent lack of political will in some countries to address these violations, with the result that many crimes are never prosecuted.
This emboldens the perpetrators and instigators. The campaigners are calling for independent, speedy and effective investigations into and prosecutions of the crimes to end impunity and ensure respect for the rule of law. Crimes against freedom of expression constitute a direct attack on all fundamental rights, so state officials should unequivocally condemn attacks whenever they occur and refrain from making statements that are likely to increase the vulnerability of those who are targeted.
That implies that states should put in place special measures of protection for individuals who are likely to be targeted for what they say where this is a recurring problem, ensure that crimes against freedom of expression are subject to independent, speedy and effective investigations and prosecutions; and ensure that victims of the crimes have access to appropriate remedies.
Legal measures to be taken by states include:
- The category of crimes against freedom of expression to be recognised in criminal law, either explicitly or as an aggravated circumstance leading to heavier penalties for such crimes, taking into account their serious nature; and
- Crimes against freedom of expression, and the crime of obstructing justice in relation to those crimes, to be subject to either unlimited or extended statutes of limitations (i.e. the time beyond which prosecutions are barred).
Suggested non-legal measures include:
- Appropriate training on crimes against freedom of expression, including gender specific crimes, to be provided to relevant law enforcement officials, including the police and prosecutors, as well, where necessary, to military personnel;
- Operation manuals and guidelines should be developed and implemented for law enforcement officials when dealing with
crimes against freedom of expression;
- Training supported by the state to be available for individuals who may be at risk of becoming victims of crimes against freedom of expression and this issue should be covered in university courses on journalism and communications;
- Systems to ensure effective access to information about the circumstances, investigation and prosecution of crimes against freedom of expression, including media access to the courts, to be put in place, subject to appropriate guarantees of confidentiality; and
- Consideration to be given to putting in place general measures of protection such as providing health care, insurance and other benefit programmes to individuals who may be at risk of becoming victims of crimes against freedom of expression.