Image: Theme 'Media' by Pancho

The role of the media

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.
UDHR, Article 19

Mass media include "traditional" broadcast media such as television, radio, movies, CDs or DVDs, as well as the print media, and also our information superhighway, the Internet along with services such as the World Wide Web, communicated via the Internet. The media have become so important in our societies that it is now hard to imagine a life without television, emails, video-sharing websites, online news portals, or blogs. Their conventional role as a window on the world is still increasing. The media have acquired new functions such as a forum for social interaction and communication, a place to buy or sell goods or to collect information for any purpose, or post self-made media content.

For a long time, traditional media – sometimes called "the fourth power" by analogy with the three traditional powers in a democracy (legislative, executive and judicial) – have been an ally to citizens in questioning government policies that would be harmful for people. However, talking at the World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brasil in 2003, Ignacio Ramonet, a journalist and university professor claimed that because the conventional media had been taken over by transnational companies it had turned into an enemy: a power to exploit and oppress people rather than protect them.1 Some people refer to the Internet as the fifth power as it increasingly competes with traditional media in raising issues and serving as a watchdog, and it also provides a new channel to organise civil action.

The heightened powers of the media, especially the Internet, can serve to increase awareness and participation, and to enhance access to information, but they also have inherent dangers. They can encourage empathy and global human rights activism but can also risk fuelling hatred, stereotypes and misinformation. Children and young people are especially vulnerable to online risks.

Some dimensions of the changing nature of media:

  • Today, we are relying much less on the more traditional formats of newspapers, television and the radio to get our news and are increasingly reliant on online media sources, satellite television, blogs and social media. We also look for information from citizen journalists and broadcasters, and not only from traditionally trained ones. This is impacting on our social and political landscape. It is also bringing about change in the tactics used by repressive governments afraid of what this information revolution may mean for them.

Channelling political protest in the media

During the Prague Spring in 1968, the call for freedom of the press and speech spread through Czech radio broadcasts. The Iranian revolution of 1979 was promoted through the spread of speeches on smuggled cassettes. News of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China spread by fax. The Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 was promoted through the use of the Internet and mobile phones. By the end of the decade, the tools for social protest had shifted to Facebook and other social networks, YouTube and Twitter, as Iran's post-election protests of 2009, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010 and 2011 and other protests in North Africa and the Arab world demonstrated.

  • The rapid development of telecommunications and media technologies has changed the very nature of the media; they are becoming an integral part of events taking place. Live coverage itself has been transformed into a new event. We can see in real time not only football matches, but also violent incidents taking place next door or in a far-away corner of the world. 
  • Commercialisation suppresses the diversity of programming, as well as of programmes relating to minorities, alternative culture and subcultures. The pursuit of higher audience ratings is reflected in the reporting of news and current affairs. News presentation, the selection of excerpts from reality presented by media to their audiences, is often characterised by the trivial, the bizarre and the scandalous. There is less willingness to cover the expenses of public service broadcasters which are now being forced into commercialisation.

European youngsters of 12-17 years of age spend 9.1 hours a week on the Internet as opposed to 11.4 hours spent by people 18 and older, not counting professional or academic use.2

  • Global telecommunications networks serve not only as a vehicle to provide and receive information, but have turned information into one of the most precious assets and the basis of the new global information economy. Those who possess more of these assets along with the related infrastructure have immense economic powers, which can be converted into political and diplomatic influence as well.
  • The development of communication technology and the far-reaching media networks have altered our ways of life. People spend a significant part of their working hours and free time in front of a screen. Distance working and e-learning has been expanding all over the world at a fast pace. Parents are concerned about their children's growing addiction to TV, video games, mobile phones or community sites, but adults are just as affected, although the kind of preferred media may be different.

Question: How has your media consumption changed since you were a chlid?

The media and human rights

Freedom of expression

The human right most intimately related to the media is probably the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Freedom of expression, as upheld in human rights instruments, covers the right to receive or impart information, the right to silence, the right to form your own opinions, for instance the right to choose clothing, headdress, music, literature and film; it includes artistic expression, political speech, commercial speech, academic freedom and the right of journalists. This scope makes clear how important this right is for individuals to pursue self-fulfilment and dignity, a search for meaning and truth in life, and the development of our individuality. This freedom is also critical to communities and whole societies in order to progress, to realize equality, democracy and self-governance. Freedom of expression is important in itself and a prerequisite to the enjoyment of a whole host of other rights and freedoms.

Governments have always tried to exercise some control over media and/or access to media in order to influence the masses and gain their support or to stop the opposition from doing so. A highly controlled media, however, robs people of social awareness, knowledge of global events, reliable analysis, as well as information about the state of the economy, political developments and societal facts.

