Free speech mandates issue Joint Declaration addressing freedom of expression and “fake news”

Free speech mandates issue Joint Declaration addressing freedom of expression and “fake news” - Civic Space

Today, on 3 March 2017 in Vienna, the four international Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression have released their 2017 Joint Declaration on freedom of expression, “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda. 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 standards in this area.

Although problems related to propaganda and disinformation are not new, the issue of “fake news” has emerged to permeate increasingly digital society, triggering further debates over politics, journalism, social media, audiences and the exercise of freedom of expression and information. The responses to the issue vary, with some states being too eager to introduce bans on “fake” news and use restrictions of disinformation as an opportunity to restrict legitimate criticism and dissenting voices.

Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director, comments

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the guidance offered by four free speech mandates on how to address the issue of “fake news, misinformation and propaganda in a way that complies with international standards on freedom of expression. More than ever, it is crucial to maintain an enabling environment for freedom of expression, which includes promoting, protecting and supporting diverse media and sources of information, and media and digital literacy.”

There’s no denying that misinformation exists and is available in abundance, especially on social media, and can cause serious harm. However, we agree that prohibitions of “fake news” are not the appropriate way to deal with these consequences. Existing laws on defamation, legal provisions that protect the right to privacy, and laws on public order already provide some protection from negative impacts.

Importantly, the Joint Declaration also recognises the need for cooperation of all stakeholders – media outlets, journalists, civil society, academia, and digital companies – in building a better understanding of how to ensure media pluralism and the diversity in converged media environment. We hope that it will further inspire the stakeholders to raise awareness about these issues and cooperate in finding solutions,” added Hughes.

The 2017 Joint Declaration provides a set of recomemndations on how States, technology companies and media should respond to challenges presented by “fake news“, disinformation and propaganda in free speech compliant way. The recommendations include:

  • Any prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including “false” or “fake news” or “non-objective information”, are incompatible  with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression;
  • State actors should not make, sponsor, encourage or further disseminate statements which they know or reasonably should know to be false (disinformation) or which demonstrate a reckless disregard for verifiable information (propaganda);
  • States have a positive obligation to promote a free, independent and diverse communications environment, including promoting media diversity, which is a key means of addressing disinformation and propaganda, and including strong, independent and adequately resourced public service media;
  • Internet intermediaries should adopt clear, pre-determined policies governing the content on their platforms, including those related to disinformation and propaganda. These policies should be based on objectively justifiable criteria, should be easily accessible and understandable and should be adopted after consultation with their users. Any restrictions on content by intermediaries should respect minimum due process guarantees.
  • The media and journalists should, as appropriate, support effective systems of self regulation whether at the level of specific media sectors (such as press complaints bodies) or at the level of individual media outlets (ombudsmen or public editors) which include standards on striving for accuracy in the news.
  • All stakeholders – including intermediaries, media outlets, civil society and academia – should be supported in developing participatory and transparent initiatives for creating a better understanding of the impact of disinformation and propaganda on democracy, freedom of expression, journalism and civic space, as well as appropriate responses to these phenomena.


The four international experts on freedom of expression are:

  • David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression;
  • Dunja Mijatovic, the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe;
  • Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the Organisation of American States; and
  • Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

Joint Declarations by the four special rapporteurs have been adopted annually 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.