Freedom of Expression

Press Release 33/00


The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Dr. Santiago A. Canton, wrote U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to express his concern regarding the Intelligence Authorization Act now before President Bill Clinton for signature. President Clinton has until November 4 to sign the bill into law or to veto it. The bill includes provisions that would impose criminal liability for the disclosure of any classified information by a government official to an unauthorized individual. Such provisions violate the principles of freedom of expression that are so essential in a free and democratic society.

The Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, states that "guaranteeing the right to access to information held by the State will ensure greater transparency and accountability of governmental activities and the strengthening of democratic institutions." The Declaration elaborates on the right to access to information stating in Principle 4, "Access to information held by the state is a fundamental right of every individual. States have the obligation to guarantee full exercise of this right. This principle allows only exceptional limitations that must be previously established by law in case of a real and imminent danger that threatens national security in democratic societies." Citizens in a democracy must have the information they need to make decisions or a stable and participatory democracy cannot exist. Thus, freedom of expression has often been said to be the fundamental freedom underlying the very existence of democratic society. Restrictions on the giving and receiving of information are therefore acceptable only in limited circumstances, such as when they are necessary to protect national security. Such restrictions, however, must be narrowly tailored to meet this purpose. A reasonable balancing of national security and civil liberties concerns can only be reached if there is a presumption of openness in public authorities.

In the letter to Secretary of State Albright, Dr. Canton stated that "the provisions of this bill are overly broad in that they punish an official for revealing any classified information to an unauthorized person. A great deal of information that is classified is not threatening to national security and often is duplicated in other non-classified sources. Imposing liability for revealing any such information will greatly affect the comfort with which government officials will speak to members of the press, limiting the public’s access to information. It will also threaten transparency in government in other ways by shielding wrongdoers from scrutiny." In conclusion, Dr. Canton said, "At a time when democracies in our hemisphere and around the world are making strides towards greater openness in government and freedom of expression, I hope that the United States will not take a step in the opposite direction."

Santiago A. Canton
Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression
November 2, 2000 Washington, D.C.