Last Updated: Monday, 01 September 2014, 14:30 GMT

International standards: Regulation of media workers

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 5 April 2012
Cite as Article 19, International standards: Regulation of media workers, 5 April 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fa794422.html [accessed 2 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Some countries require individuals who wish to work in the media, in particular journalists, to obtain official permission before commencing their activities. Sometimes, an actual licence or permit is needed. In other cases, journalists can effectively be prohibited from practising their profession due to a requirement to join a professional organisation, for which membership may be denied. Because their practical effect is the same, we will refer to such requirements collectively as "licensing schemes."

The ostensible purpose of licensing schemes is usually to ensure that the task of informing the public is reserved for competent persons of high moral integrity. In practice, however, the power to distribute licences can become a political tool, used to prevent critical or independent journalists from publishing. For this reason, and simply because the right to express oneself through the mass media belongs to everyone, irrespective of qualifications or moral standing, licensing schemes for media workers are considered to be in breach of the right to freedom of expression.

An important source of legal authority on the subject of licensing schemes is an opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rendered in 1985.[1] It was recognised in the case that licensing was a restriction on freedom of expression. Costa Rica and its supporters argued that a requirement for journalists to become members of a colegio (association) was legitimate for three different reasons: first, because it was necessary for public order and the 'normal' way to regulate the profession in many countries; second, because it sought to promote higher professional and ethical standards, which would benefit society at large and ensure the right of the public to receive full and truthful information; and third, because the licensing scheme would guarantee the independence of journalists in relation to their employers.

Examining the first argument, the Court remarked that the organisation of professions, including journalism, through associations could facilitate the development of a coherent system of values and principles, and so contribute to public order, if that term was understood widely. However, it also observed that the same concept of public order would benefit much more from scrupulous respect for freedom of expression: 

Freedom of expression constitutes the primary and basic element of the public order of a democratic society, which is not conceivable without free debate and the possibility that dissenting voices be fully heard … It is … in the interest of the democratic public order … that the right of each individual to express himself freely and that of society as a whole to receive information be scrupulously respected.[2]

The Court found that licensing, by restricting access to the journalistic profession, was therefore harmful to, rather than supportive of, public order.[3]

Responding to the argument that a licensing regime is simply the 'normal' way to regulate certain professions, the Court distinguished between journalism and, for example, the practice of law or medicine. In contrast to lawyers and physicians, the activities of journalists – the seeking, receiving and imparting of information and ideas – are specifically protected as a human right, namely the right to freedom of expression.[4]

The Court also dismissed the argument that licensing schemes are necessary to ensure the public's right to be informed, by screening out poor journalists. The Court felt such a system would ultimately prove counterproductive: 

[G]eneral welfare requires the greatest possible amount of information, and it is the full exercise of the right of expression that benefits this general welfare … A system that controls the right of expression in the name of a supposed guarantee of the correctness and truthfulness of the information that society receives can be the source of great abuse and, ultimately, violates the right to information that this same society has.[5]

Turning, finally, to the argument that a licensing scheme would strengthen the profession and thereby help protect media workers against their employers, the Court found that this goal could be accomplished through less intrusive means, without the need to restrict the practice of journalism to a limited group. As such, the licensing scheme failed to meet the necessity test.[6]

Having rejected the three principal arguments for permitting a licensing scheme for individual journalists, the Court concluded, unanimously, that such schemes constitute a violation of the right to freedom of expression.

Other courts, national as well as international, have taken a similar point of view. For example, in August 1997, the High Court of Zambia invalidated an attempt to establish a statutory body to regulate journalists, stating that any effort to license journalists would breach the right to freedom of expression, regardless of the form that effort took.[7]

The three special mandates for protecting freedom of expression – the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression – adopt a Joint Declaration each year setting out standards relating to important freedom of expression issues. In their 2004 Declaration, they stated:

Individual journalists should not be required to be licensed or to register.[8]

It is thus clear that, under international law, licensing and even registration of media workers is prohibited. In practice, licensing schemes for journalists are virtually unheard of in established democracies.

Other professional entry requirements

Other entry requirements on the exercise of professions in the media, such as a requirement to have attained a certain age, to possess particular academic qualifications, or to have a clean criminal record, are imposed in some countries. Entry requirements are distinct from licensing schemes, insofar as they do not involve an official body making a case-by-case decision about who may and who may not practise journalism. Nevertheless, entry requirements are inconsistent with international law for the same reasons: they fail to recognise that the right to express oneself through the mass media belongs to everyone, not only persons who the government considers particularly qualified or suitable. They also deprive the general public of the right to receive information and ideas from diverse sources of their own choice.

