"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers" (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 19)
The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice. (Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 13)
Children and freedom of expression in a nutshell
Freedom of expression is rarely part of children’s rights advocacy – at least as a stand-alone issue - yet it is critical for the realisation of all children’s rights (as well as for our work here at CRIN!). In fact, this right is a good marker for gauging perceptions of children in any society, because the extent to which children are able to express their opinions and feelings can show how much they are recognised as rights holders. And if children are restricted from holding or expressing opinions, or from receiving information through the media (subject to certain, limited, exceptions), how can they describe the ways in which their rights are being respected, fulfilled and respected, or, on the other hand, infringed? Similarly, organisations and media outlets such as CRIN must, in all countries in all regions of the world, feel secure in the knowledge that the information they disseminate will not be subject to unreasonable interference.
Since 3 May is marked as Press Freedom Day, reminding people about the significance of the right to freedom of expression, it serves as a good opportunity to explore the meaning and relevance of this right for children, an opportunity that CRIN will take up each year on this date.
The right to freedom of expression, embodied in article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is closely linked with article 12 on the right to participate. However, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has noted that, while both articles are strongly linked, they do elaborate different rights. In their most recent General Comment on Article 12, the Committee said: “Freedom of expression relates to the right to hold and express opinions, and to seek and receive information through any media. It asserts the right of the child not to be restricted by the State party in the opinions she or he holds or expresses. As such, the obligation it imposes on States parties is to refrain from interference in the expression of those views, or in access to information, while protecting the right of access to means of communication and public dialogue.”
On the other hand, the Committee continued, “Article 12…relates to the right of expression of views specifically about matters which affect the child, and the right to be involved in actions and decisions that impact on her or his life.”
The Committee also noted the different obligations created by the different articles. It said: “Article 12 imposes an obligation on States parties to introduce the legal framework and mechanisms necessary to facilitate active involvement of the child in all actions affecting the child and in decision-making, and to fulfil the obligation to give due weight to those views once expressed. Freedom of expression in article 13 requires no such engagement or response from States parties. However, creating an environment of respect for children to express their views, consistent with article 12, also contributes towards building children’s capacities to exercise their right to freedom of expression.”
Several other articles within the Convention on the Rights of the Child also relate to freedom of expression. Article 17 is particularly relevant, and addresses the media. It requires States to “recognize the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health.”
Article 14 requires States to respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 15 is also crucial for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. It is concerned with the rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly. Restricting children’s right to associate will, of course, also restrict their right to express themselves.
Children’s right to freedom of expression has also been articulated elsewhere, according to different thematic areas. For example the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment 3, on HIV and AIDS, states that children should be given the opportunity to speak out about their experiences of HIV and AIDS.
Violating children’s freedom of expression - examples
In Turkey, a report describes how children have been detained for exercising their freedom of expression. Examples include the cases of a ten-year-old detained for giving Kurdish lessons to other children, and a 13-year-old put on trial for saying “God damn you” to the Prime Minister. The president of the Human Rights Association (İHD) in Adana, southern Turkey, was put on trial after publicly criticising the arrest and punishment of children taking part in demonstrations. He was investigated for "spreading PKK propaganda", but is now on trial for "inciting hatred and hostility."
In Georgia, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern at the lack of legal guarantees for the freedom of expression of under 18s and the inadequate attention given to the promotion of and respect for the right of the child to freedom of expression. It is concerned that prevailing traditional societal attitudes, in the family and in other settings regarding the role of children, appear to make it difficult for children to seek and impart information freely .
In the Maldives, the Committee has expressed its concern that access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources is limited for children. It noted “with particular concern that due to the lack of libraries in the atolls children have very restricted access to reading material.”
In Timor-Leste, the Committee notes that “many children in the State party have only limited access to mass media and other sources of information.”
In Sudan, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) called on authorities to unblock access to the country’s vote monitor website, which had been partially or totally blocked for the past six days. A spokesman for the site said: “Our technology is the closest thing to a real-time snapshot of what is happening on the ground during the elections. Users will have access to up-to-date information including streaming video from all over Sudan, everywhere from an election centre in Khartoum to a polling station in Juba, or a remote corner of the country.”
In Honduras, six journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2010. Luis Antonio Chévez Hernández, 22, a presenter with Radio W105, was murdered in the north-west city of San Pedro Sula on 13 April. In some incidents, the children of reporters have been targeted and even killed.
In Venezuela, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has raised the issue of access to information for minority groups. It states that “indigenous children and children of Afro descendants do not receive sufficient information relevant to their needs.”
In the Republic of Korea, in 2003, the Committee said it was “concerned at the limitations on students’ freedom of expression and association due to strict administrative control of student councils and school regulations that limit or prohibit outside political activities of students in elementary and secondary schools. It is further concerned about allegations that Internet chat rooms, set up independently by teenagers, have been arbitrarily closed down by the authorities.”
