Belfast Telegraph

To defend human rights we must defend newspapers

Human rights need a free Press just as a free Press needs human rights, says Professor Michael O'Flaherty

Northern Ireland newspaper editors spoke a lot of sense to the Leveson inquiry when they reminded us how much we need newspapers to keep Government accountable and our society in good shape. They did us all a service in their defence of their profession.

I came to appreciate the critical role of the media years ago when I led the United Nations human rights team in Sierra Leone.

At one point we faced a situation where peacekeepers were summarily executing their prisoners.

It was only after the scandal was reported by the New York Times that international decision-makers took the necessary decisive action to stop this shocking practice.

It is a fact that human rights cannot thrive without a free and independent Press. Human rights needs the media and the media needs human rights.

For this reason we must always defend freedom of expression for journalists. In many parts of the world media outlets are throttled through censorship, licensing and regulation.

Those who report the news also risk losing their most basic rights. They are subject to torture, persecution and execution. The public interest is often maintained at the highest personal cost by those on the frontline of reporting.

Fortunately, it is not like this in the UK. Nevertheless, here too, journalism is under threat. Our libel laws play an unfortunate role in restraining journalism; even when a story passes muster it is sometimes killed just to avoid lengthy expensive legal proceedings.

Ever more seriously, as reactions to recent scandals demonstrate, journalism itself is at risk of falling into disrepute. This is, in part, the fault of some unscrupulous media outlets and the profession needs to get its house in order.

I recently led the drafting of a UN document that sets out the meaning of freedom of expression.

It lays down, in the most stringent fashion yet undertaken by an international body, the extent to which freedom of expression is critically important for healthy democracy.

It recalls that free speech is the basis of such other rights as the freedoms of religion and assembly. It includes a consideration of how this right impacts for the media. The paper is a key reference point for the work of the UN Human Rights Committee and other international human rights monitors.

A proper space for the media must always be present for freedom of expression to be meaningful. The UN paper is unambiguous on this. It reminds us that all the new electronic media, including the blogosphere and twitter, are as entitled to protection as traditional print and broadcast outlets.

While reiterating the need to support the profession of journalism, it acknowledges how all of us, including those who stand up for human rights, often take on the role of reporters.

One of the achievements of the paper is its clarification of the very strict limits imposed on governments when they seek to restrict freedom of speech and the work of the media.

It set a very high bar for the legitimate invocation by government of libel laws, blasphemy laws and other restraints. As it puts it, 'the relation between right and restriction and between norm and exception must not be reversed'.

This latest UN initiative is just one element in the struggle to protect the right of freedom of expression. Far more is needed.

Side by side with the quite proper desire to ensure that the Press maintains high standards, we need to ensure that the guarantee of freedom of the media is a top priority.

As the Leveson inquiry continues to unfold, let us never forget that.

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