SAFEGUARDING FREE SPEECH AND THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION:
MEDIA IN TIMES OF CRISIS

Conference on the application of Council of Europe standards
with a focus on South-Eastern Europe

Strasbourg, 13-14 October 2005

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Within the framework of its Stability Pact Programme in the media field, the Council of Europe organised a conference on protecting freedom of expression and information, in particular in times of crisis. The conference brought together public officials, members of parliament, journalists, media lawyers and representatives of non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations. While the situation in South-Eastern Europe was the focus of discussions, the participants also analysed the exercise of the right to information and freedom of expression in recent major crises in other parts of the world.

The Conference took stock of the law and practice in South-Eastern Europe concerning the application of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the related case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. The participants identified a number of existing problems and looked for approaches to deal with them. The discussions included also the issue of the rights and responsibilities of media professionals when covering crisis situations.

At the end of the Conference, the participants agreed on the following conclusions and recommendations:

1. Freedom of expression and information is essential at any time in a democratic society but the need to uphold it becomes all the more important in times of crisis such as wars, terrorist attacks and natural disasters. In broad terms, existing international standards, most notably Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and other Council of Europe texts based on it, are sufficient to safeguard this freedom in times of crisis and there is no obvious need to significantly amend these standards or to elaborate major new ones.

2. National governments and parliaments should be encouraged to incorporate these standards, as a minimum, into their national regulatory frameworks and to implement them in line with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the related case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and other relevant Council of Europe texts.

3. Times or situations of crisis should not be understood as a state of emergency. While a declared national state of emergency might justify some temporary restrictions of certain rights and liberties, a crisis situation should not serve as an excuse for applying limitations on freedom of expression and information beyond those prescribed by Article 10, paragraph 2, of the European Convention on Human Rights. On the other hand, there can be no justification to consider a crisis as an ongoing, permanent situation.

4. In response to the legitimate demand for information in situations of great public concern, the authorities should guarantee to the public the freest possible access to information, including through the media. Any restriction on the free flow of information can entail a risk of exacerbating a crisis by leaving the public vulnerable to rumour and unfounded speculation.

Public authorities should be held accountable for any attempt, including through the media, to manipulate public opinion exploiting its special vulnerability in times of crisis.

5. Relations between media professionals and law-enforcement and other government agencies are crucial in times of crisis. Those agencies should not unduly restrict the coverage of events and the access to places and to information. Journalists on their part should behave in a professional and responsible manner when covering crisis situations; in particular they should avoid obstructing the work of law-enforcement agencies.

With a view, inter alia, to ensure their safety, media professionals should not in principle be required by law-enforcement agencies to hand over information or material (e.g., notes, photographs, audio and video recordings) gathered in the context of covering crisis situations nor should such material be liable to seizure for use in legal proceedings.

The right of journalists not to disclose their sources of information should be respected in accordance with the relevant Recommendation No. R (2000) 7 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

6. At the national level, relevant stakeholders (such as media professionals, including owners, publishers and editors, regulatory authorities, non-governmental organisations and appropriate government bodies) should consider the establishment of voluntary fora to facilitate, through constructive dialogue, the exercise of free expression and the right to information in times of crisis.

7. In line with the decisions of the 7th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy (Kyiv, 10 - 11 March 2005), the above stakeholders, in co-operation with other relevant international and national governmental and non-governmental organisations, should make a concerted effort at the national, regional, European and international level, aimed at:

- guaranteeing, to the maximum possible extent, the safety of media professionals covering crisis situations;

- training media professionals in covering crisis situations, including safety training;

- promoting mutual understanding and better exchange of information between public officials and media professionals, for example by making public officials aware of how media function and journalists – of how relevant public agencies operate;

- offering to the public, and especially to minors, media literacy education.

8. Civil society and in particular specialised watchdog organisations should make an effort to contribute to the safeguarding of free speech and the right to information in times of crisis. Among the possible approaches are:

- maintaining help lines for consultation and for reporting harassment of journalists and other alleged violations of the right to freedom of expression and information;

- offering support, including in appropriate cases free legal assistance, to media professionals facing, as a result of their work, lawsuits or problems with the public authorities;

- co-operating with the Council of Europe and other relevant organisations to facilitate exchange of information and to effectively monitor possible violations.

9. Media professionals have a special responsibility in crisis situations to make available to the public timely, precise, factual, unbiased and comprehensive information. In this context, they should be attentive to the rights of other people, their special sensitivities and their possible feeling of uncertainty and fear. This complex task requires media professionals to adhere to the highest professional standards.

10. Self-regulation is the most appropriate mechanism for ensuring that media professionals perform in a responsible and professional way in times of crisis. To make that mechanism more effective, co-operation between self-regulatory bodies should be intensified at both the regional and European levels. Self-regulatory bodies in South-Eastern Europe should consider stepping up their co-operation, for example through regional networks or through the existing Association of Independent Press Councils in Europe. The Council of Europe could support the organisation of a first meeting of South-East European self-regulatory bodies and provide further assistance in this respect.