Freedom of Expression
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.
PEN International brings together writers, journalists, poets – all those using the written word to promote ideas – in the common belief that it is through this sharing that bridges of understanding can be built between peoples. These bridges cross political, geographical, ethnic, cultural, religious and other divides.
It is for this reason that the protection of the right to freedom of expression – the freedom to express ideas without fear of attack, arrest or other persecution – has been at the heart of International PEN’s work since it was formed in 1921. PEN’s Charter pledges that all members will oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.
Click on the links below to read more about PEN’s work on freedom of expression.
Declaration on Digital Freedom
PEN International promotes literature and freedom of expression and is governed by the PEN Charter and the principles it embodies—unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations.
PEN recognises the promise of digital media as a means of fulfilling the fundamental right of free expression. At the same time, poets, playwrights, essayists, novelists, writers, bloggers, and journalists are suffering violations of their right to freedom of expression for using digital media.
Citizens in many countries have faced severe restrictions in their access to and use of digital media, while governments have exploited digital technologies to suppress freedom of expression and to surveil individuals. The private sector and in particular technology companies have at times facilitated government censorship and surveillance.
In 2012 at the PEN International Congress in Gyeongju, Korea, PEN members approved the Declaration on Digital Freedom. Click here to read the Declaration (translated into over 40 languages by PEN members).
Click here to read recent news stories relating to the Declaration on Digital Freedom.
PEN has compiled resources for writers, journalists and human rights defenders who want to improve their online security against cyber-attacks or bypass censorship controls. Click here to read more.
The UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
The UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) scrutinises the human rights records of all UN Member States. The States are each assessed on the basis of reports from the state under review, civil society actors, and UN institutions. At the end of the review, a list of recommendations is proposed, to be accepted or rejected by the state in question. The more recent UPR sessions have included an assessment of any progress made since their last UPR. See the UPR website for more information on how the UPR is run.
Why should PEN Centres engage with the UPR?
NGOs and other civil society organisations are encouraged to present reports, also called ‘submissions’, on the situation of human rights in your country or the country of your choice. Reports can focus on issues on freedom of expression and opinion, the right to education, indigenous people’s rights, conflict prevention and all other aspects of human rights covered by the UN instruments.
For NGOs, particularly those based in the countries under scrutiny, the UPR provides an opportunity to present reports and recommendations that will then become part of the review. Any NGO can present a report, and although summarised for the dialogue, the papers are available in full on the UN website. What makes this mechanism especially important is that it is a completely open and public process. All the documents are made available on the UN website, even those of smaller NGOs. All the sessions are recorded not only in writing but in webcasts that can be watched live or on archive. It provides an opportunity for all NGOs, big or small, based outside the country, and more importantly inside, to have their concerns raised and fully documented.
Where a State accepts UPR recommendations they make a strong political commitment before all UN Member States to implement them in the following four and a half years.
Participating in the UPR also provides opportunities to collaborate and establish new civil society partnerships, as well as raising awareness about human rights issues in a particular country.
A chart providing details of which countries are coming up for review, can be found here.
How and when to engage with the UPR
Preparation of State’s UPR report: 1 year prior to review
Get involved in national consultations with the State to raise human rights concerns and ensure these issues are included in the State’s own report.
Preparation of the NGO submissions to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR): 7-8 months prior to review
NGOs can submit concise reports of evidence they think should be considered in the upcoming UPR. UPR Info and Child Rights Connect have published a helpful guide on how to prepare a submission, which is available in English, French and Spanish.
Before the UPR: 1-3 months prior to review
Advocate for your recommendations to be made by States participating in the UPR. By looking at previous years’ recommendations, you can see which States have made recommendations in your area of interest in the past.
States are able to pose questions to the State under review either through advance written questions or an oral statement during the review. By contacting UN missions in Geneva and/or embassies in the State under review, you can try to get questions asked on particular areas of concern.
During the UPR
Only NGOs in consultative status with UNESCO can attend the sessions of the Working Group. However all sessions are webcast live and made available online afterwards.