State control of media may be carried out in a highly targeted fashion, for example by scanning internet traffic or telephone conversations in the name of national security. At other times, governments attempt to totally shut down access to particular media. Examples stretch from the closing down of the mobile phone network in Iran in mid-2009, and Egypt in late 2010, to jamming radio stations, satellite television and the exclusion of journalists from conflict zones. For example, in 2009, journalists were called to leave China's north-western province of Xinjiang in order to prevent them reporting on the ethnic violence there.

UNESCO keeps a tally of journalists assassinated in the exercise of their profession. For example in 2011, 56 journalists were killed on the job4.

The control of the media by governments raises concerns in Europe as well. For example, a media law was introduced in Hungary in 2011 that empowered the media authority to oversee all media outlets including private content providers, to impose fines and to suspend or shut down media outlets on the grounds of some vaguely defined principles. In several other European countries defamation is still criminalised. Journalists can be put in prison if they speak of or publish facts or opinions that offend a person. In its judgments related to defamation cases, the European Court of Human Rights repeatedly stated that "… the imposition of a prison sentence for a press offence will be compatible with journalists' freedom of expression … only in exceptional circumstances, notably where other fundamental rights have been seriously impaired as, for example, in the case of hate speech or incitement to violence…"3

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. 
Noam Chomsky

The European Court of Human Rights has gone a long way towards providing a framework on the extent to which freedom of expression may be limited in accordance with Article 10 (2). The Court pointed out that this right is "one of the essential foundations of democratic society"5 and that journalistic freedom allows the possible use of a "degree of exaggeration or even provocation"6, even when it may "offend, shock or disturb".

Ten Threats to Freedom of Expression

Four international special rapporteurs on freedom of expression release a joint declaration each year. In their 2010 declaration they identified the following ten key threats to the freedom of expression7:
1. Mechanisms of government control over the media
2. Criminal defamation
3. Violence against journalists
4. Limits on the right to information
5. Discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression
6. Commercial pressures
7. Challenges in support of public service and community broadcasters
8. Security and freedom of expression
9. Freedom of expression on the Internet
10. Access to information and communications technologies

The right to information

The right to information – or the right to know – entails that the general public should be able to participate in the free flow of information and to know what is going on in their community. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to freedom of expression "shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers…". Seeking and receiving implies a human right to information.

The media, newspapers and magazines (whether printed or online) and news programmes on TV are one of the basic sources where citizens can find information. The media can provide reliable information to the audience only if their access to all information, not protected otherwise for legitimate purposes, is guaranteed. Individuals should have free access to information held by authorities about them. Furthermore, in today's information society equal access to education, training, science, technology and employment can only be ensured if inequalities in access to information are eliminated.

Question: What does the right to know mean to you?

Conflicting human rights related to media

Freedom will be bereft of all effectiveness if the people have no access to information. Access to information is basic to the democratic way of life.
UN Special Rapporteur Abid Hussain

Freedom of expression may come into conflict with other human rights. One group of such human rights are privacy rights that encompass the freedom from interference with privacy, family, home and correspondence and the right to protection from attacks upon our honour or reputation. For example, the media are often blamed for violating the privacy of celebrities by publishing their photos and information about their private life without their consent.

Furthermore, there is the risk of conflict between the freedom of expression and the prohibition of discrimination in cases where exercising this freedom is used to incite hatred and shows the characteristics of hate speech. Hate speech may have a bigger and more damaging impact when propagated through the media. There is an international consensus that hate speech needs to be legally prohibited, and that such prohibitions should override the guarantees of freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. According to Article 29 of the UDHR, the exercise of rights and freedoms can be limited if securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others so requires. Specifically, Article 10 of the ECHR states that the exercise of right to freedom of expression, "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 the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary".

Like free markets, freedom of speech can produce harmful effects if it is completely unlimited.
Lord Patten9

According to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, hate speech covers all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.10

An area that has attracted a lot of attention in recent years is the limitation of expression on grounds of respect for belief and religion deriving from the human right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. They have drawn attention to the importance of guidelines, good practice and ethics in the practice of journalism. Numerous organisations including inter-governmental ones such as the Council of Europe or UNESCO, networks such as the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe, and NGOs such as ARTICLE 19, have developed ethical principles and professional guidelines on reporting, which would be in compliance with human rights standards or would urge stakeholders to craft such standards. However, there is concern at the other end of the spectrum too, to ensure that anti-extremist legislation is not abused by governments in order to limit legitimate expression.11

Free, independent and pluralistic media based on freedom of information and expression are a core element of any functioning democracy.
Thomas Hammarberg12

Another key question that is often raised by free speech activists is the importance of media pluralism. Media pluralism is different to the question of "balance" in the media, which can sometimes be counter-intuitive in human rights. When reporting on human rights violations do we necessarily also have to give voice to the human rights violator in the name of being balanced? When reporting on climate change do we necessarily have to "balance" the message with some who argue that this is all in the imagination?
Media pluralism, however, is about resisting the ownership of the media by a few – leading to all kinds of concerns with imbalanced reporting, political compromises and denying others a voice. A media landscape which is pluralistic can also resist three major temptations: the media manipulation of politicians in exchange for good coverage, the media manipulation of top financial institutions and banks in exchange for less rigorous inspection of their activities, and the media's manipulation of elections.

