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Free expression is a critical enabler of all human rights

To mark the 30th anniversary of the World Press Freedom Day, a distinguished panel of experts, including the Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Professor Kingsley Abbott, shared the ways in which free expression should be protected in an increasingly challenging global media environment.

The event entitled 'Towards Press Freedom: New Hope or False Dawn?' took place at the House of Lords in London on 2 May 2023.

Karuna Nundy, an Advocate before the Supreme Court of India, said that free speech is the mother of all rights and that States must create an enabling environment for media freedom.  She pressed for more support for the “truth tellers” especially where chaotic misinformation and hate speech is thriving.

Amberin Zaman, a Turkish journalist based in the UK, shared her own experience of online abuse which included death threats and other forms of online violence from Turkish trolls on social media. She described how the Turkish authorities accused her of having links to terrorist organisations and of being a traitor. She urged states to take serious notice of online harassment, especially towards female journalists.

Maria Ordzhonikidze, Director of Justice for Journalists Foundation, argued that the silencing of media by authoritarian regimes is more sophisticated than ever before. Giving the example of the increasing misuse of SLAPPs (strategic litigation against public participation), many states use legal tools to intimidate and threaten journalists, which she stressed had to be stopped.

Kingsley Abbott focused on the increasing trend of the misuse of the law, including a category of colonial-era laws, to supress and criminalise free speech and the misuse of the principle of the rule of law to justify it. He said that states misuse these measures to give their repressive actions a veneer of legitimacy by essentially making violations appear lawful. He argued that the international community must push back on this trend, including by pointing out where state action violates international human rights law and challenging this misconception of the rule of law.  He also emphasised the need for the strengthening of justice sectors, which play a crucial role in protecting human rights, and protecting and supporting civil society, including journalists.

The event was hosted by Lord Black of Brentwood, Mr William Horsley Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) and UNA Westminster.

Written by Dr Kiran Hassan, ICWS Associate Fellow and Co-Ordinator of the Media Freedom Initiative.