NGOs can hold side events to provide information to attendees on the situation in the country. The OHCHR recommends that NGOs inform and/or involve the State under review. Representatives of NGOs can also participate in side events organised by others, to make contact with other NGOs.
The UPR outcome report, which contains all the recommendations, is drafted within 48 hours of the review.
After UPR and before official adoption
Although the State can accept or reject recommendations as soon as the outcome report is adopted, they have a few months after this to provide a final answer. NGOs can lobby the State to accept more recommendations, or change their position on rejected recommendations, before the Human Rights Council plenary session when the UPR outcome report will be officially adopted.
At the Human Rights Council plenary session
NGOs may deliver an oral statement on the review of the State, or join an oral statement prepared with other NGOs. Again, organisations are able to hold and participate in side events on the situation in the country.
PEN International monitors the implementation of recommendations that have been accepted. Your Centre may also wish to propose to help the government in implementing the recommendations. Establish contact with UN agencies and national human rights institutions in your country in order to provide information on the implementation of recommendations when preparing the next written submission.
For more information on participating in the UPR, visit the UPR Info site.
PEN holds consultative status with the UN, and has been making submissions to the UPR since they began in 2007, highlighting particular freedom of speech concerns and making recommendations to the Member States.
Click here for a full list of our submissions to the UPR.
PEN International also conducts advocacy at the UN during the sessions. Click here to read about our advocacy at the 17th Session of the UPR, here to read more about our side events at the 16th UPR session in 2013, and here for PEN’s response to last year’s review of Cameroon.
The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity
PEN International is a partner on the Implementation Strategy of the 2013 UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
Over the last decade, more than 500 journalists and media workers have been killed worldwide, with many more wounded or threatened while carrying out their professional responsibilities. In most cases these journalists were not reporting on armed conflict but on local stories, particularly related to corruption and other illegal activities such as organized crime and drugs. In light of these dramatic statistics, there has been a pressing need for the various UN agencies, NGOs such as PEN International, funds and programmes to develop a single, strategic and harmonized approach in order to have greater impact on combating the issue.
The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity aims to create a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers, both in conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide. Its measures include, among other undertakings, the establishment of a coordinated inter-agency mechanism to handle issues related to the safety of journalists as well as assisting countries to develop legislation and mechanisms favourable to freedom of expression and information, and supporting their efforts to implement existing international rules and principles.
As an implementation partner on the UN Plan, PEN International is working to conduct awareness raising campaigns on a wide range of issues such as existing international instruments and conventions, the growing dangers posed by emerging threats to media professionals, including non-state actors, as well as various existing practical guides on the safety of journalists.
The Implementation Strategy 2013-2014 combines efforts among all actors to promote a free and safe environment for journalists in both conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to enabling an informed citizenry that is capable of strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide. The document includes a work-plan to put the UN Plan of Action in to effect and is designed to be implemented at global and regional level, and for adaptation at national level. In the initial phase of its roll-out, and in order to concentrate efforts, the Strategy is especially being adapted to a selection of countries including Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan and South Sudan, as well as Latin America.
The Strategy outlines more than 100 concrete actions to be put in place over the coming two years by different UN agencies working in conjunction with other entities, as part of joint efforts to secure the safety of journalists. Among the measures set out are:
• creating UN internal coordination mechanisms to harmonize the UN actions in this field;
• supporting governments to develop laws on safeguarding journalists and mechanisms favorable to freedom of expression and information;
• conducting awareness-raising activities so that citizens understand the importance of the right to freedom of expression and access to information;
• providing training for journalists on the issue of safety and online safety;
• promoting good working conditions for journalists developing their professional activities on both a full-time and freelance basis;
• establishing real time emergency response mechanisms; and
• enhancing special measures for women journalists in response to the increasing incidence of sexual harassment and rape.
The UN Commission on the Status of Women
The UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. Representatives of Member States attend annual meetings at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality and identify future challenges.