Furthermore, the practical effectiveness of entry requirements as a means of ensuring quality journalism is questionable. They may prevent talented young people who have not yet reached the age threshold from developing their research and writing skills, or drive out competent journalists with no degree in favour of unskilled academics.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has issued a Declaration condemning one specific type of entry requirement:

Every person has the right to communicate his/her views by any means and in any form. Compulsory membership or the requirement of a university degree for the practice of journalism constitute unlawful restrictions of freedom of expression.[9]

The three special mandates on freedom of expression at the OAS, UN and OSCE have stated:

There should be no legal restrictions on who may practise journalism.[10]

Barring from practice

In a small number of countries, the law provides for the possibility of temporarily, or even permanently, stripping an individual of the right to practise journalism or other media professions. If this power is exercised by the government, it is equivalent in effect to a licensing scheme, and therefore similarly impermissible. More often, however, the power is exercised by courts as a sanction in criminal proceedings.

International courts have rarely addressed the question of whether an embargo on a journalist, imposed as a criminal sanction, can ever be a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression. The case of De Becker v. Belgium,[11] decided by the European Commission of Human Rights,[12] suggests that a penalty of this type may only be applied in highly exceptional circumstances, if ever.

De Becker, a Belgian journalist and writer, had been sentenced to death for collaborating with the German authorities during the Second World War. The sentence was commuted and de Becker was released, but he was prohibited for life from participating in the publication of a newspaper. The Commission ruled that Belgium had breached the right to freedom of expression, because the ban was imposed inflexibly, without any provision for its relaxation at a later time when public morals and public order would have been re-established. It was therefore not "necessary in a democratic society", as required by the three-part test for restrictions on freedom of expression.

Although the Commission did not rule out the possibility of prohibiting an individual from publishing, it clearly attached importance to the extreme circumstances of that particular case – Belgium was just emerging from five years of war and enemy occupation, during which De Becker had committed treason – and felt the ban should be discontinued as soon as a degree of normalcy had been re-established. In today's more peaceful world, it is highly unlikely that an international court would uphold a ban on practising as a journalist, particularly for less serious offences such as libel or tax evasion. It should therefore be presumed that prohibiting journalists from publishing violates international law.

Freedom of association

While compelling journalists to become members of a professional association is always impressible, in practice many journalists may actually be keen to join such an organisation on a voluntary basis, or found new groups amongst themselves. The right to form associations and trade unions is recognised as a separate human right under the main international human rights instruments, including the UDHR and the ICCPR, which guarantees freedom of association in Article 22:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests. 

The right to freedom of association is subject to similar restrictions as the right to freedom of expression. Any interference with the right, therefore, has to pass the strict three-part test. A government policy which prohibits the establishment of independent journalists' organisations will virtually always fail to pass muster under this test.

Journalists' associations may play a useful role in improving the working conditions of media professionals. They can also help their members raise professional and ethical standards, for example by organising training and developing voluntary codes of conduct.

The right to gather news and accreditation schemes

The right to freedom of expression includes a right to "seek and receive" information and ideas. Gathering information is clearly essential to the media, and national courts have often confirmed that the activity of newsgathering is protected under the right to freedom of expression. For example, the Japanese Supreme Court has stated:

[I]t goes without saying that the freedom to report facts, along with the freedom to express ideas, is grounded in the guarantees of Article 21 [of the Constitution] ..., which provides for freedom of expression. Moreover, in order that the contents of the reports of such mass media may be correct, the freedom to gather news for informational purposes, as well as the freedom to report, must be accorded due respect …[13]

States usually impose some limits on the right of journalists to gather information, such as a prohibition to enter sensitive military or civilian installations, or to attend certain court hearings. Like all restrictions on freedom of expression, restrictions on newsgathering must comply with the three-part test: they must be provided by law, serve a legitimate aim, and be necessary for the accomplishment of that aim.

A common source of conflict in respect of newsgathering is the right of journalists to gain physical access to government buildings. On the one hand, the media must be permitted to attend meetings of parliament and other public bodies, so that they can report accurately on political developments and perform their vital role of public watchdog. On the other hand, some buildings may simply lack the capacity to accommodate every interested journalist, or there may be legitimate concerns that a large media presence would get in the way of effective government.

To prevent overcrowding in the press gallery, large institutions such as the national parliament often regulate access through an accreditation scheme. Usually, this means that journalists can apply for a press card, which must be produced upon entry on days when the audience exceeds the number of seats available. Smaller bodies either rely on the same system, or impose restrictions on a case-by-case basis. Holders of press cards are sometimes granted certain privileges, such as access to communication facilities and front row seats. In the United Kingdom, for example, so-called 'Lobby Correspondents' have access to a full office, with a computer and Internet access.

While accreditation schemes can be genuinely necessary, they are also a common source of abuse. Governments often refuse to grant press cards to critical journalists, or require possession of such cards in situations where there are no authentic space or other constraints. To address these problems, various international bodies have developed standards which States' accreditation schemes must meet.

The Human Rights Committee has stated that the "necessity test" means that an accreditation procedure should not be susceptible to political interference and should impair the right to gather news as little as possible. Furthermore, the number of accredited journalists permitted to attend an event may be limited only when there are demonstrable problems in accommodating all those interested. In particular, the Human Rights Committee stated: 

[I]ts operation and application must be shown as necessary and proportionate to the goal in question and not arbitrary … The relevant criteria for the accreditation scheme should be specific, fair and reasonable, and their application should be transparent. [14]

The UN, OSCE and OAS Special Mandates have echoed these points and elaborated on them further:

Accreditation schemes for journalists are appropriate only where necessary to provide them with privileged access to certain places and/or events; such schemes should be overseen by an independent body and accreditation decisions should be taken pursuant to a fair and transparent process, based on clear and non-discriminatory criteria published in advance.

