World Press Freedom Day was introduced by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993.

The date chosen for this annual celebration was 3 May, which is a day of action in the form of initiatives designed to uphold press freedom, as well as a day for assessing the state of press freedom in the world, a day for warning the public and raising awareness, a day for encouraging debate among media professionals, and a commemoration of all the journalists who have lost their lives while doing their job.

The Council of Europe's action to promote press freedom and freedom of information is based on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, under which this fundamental right is one of the cornerstones of democracy. The Council carries out co-operation activities helping countries to draft legislation and introduce practices which comply with European standards. One of the things that it has done is set up an international group of specialists on freedom of expression and information in times of crisis. The information society is changing, so the Council of Europe now faces the challenge of upholding and maintaining its fundamental principles in new environments, the main one of which is the Internet.

Journalists in times of crisis

Wars, terrorism, threats to stability and natural disasters are leading to stricter security and surveillance all over the world. What effect does this have on access to information and on journalism?

Concerned about the erosion of press freedom in times of crisis, the Council of Europe has adopted three particularly significant documents:

  • a Declaration on freedom of expression and information in the media in the context of the fight against terrorism,
  • Guidelines on protecting freedom of expression and information in times of crisis, and
  • a Declaration on the protection and promotion of investigative journalism.

They are based on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which aims to guarantee freedom of expression and information within the jurisdiction of the 47 Council of Europe member states.

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Council of Europe Secretary General calls on European states to ensure that defamation legislation does not silence the media
Council of Europe Strasbourg 2 May 2016
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World Press Freedom Day, 3 May

On the eve of Press Freedom Day on 3 May, Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland called upon the 47 Council of Europe member states to make sure that their national legislation on defamation does not lead to self-censorship of the media and does not weaken public debate.

“We are witnessing worrying trends of some governments misusing defamation lawsuits for political purposes, arbitrary application of defamation laws leading to imprisonment of journalists and attempts to roll-back legislative reforms decriminalising defamation. These are among the findings of my Report on the State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Europe 2016”, said the Secretary General.

“It is essential for democracy that the media carry out their work scrutinising and criticising those in power. In performing this watchdog function, they must benefit fully from the guarantees of the European Convention on Human Rights within the limits it establishes. Defamation laws and their implementation should not have a chilling effect on freedom of expression”, he added.

“When drafting or amending legislation, governments should take into account that the European Court of Human Rights has stressed that prison sentences are only compatible with the Convention in very exceptional cases, notably when other fundamental rights have been breached, for example in the case of hate speech or incitement to violence. It is also crucial that sanctions for defamation foreseen in civil law are proportionate and cannot be abused to silence the media”, he stressed.

Defamation has progressively been de-criminalised in most European countries and wherever it is still criminalised, sanctions are seldom applied. However, in recent years there has been a sharp increase in the number of lawsuits and excessive awards of damages, often higher than the fines imposed under criminal law.

In a set of Guidelines to protect journalism and ensure the safety of journalists and other media actors adopted earlier this year, the Council of Europe´s  Committee of Ministers asked member states to review domestic laws and practices concerning media freedom, including the way defamation is addressed, to ensure they comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

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Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights

''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.''

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