Each year, the Commission aims to produce agreed conclusions containing an assessment of progress, as well as of gaps and challenges. In particular, they contain a set of concrete recommendations for action by Governments, intergovernmental bodies and other institutions, civil society actors and other relevant stakeholders, to be implemented at the international, national, regional and local level. The 57th Session’s conclusions can be read here. The annual report of the Commission is submitted to the Economic and Social Council for adoption.
The 58th Session of the UN CSW in March 2014 will focus on challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.
PEN International’s Women Writers Committee (PIWWC) has been attending the CSW for over twenty years. In 1995, then-chair Greta Rana took a delegation of women writers to Beijing to the UN’s 4th World Conference on Women. That gave the PIWWC the right to attend the sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York every February/March. Tsung Su, of Chinese Writers Abroad PEN, and Lucina Kathmann, of San Miguel PEN, have done so ever since.
The 57th session on the Committee for the Status of Women was held in March 2013, focusing on violence against women. PEN International was chosen from hundreds of submissions to deliver an oral statement to the delegates on the issue of violence against women writers, an unprecedented opportunity for PEN to advocate on behalf of women writers across the globe. PEN’s focus on writers was a high profile topic, with growing attention on violence towards and discrimination against female journalists.
Connecting with our advocacy before the UN Inter-Agency meeting on the Safety of Journalists, PEN emphasised that the issue of violence against writers and reporters is a global issue. The number of journalists killed in their line of work was described by the UN as “staggering”; many of these journalists were reporting on corruption and organised crime, and 90% of such murders go unpunished.
International Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Freedom of Expression:
How PEN Centres can engage
A Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by an international body to examine and report back on a specific situation, in this case the right to freedom of expression. Civil society organisations such as PEN are able to engage with the Special Rapporteurs to draw attention to particular freedom of expression issues.
This position is honorary and the expert is not United Nations staff, nor paid for their work. The current Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Expression is Frank La Rue of Guatemala.
The post was created in 1993, and the Rapporteur’s mandate includes:
• Gathering all relevant information on violations of the right to freedom of expression, discrimination, threats, persecution or intimidation directed at persons seeking to exercise this right (particularly journalists or other professionals in the field of information);
• Seeking, receiving and responding to credible and reliable information from Governments, non-governmental organizations and any other parties who have knowledge of these cases; and
• Making recommendations and providing suggestions on how to better promote and protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression in all its manifestations.
In the discharge of his mandate the Special Rapporteur can transmit urgent appeals to Member States and undertake fact-finding country visits, alongside preparing annual reports.
The Special Rapporteur’s office receives all alerts issued by PEN relating to attacks on writers and journalists in the practice of their profession for his information and action as he considers appropriate.
The Annual Reports of the UN Special Rapporteur can be found here.
How PEN Centres can engage with the UN Special Rapporteur
Both individuals and organisations can submit evidence on violations of the right to freedom of expression to the Special Rapporteur. When he receives substantiated evidence of a particular case, he can either make an urgent appeal or, in non-urgent cases, write an allegation letter (to the Government concerned, requesting more information on a particular violation).
For further information on making an individual complaint, and guidelines on what it should include, visit the Special Rapporteur’s site.
The current Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression and Access to Information is Faith Pansy Tlakula of South Africa.
The post was created in 2004, and the Rapporteur’s mandate includes:
• analysing national media legislation, policies and practice within Member States, monitoring their compliance with freedom of expression and access to information standards, and advising Member States accordingly;
• undertaking fact-finding missions to Member States from where reports of systemic violations of the right to freedom of expression and denial of access to information have reached the attention of the Special Rapporteur and making appropriate recommendations to the African Commission;
• making public interventions where violations of the right to freedom of expression and access to information have been brought to her attention, by issuing public statements, press releases, and sending appeals to Member States asking for clarifications;
• keeping a proper record of violations of the right to freedom of expression and denial of access to information and publish this in her reports submitted to the African Commission; and
• submitting reports at each Ordinary Session of the African Commission on the status of the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and access to information in Africa.
The reports of the Special Rapporteur can be accessed here.
