Freedom of Expression

Press Release 32/00


During its 108th regular sessions, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (ICHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., approved the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression. The President of the ICHR, Dr. Helio Bicudo, emphasized the importance of this Declaration, "which constitutes a fundamental document for the defense of freedom of expression within the Inter-American system."

The members of the Inter-American Commission reaffirmed the need "to protect freedom of expression in the Americas effectively, recognizing that the consolidation and development of democracy depends on the very existence of freedom of expression." The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Dr. Santiago A. Canton, expressed his satisfaction. "Without a doubt, this Declaration represents the most important step for freedom of expression in recent years. Its approval not only constitutes a recognition of the importance of freedom of expression in the Americas, but also establishes international standards for more effective protection of the exercise of this right."

The Declaration, composed of thirteen principles, states that freedom of expression is "an essential requirement for the very existence of a democratic society." The fourth principle indicates that access to information held by the State is a fundamental right of individuals and that States are obligated to guarantee it. The fifth principle establishes that "[p]rior censorship, interference, or direct or indirect pressure on any expression, opinion, or information disseminated by any oral, written, artistic, visual or electronic means of communication should be prohibited by law." The seventh principle rejects the imposition by the State of prior conditions on the dissemination of information, such as veracity, timeliness, or impartiality. The ninth principle defines assassination, kidnapping, intimidation, and threats directed at journalists as actions that "place severe constraints on freedom of expression."

Moreover, the Declaration emphasizes the duty of States to prevent and investigate these types of acts. Criminal defamation laws known as "desacato", which provide special protection to the Heads of State and other public officials against open criticism, constitute one of the Special Rapporteur's principal concerns. These laws are still in place and continue to be enforced in various countries in the hemisphere. The Declaration maintains that public officials are subject to a higher level of scrutiny by society and that "desacato" laws violate freedom of expression and the right to information. Moreover, the tenth principle states that "[p]rotecting one's reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official or a public or private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest. In addition, in these cases, it must be proven that in disseminating the news the social communicator had the specific intent to inflict harm, was fully aware that false news were disseminated, or acted with manifest negligence in efforts to determine the truth or falsity of such news."

Finally, in principles 12 and 13, the Declaration states; "Monopolies or oligopolies in the ownership and control of the communication media must be subject to anti-trust laws, as they conspire against democracy by limiting the plurality and diversity which ensure the full exercise of peoples’ right to information. In no case should such laws be exclusively for the media." "It is important that States begin to bring their laws into compliance with the principles of this Declaration," said Dr. Canton. "The democracies of the hemisphere will be strengthened and we will make a huge stride in the fight against corruption," he added.

The complete document is available on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights web site:

You may also contact Victoria Amato by telephone at (202)458-6014 or e-mail at [email protected]

Santiago A. Canton
Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression
October 19, 2000 Washington, D.C.