Question: What is the media landscape like in your country? Who owns the major media outlets? How much pluralism is there?

Internet governance
the Council of Europe

The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks, whose operation is not centralised. This makes the Internet a global forum for freedom of expression, but also poses questions about responsibility and governance.
The constant developments in the information society give international organisations the challenge of defending and maintaining human rights principles in online environments. To meet these challenges, the Council of Europe has developed various conventions and recommendations.  One such document is the Convention on Cybercrime (2001), aimed at the protection against new types of crime, as well as the commission of traditional crimes by means of new technologies. The Additional Protocol to this convention calls for the criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems.
Another important instrument is the Convention on Access to Official Documents (2008), which guarantees the right of everyone, without discrimination on any grounds, to have access, on request, to official documents held by public authorities.

The power of the media can be misused, especially in a context of strong media concentration, to the detriment of pluralism and democracy.
Council of Europe, Committee on Ministers13

In order to protect the freedom of expression and other human rights and principles in the new media environments, the Council of Europe works together with other stakeholders on the governance of the Internet. The Committee of Ministers adopted 10 Internet governance principles14 and proposed a new notion of media15 recommending that social networks, online games or online whistleblower sites should be entitled to media freedom rights and responsibilities established under Article 10 of the ECHR, and proposed a framework of co-operation for member states to preserve a global, stable and open Internet as a means of safeguarding freedom of expression and access to information16. The importance of freedom of media for genuine democracy was reaffirmed in the "Declaration on the protection of and freedom of assembly and association with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online service providers."17

Ten Internet Governance Principles

A significant percentage of content on the Internet is either illicit, harmful or prejudicial, undermining the very basis of human rights and human dignity.
The Internet Literacy Handbook18

Adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 21 September 2011
1. Protection of all fundamental rights and freedoms and affirmation of their universality,
indivisibility, interdependence and interrelation.
2. Ensuring the full participation of governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical
community and users.
3. Affirming the responsibilities of states with regard to international internet-related public policy issues.
4. Empowerment of Internet users to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms and participate in Internet governance arrangements.
5. Universality of the Internet, recognising the global nature of the Internet and the objective of universal access.
6. Integrity of the Internet by assuring its security, stability, robustness and resilience.
7. Preservation of the decentralised nature of the responsibility for the day-to-day management of the Internet.
8. Preservation of the open standards and the interoperability of the Internet as well as its end-to-end nature.
9. Assuring the greatest possible access to Internet-based content, applications and services
10.Preserving cultural and linguistic diversity in and through the Internet.


The media and youth

I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.
Cindy Crawford, supermodel

Media, information and communication technology play a central role in the lives of youth today and are among the main factors that have shaped the current generation of young people. Many children can be considered digital natives: they grow up in an environment where IT technologies are a part of everyday life and they learn to use digital devices before they can walk or speak. It has been assumed that even their brain structures are different from those of previous generations as a result! However, the existence of such a digital gap between youth and their parents' generation has been questioned19. Some studies have shown that the digital divide is characterised not by age but by access and opportunity.20

Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that distant goal.
Martin Luther King Jr.

Young people tend to spend hours every day watching television, playing online games, chatting, blogging, listening to music, posting photos of themselves and searching for other people to communicate with online. This virtual world can offer both opportunities and pitfalls. Using electronic, digital and online media has numerous positive effects: it is entertaining, educating and socialising. However, it also has the potential to harm young people and communities, depending on how it is used. The influence of mass media, whether broadcast or online is debatable; however, researchers have observed the following adverse effects:

  • Time spent in front of the television: Spending a considerable time in front of a screen is thought to contribute to sleeping problems and poor school performance.
  • Violence: There is an assumed correlation between consuming media violence and subsequent aggressive and violent behaviour.
  • Consumerism: Advertising in its different forms has been accused of manipulating audiences.
  • Values: There is a tendency for young people to think less for themselves and to follow values set by the media.