How PEN Centres can engage with the Special Rapporteur
The Special Rapporteur’s mandate includes collecting and recording violations of the right to freedom of expression in Africa. PEN Centres can assist in the fulfilment of this mandate by submitting information and highlighting urgent cases to the Special Rapporteur. Contact details of the Office of the Special Rapporteur can be found here.
The current Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression is Catalina Botero Marino of Colombia.
The post was created in 1998, and the Rapporteur’s mandate includes:
• Advising the IACHR in evaluating cases and requests for precautionary measures, preparing reports, and conducting on-site visits to OAS member countries to deepen the general observation of the situation and/or to investigate a particular situation having to do with the right to freedom of thought and expression.
• Conducting visits to OAS Member States.
• Promoting the adoption of legislative, judicial, administrative, or other types of measures that may be necessary to make effective the exercise of the right to freedom of thought and expression.
• Coordinating with ombudsmen’s offices or national human rights institutions to verify and follow up on conditions involving the exercise of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Member States.
• Preparing specific and thematic reports, as well as an annual report on the situation regarding the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Americas, which will be considered by the full Inter-American Commission for its approval and inclusion in its Annual Report to the General Assembly.
The Special Rapporteur’s annual reports can be accessed here.
How PEN Centres can engage with the Special Rapporteur
The Special Rapporteur’s mandate includes collecting and recording violations of the right to freedom of expression in the OAS. PEN Centres can assist in the fulfilment of this mandate by submitting information and highlighting urgent cases to the Special Rapporteur. Click here for contact details of the Office of the Special Rapporteur.
The function of the Representative is to observe relevant media developments in OSCE States to provide early warning on violations of freedom of expression. The Representative’s second main task is to assist participating States by advocating and promoting full compliance with OSCE principles and commitments regarding freedom of expression and free media.
Dunja Mijatović of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the current OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.
The OSCE Representative’s mandate includes:
• Assuming an early warning function and co-operating closely with the Participating States, the Permanent Council, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the High Commissioner on National Minorities and, where appropriate, other OSCE bodies, as well as with national and international media associations.
• Rapid response to serious non-compliance with OSCE principles and commitments by participating States. In case of serious problems caused, for instance, by obstruction of media activities and unfavorable working conditions for journalists, the Representative seeks direct contacts with the participating State and other parties involved, assesses the facts and contributes to the resolution of the issue.
• Collecting and receiving information on the situation of the media from all bona fide sources. Participating States and other interested parties (e.g. organizations or institutions, media and their representatives, relevant NGOs) may forward their requests, suggestions and comments related to strengthening and further developing compliance with OSCE principles and commitments, including alleged instances of intolerance by participating States (hate speech).
The Representative routinely consults with the Chairman-in-Office and reports on a regular basis to the Permanent Council, recommending further action where appropriate.
Reports of the Special Representative can be found here.
How PEN Centres can engage with the OSCE Representative
The OSCE Representative collects information from interested parties relating to freedom of the media. PEN Centres may engage with the Representative by submitting information for her consideration and drawing her attention to urgent cases.
Contact details for the office of the Special Representative can be found here.
PEN and IFEX
PEN International Writers in Prison Committee is a founding member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) a global network of 90 non-governmental organisations that monitors censorship worldwide and defends journalists, writers, internet users and others who are persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. It is also a member of IFEX’s Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of twenty-one free expression organisations that began lobbying the Tunisian government to improve its human rights record in 2005. Since the Arab Spring events that led to the collapse of the Tunisian government, TMG has worked to ensure constitutional guarantees of free expression and human rights within the country.
Freedom of Expression in International Law
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.
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. 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.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
1. Every individual shall have the right to receive information.
2. Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.
ARTICLE 13: Freedom of Thought and Expression
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice.
3. The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.
ARTICLE 9: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
ARTICLE 10: Freedom of expression
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
ARTICLE 2 – Guiding principles
1. Principle of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
Cultural diversity can be protected and promoted only if human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression, information and communication, as well as the ability of individuals to choose cultural expressions, are guaranteed. No one may invoke the provisions of this Convention in order to infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or guaranteed by international law, or to limit the scope thereof.