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High level Seminar co-organised by the Council of Europe and the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) on Freedom of expression – role and powers of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and other national mechanisms

Strasbourg , 

As delivered

Ms Lora Vidović, Ombudsperson of Croatia and Chair of the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI);

Ombudspersons, press ombudspersons, heads of national human rights institutions of more than thirty Council of Europe member states;

Panel speakers, moderators and participants.

It is a pleasure to welcome you to Strasbourg – to discuss how we protect freedom of expression.

Democracy, as you know, rests on the free flow of information.

Scrutiny and public debate are essential checks on the misuse of power.

A vibrant battle of ideas is the means by which democracies progress, unlike authoritarian regimes, which are prone to stagnation.

Yet today, in many of our societies, information flows are becoming increasingly imbalanced and impoverished.

“Post-truth.”

“Fake news.”

Hate speech posing as free speech.

These are the trends now perverting rich and thoughtful public debate.

It is sometimes said that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

Never has this been truer than in the age of social media.  

And rarely is it as worrying than at a time when xenophobia, prejudice and division are on the rise – as they are in Europe today. 

Giving people access to high-quality information as they make their democratic decisions, where facts can more easily be separated from fiction, has become, in my view, one of the most pressing challenges in Europe – and, by the way, in countries outside of Europe, including the United States.

This is especially important as we head into 2017 – a big election year on our continent where many campaigns will be fought on stark battle lines and many divisive issues will feature: immigration and austerity, to name the big two.

At the Council of Europe, guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights and home to the European Court of Human Rights, our aim is to help our members build societies in which all voices can be heard – making it easier to challenge misinformation and bias;

Societies in which power is subjected to proper scrutiny – making it easier for citizens to obtain the truth. 

Article 10 of the Convention guarantees the right to freedom of expression, which includes:

“Freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.

Through its rich case law, our Court has developed the most authoritative legal guide for governments on the parameters of free speech – setting out, for example, where freedom of expression stops, and inciting violence or hatred begins.

Recently, we have become even stronger champions for the rights of journalists, who are critical in informing democratic debate.

Their rights will be the starting point of your discussions today.

Each year, I publish a report on the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law across the continent.

In 2016, for the third year in the row, media freedom has topped the list of concerns and the situation is getting worse.

Journalists in many states are finding it increasingly difficult to hold elites to account.

They suffer attacks on themselves and their property;

The misuse of anti-terror and defamation laws, to silence them;

Harassment and intimidation;

Increased surveillance;

Growing pressure to reveal sources;

The problems are many;

And you will be aware of acute challenges facing media in a number of our member states.

These developments are corrosive for our democracies.

And so, earlier this year, our Committee of Ministers adopted a Recommendation which clearly sets out how governments can create the right environment for journalists to do their job.

It is the most comprehensive set of principles relating to the protection of journalists that we are aware of.

It was an important achievement, securing political backing from all of our 47 member states.

And now we must focus on turning good intentions into reality.

The Recommendation calls on Europe’s governments to each facilitate an independent review assessing if their country’s freedom of expression safeguards are robust and effective, and if their laws are properly enforced.

The Recommendation says that these reviews should be conducted by national human rights bodies, such as those you represent.

Because you have the expertise. 

Because you are independent.

Because you are trusted.

And because you are influential.

We believe that organisations like yours have a vital part to play in the mission to strengthen Europe’s free media.

We see you as our partners, and developing this partnership is the whole reason we have invited you here today.

It’s right that we begin with the urgent question of journalist protection.

And let’s also think about the other areas in which our work overlaps.

I put it to our governments that the Council of Europe should deliver a Europe wide programme to help support national human rights organisations in promoting freedom of expression where we support and learn from each other, joining forces to maximize our impact.

They agreed – because everybody knows that we cannot do this without you.

And now we need you to help us design and deliver this co-operation.

What should it look like?

How can our tools and resources help you in your work?

How can you help us, in ours? 

I’d like to thank the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions for co-hosting this event, and helping bring us all together.

And I very much look forward to hearing the outcome of your discussions, and to seeing you all again.