Freedom of Expression in the Post-Covid World: crisis or the chance for rethinking

  • 18.07.2021

The Western Ukrainian Legal Forum is an important annual event for Ukrainian lawyers. This year the Dnistrianskyi Centre was a partner of the forum’s discussion panel dedicated to the freedom of speech. 

A special address during the discussion “The Right to Freedom of Speech in the Epoch of Populism” was delivered by Patrick Penninckx, the Head of Information Society Department of the Council of Europe. Below is the text and video of the address. 

«Ladies and gentlemen, dear participants, it is a privilege for me to be able to address you at the West Ukrainian Legal Forum. I regret very much not being able to with you in the beautiful town of Lviv, of which I have vivid memories of the cafés, the chocolate, the atmosphere, the University and the friends, the bustling social and cultural life of a vibrant civil society. I sincerely hope that after this sanitary crisis we will be able to meet in person again.

Dear friends, as stated by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in her recent annual report, Freedom of expression and information has been in decline in many member states of the Organisation in the last years. This does not only concern the ‘larger’ Europe, but also concerns the countries of the European Union. We, together, have been backsliding on the hills of our common values.

Like many, I am deeply concerned about the further deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus.

The forced landing of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius earlier this month was unacceptable and the arrest of Mr Pratasevich and Ms Sapega is highly concerning. So too is their current situation in detention. Our Secretary General will continue to follow developments closely. Journalists, activists and human rights defenders should feel secure and safe everywhere in Europe.

Sadly, this is part of a broader problem.

With the health crisis, many pre-existing concerns for democracy and freedom of expression intensified. It became even more urgent to ensure the safety of journalists, as the violence against them intensified.

In a moment when restrictions of access to information and public events were imposed due to the lockdown, or legislative initiatives seeking to prevent disinformation, panic and disorder were hastily introduced, it also became urgent to provide the journalists and other media actors the appropriate conditions to perform their role of public “watchdogs” for a healthy democracy.

Thus, during the Covid-19 outbreak, reliable, quality and fact- checked information became crucial to the point where it could save lives.  Just as fast spreading disinformation or infodemics could lead to serious damages. Our Draft Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age, never saw the light of day since its finalisation in 2019.

Many of these aspects have been tackled in the Ministerial Conference "Artificial intelligence - Intelligent politics. Challenges for media and democracy” of 10-11 June, as they have also been on the top of the agenda of the Council of Europe for a number of years now.

Of most importance is the Resolution on the impact of the health crisis on freedom of expression adopted in the Conference, expressing member states’ commitment to ensure that all limitations to free speech should constitute the least restrictive means possible, are time-bound and proportionate to the legitimate aims of protecting public health. They should be needed in the functioning of a democratic society.

Consolidating the lessons learnt from Covid-19 crisis, the Resolution builds on the existing instruments of the Council of Europe and encourages states to commit to:

·         remove all unnecessary obstacles to freedom of expression;

·         promote access to information and facilitate increased internet access;

·         ensuring access to official information and documents, taking into account the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the Convention on Access to Official Documents (Tromsø Convention) – which Ukraine ratified in 2020 and thus opened the way for its entry into force;

·         cooperate with the Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, to ensure an information environment in the face of crisis where all journalists – men and women – can perform their essential task in security and in appropriate working conditions;

·         address the challenges of the media market in a systematic manner,

·         promote media and information literacy amongst the public;

·         ensure that any restriction on freedom of expression and information must be clear and predictable SO that the existing laws and policies are not misused for the purposes of silencing critical and promoting a free and pluralist public debate on all issues of public interest.

Thus, to go back to the topic of this session, it is a fact that governments take rapid and sometimes far reaching measures under pressure such as crisis situations. Very often these are the exact moments when we are constrained to face directly the critical gaps of our usual circumstances.

BUT, these - are the very moments of clarity, which bring into the limelight things that can be better, showing and giving us a chance to grow.

So, i would say this is a moment to grow together, in a society where citizens have access to free and pluralistic media and to quality news. A society where there is a safe environment for journalists  and where citizens can safely benefit, from the opportunities offered by digital technologies when expressing views, seeking and sharing information, online and offline.

A society where Freedom of Expression and its enjoyment is guaranteed and effectively implemented both in normal times and in times of crisis.  A society in which not only lip service is paid to our democratic values, but are also accompanied with real decision making supporting these values. One important way to do so is to actively implement the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Dear colleagues, dear friends, I sincerely hope that your Forum these days will exactly contribute to this: keep an open and critical mind of societal developments, government policies and the continuous fight for a common legal space and a democratic society in which human rights are protected».