In Malaysia, the Committee said it was “concerned that the right of the child to freedom of expression, including to present complaints publicly and to receive information, and the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly are not fully guaranteed in practice.”
“Severe restrictions” on the right to freedom of expression, and the lack of a free media, in Eritrea, have been blamed for limited children’s access to information.
In Jordan in May 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that newly proposed amendments to the 2008 Law of Societies did not rectify major deficiencies that violate the right to free association, in particular children's right to associate.
Restricting children’s freedom of expression
There are situations in which children’s right to freedom of expression may be restricted. For example, there is international concern about children’s access to harmful material on the internet, or to websites through which children may be placed in danger. See, for example, the UN-European initiative to protect children online. Strict rules also govern the release of information in the media which may lead to the identification of particularly children, especially when such children have, for example, suffered some form of abuse. However, such restrictions should be balanced with children’s right to receive and impart information through different media.
In fact, arguments couched in child-protecting language have frequently been used as grounds for child rights violations. For example, in Lithuania, the State parliament was criticized for backing a bill that censors certain information, including on homosexuality, from reaching minors. The law, described by an MEP as “a spit into the face of European values”, bans “propaganda for homosexuality and bisexuality” as one of the “detrimental effectors” on children. It would also apply to “other places accessible to youngsters”. Amnesty International warned that the law could be used to prohibit any legitimate discussion of homosexuality, impede the work of human rights defenders and further the stigmatisation of, and prejudice against, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Lithuania. "This law is a clear infringement of freedom of expression and non-discrimination rights and should be repealed immediately," said Amnesty International UK's LGBT Campaigner Kim Manning-Cooper.
Meanwhile, the European Committee of Social Rights, which monitors state compliance with the European Social Charter, recently found that Croatia’s limited curriculum covering sex education discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. The complaint alleged that one of the country’s state-sponsored sex education programmes, TeenStar, violated young people’s basic rights to health and non-discrimination. TeenStar’s abstinence-based curriculum teaches that condoms do not prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, that gay relationships are “deviant” and that stay-at-home mothers make for better families.
In Venezuela, restrictive media laws have been enacted “under the guise of protecting children from crude language, sexual content, and violence.”
CRIN and freedom of expression
Here at CRIN, we are, perhaps unsurprisingly, especially passionate about press freedom. We understand that change is not possible without the ‘democratisation of information’, and that if people don’t have access to information about children’s rights, including children, then those rights can’t be upheld.
Crackdowns on child rights activists
Children’s freedom of expression is curtailed if the activities of representatives and activists are also restricted. CRIN has previously reported on the worrying attempts to censor or repress on child rights activists in different regions in the world. For example, in 2009 a decree was issued in Honduras which allows authorities to clamp down on child rights activists. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said it was “deeply concerned” over the executive decree 011-2009 adopted by the de facto authorities in Honduras, through which fundamental rights have been restricted, such as personal liberty and freedom of association. Human rights defenders named as being at risk, included four child rights advocates.
Earlier that year, it was reported that police in Nigeria, claiming to be donors, burst into the offices of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network Centre (CRARN) in Eket, Akwa Ibom State, and arrested two staff members. They were also said to have beaten several children present and, before leaving, fired bullets into the bedroom of the organisation's founder “as a warning.” It was thought that the reason was because the work of CRARN, and the children they care for, was shown on UK Channel 4’s Dispatches Programme on ‘Saving Africa’s Witch Children’ in November 2008.
In January 2009, the Ethiopian Parliament adopted a potentially repressive new law which could criminalise the child rights activities of both foreign and domestic non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Human Rights Watch has reported that the Chinese government's closure of a Beijing-based legal aid and research organisation and disbarment of 53 Beijing lawyers marks a sharp intensification of official efforts to silence China's human rights defenders.
OCI is a unique organisation in China, argues Human rights Watch, combining "groundbreaking research" on officially "sensitive" subjects with legal services for groups and individuals stymied by China's politicised legal system. The organisation's legal activism has included representing parents seeking government compensation for children poisoned through the melamine contamination scandal exposed in late 2008.
More recently, Amnesty International reported that Afghan women and child rights defenders “face intimidation and attacks as they attempt to tackle violence and discrimination in the country.”
Reporters Without Borders considers the number of journalists murdered, expelled or harassed, and the existence of a state monopoly on TV and radio, as well as the existence of censorship and self-censorship in the media, and the overall independence of media as well as the difficulties that foreign reporters may face.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) uses the tools of journalism to help journalists by tracking press freedom issues through independent research, fact-finding missions, and firsthand contacts in the field, including local working journalists in countries around the world. CPJ shares information on breaking cases with other press freedom organisations worldwide through the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a global e-mail network. CPJ also tracks journalist deaths and detentions. CPJ staff applies strict criteria for each case; researchers independently investigate and verify the circumstances behind each death or imprisonment.
Freedom House likewise studies the more general political and economic environments of each nation in order to determine whether relationships of dependence exist that limit in practice the level of press freedom that might exist in theory.