The Importance of Article 19

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948, in the hope that the atrocities of World War II could never happen again.[1] The Declaration represents a universal recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings. Although we live in a permissive, more tolerant age, not all amendments are adhered to. Globally, fundamental rights are denied to human beings on a daily basis. The extent of freedom of expression varies throughout the globe, with some countries implementing strict censorship in order to achieve or retain power.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “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.”[2] It is a fundamental human right to express your opinions, ideas or any information you may possess without the interference of others, and the necessity of Article 19 must not be underestimated. Freedom of expression, often exemplified within free press, is a vital section of the Declaration of Human Rights. It facilitates and contributes to a civilised society, enshrining our collective rights to praise, criticise and question the world around us- making it one of the most important human rights we have.

Freedom of expression is a necessary instrument to the system of democracy and can most effectively be exercised within the means of a free press. Journalists demonstrate the importance of Article 19 everyday by obtaining the power to inform and educate the public, and publish what is deemed to be in the ‘public’s interest’. This freedom underpins democracy, as it ensures the public make responsible, educated choices rather than misinformed and ill-judged ones. As former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller states, “Democracy rests on the informed consent of the governed.”[3]   Of course, ethical censorship and constraints within the law prevent unprofessional work from being published. UK news agencies do not have to submit to censorship in advance and therefore have the capability to publish their own ideas even if the expression is damaging to political leadership. Subsequently debate is stimulated within society enabling the public to become active participants in the political structure of a country. The risk of power abuse is also reduced to a minimum as the administration is constantly scrutinised and held accountable through debate and the freedom to express.

The freedom manifested within the British Press continuously enables controversial information to be published directly into the public sphere. This information has in turn changed the course of justice, for example the death of Ian Tomlinson. Mr Tomlinson collapsed and died in the City of London on his way home from work on 1 April 2009. An original post mortem concluded he had died of natural causes from a heart attack. However, four days later The Guardian published video footage of Mr Tomlinson being struck by a Police Officer (PC Harwood). This was a watershed moment in the case as the footage demonstrated no provocation on Mr Tomlinson’s part. The Guardian’s publication of the footage sparked an inquiry led by the Independent Police Complaints Commission which meant the Officer responsible for Mr Tomlinson’s death was charged with manslaughter, although later acquitted.[4]

The publication of this video footage was only made possible under the ideals of Article 19 and the capability of The Guardian to impart information regardless of frontiers. The Guardian was able to provoke an informed debate into the deteriorating relationship between the Police and the public. It further enabled for a MET Police payout to Mr Tomlinson’s family and promoted accountability by causing PC Harwood to be sacked. This is one of numerous stories where the press is empowered to make a difference because they have the ability to do so.

Unfortunately, the United Kingdom’s access to a free press established from the basis of Article 19 does not exist elsewhere. Freedom of expression is heavily prevented by Government bodies in some areas of the world for example  Russian.  In 2012 the Russian State Duma passed a law that recriminalized defamation for both online and offline media. Shockingly, only three deputies voted against the bill, one abstained, and 374 voted in favour.[5]  The bill makes any form of libel and slander a criminal offense and entails fines for misinformation that have been purposefully written to damage a reputation, thus automatically inhibiting a key factor of democracy: debate. Government agencies are also not required to obtain a court order before blocking websites entailing the manipulation of information that Russia’s citizens have access to. The Russian Government possesses a substantial amount of power which it uses control the flow of information, in particular to reflect and promote their political ideologies whilst silencing any protestors (such as Pussy Riot) to create an almost totalitarian state.

Strict regulation of the press and a silenced freedom of expression are not in the interests of the people, or to protect them from international security threats: it exists simply to serve the interest of a privileged few. Within Russia, the confines of free speech and available information to the public are sacrificed on a daily basis, conditions unimaginable in the free and more democratic society of the United Kingdom.  To begin with, I wouldn’t be able to sit here writing this article as it instigates debate and criticism of Government. The freedom to express and criticise should be a born right, not one which is dependent on geography or your power within society, thus reinforcing why Article 19, and the freedom of the press it entails, is so vitally important.

It is not just political criticism and democracy that is silenced when freedom of expression, ideas and information are sacrificed. Throughout the world, journalists are killed just for the publication of information.  In 2012, 73 Journalists were killed, with the highest percentage of deaths being that of Political Reporters.[6] This horrifying statistic represents that reporters are willing to, and have, sacrificed their lives in order to create and build on a civil society many of us take for granted.  The right to access information is being fought for everyday throughout the world and remains of the utmost importance to every citizen wishing to live in an enlightened society.

Freedom of expression is freedom on behalf of the public. The ability to access information allows us to become more educated, open-minded and progressive. It enables us to understand more about the world and the political influences that shape our everyday decisions; any threat to this understanding is a threat to our freedoms. Article 19 is an essential piece of legislation that helps provide accountability, inform public debate and contribute to a civil and democratic society.

Written by Jo Gallacher, edited by Leah Boyne.

[1] UN, ‘The UN Declaration on Human Rights’, (UN), (accessed 9 November 2013).

[2] Ibid., (para 19).

[3] Anon, ‘Journalism, government surveillance and us’, (Lowy Institute for International Policy), (accessed 9 November 2013), (para. 8).

[4] Anon, ‘Ian Tomlinson death: PC cleared’, (BBC News), (accessed 9 November 2013).

[5] Laura Reed, ‘Russia’s Growing Threat to Online Freedom’, (Freedom House), (accessed 9 November 2013), (para. 2).

[6] Anon, ’73 Journalists killed in 2012’, (Committee to Protect Journalists), (accessed 9 November 2013).