Information is the oxygen of democracy. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society. But information is not just a necessity for people – it is an essential part of good government.
ARTICLE 19, NGO campaigning for the right to freedom of expression8

  • Stereotypes: The media have been blamed for perpetuating harmful or unrealistic social stereotypes, especially gender roles and ethnic characteristics.
  • Self-esteem: Entertainment media has a growing influence on youth style and identity. Ideals associated with role models offered by the media create frustration in young people and lower their self-esteem as it is practically impossible to live up to such ideals. The pressure to be "perfect" often leads to health problems including eating disorders.

Developments in information communication technology bring immense opportunities, but also carry new dangers for children and young people. For example, they may be careless about disclosing their personal data that may be used for unwanted advertising and provide rooms for online predators. Modern information technologies – as with any other technologies – can be used for abusive purposes such as sexual harassment, sexual intimidation, homophobic attacks and other forms of gender-based violence through verbal attacks or abuse of photos or videos. Young people themselves sometimes use the unsupervised online environment for sending cruel messages and degrading photographs aimed at their peers.

Killing Us Softly, a film series created by Jean Kilbourne, advocate of media education, shows how media advertising promotes distorted and destructive ideals of femininity.21

Being critical of sources in an era of information abundance is a crucial skill to be developed. However, with the arrival of "Web 2.0" (web applications that facilitate participatory information sharing and allow users to interact and collaborate with each other as creators of user-generated content) developing a code of conduct for the Internet, and being aware of unwanted consequences of our online actions also need to be achieved. It is quite clear that when it comes to sharing personal information of themselves or others, many people are not aware of just how public and long-lasting everything put on the Internet is.
One answer to these issues is to educate people to become more critical and sophisticated media consumers and communicators. Media education aims at making all citizens, particularly young people, aware of the power of the media, and making them able to distinguish between good and poor quality information, open-minded and hateful messages. Media education can help audiences to learn to be selective rather than vulnerable to advertising, and to maintain their online safety and an adequate level of privacy.

The protection and empowerment of children is a high priority on the agenda of the Council of Europe. The "Recommendation on empowering children in the new information and communications environment" (2006) states that member states should have a coherent information literacy and training strategy which is conducive to empowering children and their educators in order for them to make the best possible use of information and communication services and technologies. The importance of promoting internet skills and literacy is reaffirmed in another Recommendation (2009)22, which calls on member states to develop and promote – in co-operation with private sector actors and civil society – strategies to protect children against content and behaviour carrying a risk of harm while advocating their active participation in the new information and communications environment.


1 Seneviratne Kalinga, "Global Media – It's Time to Create a Fifth Power," TerraViva Online, 2003:
2  Eric Pfanner, "TV Still Has a Hold on Teenagers", The New York Times, 13 December 2009, referring to a survey conducted by Forrester research firm:
3 E.g. Case of Cumpănă and Mazăre v. Romania, Application no. 33348/96, Judgment, Strasbourg, 2004:
4 For further information, see UNESCO Remembers Assassinated Journalists:
5 Handyside v. UK, 1979
6 Prager and Oberschlick v. Austria, 1995 
7 "Tenth Anniversary Joint Declaration: Ten Key Challenges to Freedom of Expression in the Next Decade":
8 "The Public's Right to Know: Principles on Freedom of Information Legislation", Article 19, London, 1999, p. 1:  
9 Lord Patten of Barnes, Chairman of the BBC Trust, Speech to the Society of Editors Annual Conference, "Ethics and journalism after the News of the World", 13 November 2011:
10 Weber Anne, Manual on Hate Speech, Council of Europe Publishing, 2009, p.
11 Learn more at the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, Misuse of Anti-Extremism Legislation in February 2011:
12 Human rights and a changing media landscape, Council of Europe Publishing, 2011
13 The Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers, "Recommendation CM/Rec (2011)7 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on a new notion of media, 21 September 2011":
14 Declaration by the Committee of Ministers on Internet governance principles, 21 September 2011
15 Recommendation on a new notion of media, 21 September 2011
16 Recommendation on the protection and promotion of the universality, integrity and openness of the Internet, 21 September 2011
17 Declaration on the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association with regard to privately operated Internet platforms and online service providers, 7 December 2011
18 Janet Richardson et al, The Internet Literacy Handbook, Council of Europe, 2006
19 Read more: VanSlyke Timothy, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap;
20 E.g. Brown C. & Czerniewitz L., Debunking the digital native: beyond digital apartheid, towards digital democracy, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Volume 26, Issue 5, pages 357–369, October 2010
21 Learn more about Killing Us Softly 4, the most recent piece of the series at
22 Recommendation on measures to protect children against harmful content and behaviour and to promote their active participation in the new information and communications environment, 8 July 2009

Related activities
Key Date
  • 8 FebruarySafer Internet Day
  • 12 MarchWorld Day Against Cyber censorship
  • 3 MayWorld Press Freedom Day
  • 28 SeptemberRight to Know Day
  • 21 NovemberWorld Television Day