Everyone has the right to communicate his or her opinions and ideas and share information in whatever form. In human rights this is called freedom of expression. It prohibits the State and other people in society from censorship and it can be restricted for only very serious reasons.
Freedom of expression & Democracy
Freedom of expression is an important human right which is essential for a society to be democratic. Indeed, as the European Court of Human Rights repeatedly indicates, freedom of expression constitutes “one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man”. It enables the free exchange of ideas, opinions and information and thus allows members of society to form their own opinions on issues of public importance. Freedom of expression serves public debate and supports a free and independent press, informed citizenship, and the transparent functioning of the state.
The right to freedom of expression is very broad, but it has limits and can be restricted. This is when the freedom of expression of one person violates the rights of another person or the values of society as a whole. In situations like these, the state can lawfully restrict or punish expressions that cause harm. Examples of this are violations of private life, defamation, hate speech, obscenity, pornography, public order, national security, classified information, trade secrets or copyright violations.
Freedom of expression gives special rights and duties to the media. The media inform society on matters of public interest and create an important platform for public debate, scrutiny and reflection. Therefore, independent media and quality journalism are considered to be the “watchdog” of a democratic society.
About this Guide
This Guide explains the principles of freedom of expression and the cases in which these can be lawfully restricted. It also elaborates on balancing freedom of expression with privacy, defamation and hate speech. Furthermore, it helps one to understand the special rights and freedoms of the media as well as a citizen’s right to access both public and restricted information from state institutions. The dedicated How to complain sections help in understanding what can be done where there is a potential human rights violation.