General Comment No. 34 on Article 19 of the ICCPR

New guidance to states on what freedoms of opinion and expression mean in practice

On 21 July 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment 34 on States parties' obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The General Comment provides guidance to States on what the freedoms of opinion and expression mean in practice, and therefore strengthens the protection provided by international law.

With particular relevance to the South-East Asia region, General Comment 34 clarifies the legitimate grounds for restricting the right to freedom of expression, and how such restrictions must conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality. The legitimate grounds for restriction listed in the ICCPR are:

  1. For respect of the rights or reputations of others; and
  2. For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.

In reference to these restrictions, General Comment 34 (para 35) highlights that “When a State party invokes a legitimate ground for restriction of freedom of expression, it must demonstrate in specific and individualized fashion the precise nature of the threat, and the necessity and proportionality of the specific action taken, in particular by establishing a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat”.

The General Comment also highlights how States parties have to be proactive in putting in place “effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression” (para 23).

The General Comment looks at State obligations in relation to protecting freedom of expression over the internet, and ensuring media plurality and guarding against monopolization by the state or privately controlled media groups. Also of particular relevance to South-East Asia, the General Comment calls on State parties to “consider the decriminalization of defamation” and recommends that, in any case of defamation, “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” (para 47).

Currently, seven countries in South-East Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Timor Leste) are party to the ICCPR.