Today, 30 April 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, launched their 2020 Joint Declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age. Brought together by ARTICLE 19 and the Centre for Law and Democracy, the special rapporteurs have issued a Joint Declaration on contemporary challenges to freedom of expression each year since 1999. ARTICLE 19 welcomes the Joint Declaration, which sets out important recommendations for states, tech companies, media outlets and other stakeholders.
Free and fair elections and media freedom go hand in hand and are the foundations of democracy. Elections are not only about casting a vote in fair conditions, but about ensuring citizens are informed about candidates, parties, and their political platforms and candidates being able to communicate their messages and policies to the electorate. Digital technologies have provoked huge changes to both elections and freedom of expression over the past few decades and it is important that international human rights standards reflect and respond to these changes.
Quinn McKew, ARTICLE 19 Acting Executive Director, comments
“ARTICLE 19 welcomes the guidance offered by free speech mandates on how to protect election and media freedoms in the context of elections in the new media environment. We are witnessing ever increasing restrictions on online expression and media freedom, while democracy also appears to be in retreat around the world, including in established democracies. Many of the traditional safeguards to ensure the fairness of elections are difficult to apply online and it is urgent to consider whether, and how, “offline” electoral rules can be adapted to the digital age.”
“We welcome that in their Joint Declaration, the free speech mandates issue a series of recommendations not only to states but also other stakeholders, especially digital actors. ARTICLE 19 is fully aware of the rise in importance of social media, with more campaigning taking place online rather than through traditional media. While digital media could enhance participation and generate knowledge among voters, there are significant challenges in what digital actors do, and reveal about what they do. The international normative guidance on how to deal with these new challenges is largely missing, hence we welcome recommendations from free speech mandate holders in this area,” added McKew.
The 2020 Joint Declaration provides a set of recommendations on how States, the media, digital actors and other stakeholders respond to challenges to freedom of expression and information in relation to elections. The recommendations include:
- States should put in place a regulatory and institutional framework that promotes a free, independent and diverse media, in both the legacy and digital media sectors, which is able to provide voters with access to comprehensive, accurate and reliable information about parties, candidates and the wider electoral process.
- State actors should ensure that the media enjoys robust access to sources of official information and to candidates for public office, and does not face undue barriers to their ability to disseminate such information and ideas, including during the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The media should be exempted from liability during election periods for disseminating statements made directly by parties or candidates unless the statements have specifically been held to be unlawful by an independent and impartial court or regulatory body, or the statements constitute incitement to violence and the media outlet had a genuine opportunity to prevent their dissemination.
- Any rules on election spending which are designed to create a level electoral playing field should be applicable to legacy and digital media, taking into account their differences, including rules about transparency of political advertising.
- States should consider supporting positive measures to address online disinformation, such as the promotion of independent fact-checking mechanisms and public education campaigns, while avoiding adopting rules criminalising disinformation.
- Digital media and platforms should make a reasonable effort to adopt measures that make it possible for users to access a diversity of political views and perspectives. In particular, they should make sure that automated tools, such as algorithmic ranking, do not, whether intentionally or unintentionally, unduly hinder access to election related content and the availability of a diversity of viewpoints to users.
- Digital actors should, as relevant, be transparent about the use of and any practical impact of automated tools they use (albeit not necessarily the specific coding by which those tools operate), including how those tools affect data harvesting, targeted advertising, and the sharing, ranking and/or removal of content, especially election-related content.
- Parties, politicians and candidates should refrain from limiting the ability of media and journalists to access any public communications they make related to elections.
The 2020 Joint Declaration was issued by:
- David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression;
- Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the Organisation of American States; and
- Harlem Désir, the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The special rapporteurs have been adopting annual Joint Declarations since 1999, covering current universal challenges to freedom of expression. The previous declarations are available here.
ARTICLE 19 has been coordinating the drafting of these Joint Declarations since 1999. Further, ARTICLE 19 has been addressing problems related to freedom of expression and information and elections for more than 25 years. Already in 1994, ARTICLE 19 published its standard-setting document in this area, Guidelines for Election Broadcasting in Transitional Democracies in 1994; these Guidelines are currently updated to reflect on new developments. ARTICLE has also analysed a number of election and media related legislation; and several ARTICLE 19 offices work on the issue regionally. For more information about ARTICLE 19’s work on freedom of expression and elections, and how to take part in our work, see here.