Article 19 at 50

“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, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

It is succinct, unambiguous, and wonderfully prescient. Even Internet communications are protected by Article 19, which along with the rest of the Universal Declaration is having its 50th birthday celebrated this year. Its plainspoken promise of freedom of “information and ideas” is the perfect umbrella for those of us in the free-press business. We take refuge in its universality, reminding governments that they too are signatories to this expansive document. (And as Americans, we avoid First Amendment parochialisms: the U.S. government is unique in the world in that it is explicitly prohibited from passing laws which restrict press freedom.) It is rare that CPJ sends a letter of protest to a government engaged in censorship or harassment of journalists without citing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration as an overarching principle.

But this strategy, useful though it is, rests ultimately on a fiction. The Universal Declaration is a fine piece of aspirational rhetoric, but the governments that signed it never thought of it as binding. They never would have endorsed it otherwise. Only a minority of the original signatories were by any reasonable measure democratic. Even those governments that were popularly elected often restricted information in ways their citizens wouldn’t tolerate today. There was to be no global Supreme Court striking down prior restraint rules or state broadcasting takeovers on the basis of the Universal Declaration. In 1948 neither the Soviet bloc nor its Western opponents would have permitted direct communication to its citizens from the other side “through any media and regardless of frontiers” (short-wave radio was grandfathered in as the technologically unavoidable exception). In the United States 50 years ago, public figures could still threaten critical newspapers with devastating libel suits. The post-war, Cold War press was carefully circumspect in its national security coverage. Not until the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 would U.S. newspapers dare print anything classified as “state secrets.”

On the dawn of the 50th anniversary of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration, at least 129 journalists were held in jails in 24 countries for exercising their ostensibly guaranteed rights to freedom of expression. The overviews of press freedom conditions in just a dozen key countries excerpted in this newsletter from CPJ’s Attacks on the Press in 1997 show clearly how the promise of Article 19 remains just that: a promise, not a reality.

That’s because there are two Article 19s–the first from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, cited above, and the second from the constantly re-amended International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, or the ICCPR, as it is known in human rights shorthand. As it is the ICCPR that signatory governments in theory consider binding, perhaps the ICCPR should be the focus of freedom of expression activism organized around the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration. The ICCPR version of Article 19 restates the promise of its progenitor and then buries it under a cascade of caveats, exemptions, and pretexts for government interference in the media. As authoritarian governments from Cuba to Belarus to Nigeria are quick to note, press freedom may be restricted under the ICCPR for reasons of national security, public morality, or inter-ethnic comity.

As an official document of the United Nations, it is this gutted and pernicious Article 19 that set the template for Article 10 of the European Covenant of Human Rights, which is in turn being used as a new legal guideline for the constitutions of emerging democracies of the 1990s. The World Press Freedom Committee recently conducted a valuable research experiment. It showed that hundreds of official press freedom abuses denounced by groups around the world in the International Freedom of Expression Exchange network could be legally defended under the standards of Article 10. An official of the European Union complained that the cases cited were mostly from other continents entirely and therefore could not be interpreted as an indictment of the European Covenant. He rather missed the point. Western Europe is rightly considered a model of democratic development, and a literal reading of Article 10 shows that it is apparently permissible for democracies to suppress press freedom for many reasons. So, for that matter, does a literal reading of Article 19 of the ICCPR.

That’s why, in the search for universal norms and guarantees, we end up back at the Universal Declaration. The original, unfettered Article 19 represents a quest, an ideal, that should be universal, even if it is not. Until the rest of the world’s legislatures are also constitutionally enjoined against curtailing press freedom, we will continue to cite the Article 19 of 50 years ago as the best international articulation of what Americans are fortunate and unusual to have enshrined in law as an inalienable right.

–William A. Orme, Jr.