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“A free media is essential for any society”

Opinion – OHCHR

The failure to impose a credible punishment on a Minister of the Vanuatu government for leading an assault on a newspaper editor and the alleged attempts by another Minister to interfere in the broadcasting and publication of information on his conduct …20 September 2011

Op-ed by Matilda Bogner, Regional Representative, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Regional Office for the Pacific

“A free media is essential for any society”

The failure to impose a credible punishment on a Minister of the Vanuatu government for leading an assault on a newspaper editor and the alleged attempts by another Minister to interfere in the broadcasting and publication of information on his conduct raises serious concerns in Vanuatu regarding freedom of the media.

These events come at a time when the United Nations Human Rights Committee has recently issued expert guidance on the question of freedom of expression and opinion. The Vanuatu government should take note of this guidance and use it to strengthen a free media in Vanuatu.

The UN Committee states: “Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person. They are essential for any society. They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society.”

The Committee provides relevant guidance for Vanuatu on freedom of expression for the cases outlined above. Firstly, it states that under no circumstances can an attack on a person be compatible with the right to freedom of expression. Such attacks should be vigorously investigated in a timely fashion, the perpetrators prosecuted and victims receive redress.

Secondly, it states that the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties and that all public figures are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition. Further, if a criminal case for defamation is taken against a journalist, truth should be a complete defence. That is to say journalists can print truthful information about public figures, whether or not it is flattering.

We all have the right to freedom of expression, as clearly stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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,” (Article 19).

The right is not absolute and comes with special duties and responsibilities and, in exceptional circumstances, can be restricted. The media has a serious role itself in upholding freedom of expression and ensuring that it is used responsibly. In many countries, the media binds itself by an ethical code of conduct to guide its journalism.

As with all human rights, it is firstly government’s responsibility to uphold, promote and protect freedom of expression. The Vanuatu government needs to take steps to create an environment that nurtures a strong and responsible media in Vanuatu that can report on issues of concern to the people of the country and ensures that media freedom is respected by its authorities, especially those in leadership positions.

The media is often referred to as the “fourth estate” (the fourth branch of government), as it informs people about the workings of government and allows them to express their concerns and opinions, as a way of ensuring that government is responsible to the needs of its people. As the Committee has pointed out, freedom of expression is necessary for transparency and accountability, which are essential for both good governance and the protection of human rights.

If Vanuatu is to thrive and grow as a nation, it needs to ensure that freedom of expression and opinion are held in high esteem.

Matilda Bogner
Regional Representative
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Regional Office for the Pacific
http://pacific.ohchr.org
www.ohchr.org

ENDS

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