Accreditation should never be subject to withdrawal based only on the content of an individual journalist's work.[15]

The OSCE has similarly stressed that journalists should not lose their accreditation based on the contents of their writings:

Recalling that the legitimate pursuit of journalists' professional activity will neither render them liable to expulsion nor otherwise penalize them, [member States] will refrain from taking restrictive measures such as withdrawing a journalist's accreditation or expelling him because of the content of the reporting of the journalist or of his information media.[16] 

To summarise these points, in order to comply with international standards, an accreditation scheme must, at a minimum:

  1. be administered by a body which is independent from the government and follows a transparent procedure;
  2. be based on specific, non-discriminatory, and reasonable criteria published in advance;
  3. only be applied to the extent justifiable by genuine space constraints; and
  4. not permit accreditation to be withdrawn based on the work of the journalist or media outlet concerned.

Protection of sources

The media depend to a large extent on members of the public for the supply of information of public interest. Most of the time, these sources are more than happy to be quoted in the newspaper or on the television. But occasionally, citizens come forward with information of a secret or highly sensitive nature – relating for example to corruption, misgovernment or the activities of organised criminals – which they believe should be made known to the general public, to expose wrongdoing or to stimulate public debate on the subject. When this happens, anonymity is often a precondition for the source's willingness to speak, out of fear for retaliation if his or her name were made public.

There is little dispute that named sources are on the whole preferable to anonymous ones. If the source is known, it is easier to assess his or her credibility, motives and, indeed, existence. It is also less difficult for those affected by a wrongful disclosure (such as a malicious attack on a person's reputation or the publication of a business secret) to clear their name or to seek compensation. Nevertheless, international courts and mechanisms have been mindful that much important information would never reach the public if journalists were unable to guarantee confidentiality to their sources. This has led to the development of a right, based on the right to free expression, commonly referred to as "the protection of sources."

It may be noted that although it is normally journalists who claim the right, it is really the right of everyone to receive information and ideas that is being protected. Indeed, this is at the heart of the right.

International standards on the protection of sources

In the seminal case of Goodwin v. United Kingdom,[17] the European Court of Human Rights ruled that an attempt to force a journalist to reveal his source for a news story violated his right to receive and impart information, and hence the right to freedom of expression. It considered that orders to disclose sources reduce the flow of information, to the detriment of democracy and are, therefore, only justifiable in very exceptional cases:

Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom.... Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public-watchdog role of the press may be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information may be adversely affected. Having regard to the importance of the protection of journalistic sources for press freedom in a democratic society and the potentially chilling effect an order of source disclosure has on the exercise of that freedom, such a measure cannot be compatible with Article 10 of the Convention unless it is justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest.[18]

The right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources has also been widely recognised by other international bodies, including the European Parliament,[19] the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe,[20] the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights[21] and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.[22] The OSCE Member States stated, in the Concluding Document of their 1986-1989 Vienna Follow-Up Meeting:

[J]ournalists … are free to seek access to and maintain contacts with, public and private sources of information and that their need for professional confidentiality is respected.[23]

In sum, the basic principle that journalists have a right to protect their sources is well-established in international law. Often, legislation falls short of international standards in this area, because it is either too narrow in its understanding of who is a "journalist" or too broad in its definition of exceptions to the right. 

Persons entitled to invoke the right

The right to preserve the confidentiality of sources is usually referred to, both in international and domestic law, as a right of journalists. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be validly invoked by persons who would not normally identify themselves, or be identified by the general public, as journalists.

As the ruling in the Goodwin case (discussed above) illustrates, the purpose of the right is to ensure that sources are not deterred from conveying important information to the public through a 'middleman'. It is the middleman who is entitled to invoke the right to protect his or her sources. In most cases, this role is played by a 'traditional' journalist in the service of a mass media outlet; but there is no reason to apply a different rule when the middleman is someone else whose profession involves collecting and disseminating information, such as an NGO activist or academic commentator.

In their efforts to define the right to protect sources, some international bodies have opted to entirely avoid the term 'journalist'. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights states:

Every social communicator has the right to keep his/her source of information, notes, personal and professional archives confidential.[24]

Other bodies have instead been careful to formulate a very wide definition of 'journalist', covering anyone who serves as a conduit of information to the public, regardless of whether they would normally be perceived as journalists. The Recommendation adopted by the CoE's Committee of Ministers provides:

The term "journalist" means any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.[25]

By contrast, domestic laws sometimes adopt a more limited definition, covering only 'traditional' journalists. Such narrow definitions are at odds with international law, because of their potential to constrict the flow of important information to the public.

Finally, in addition to 'non-traditional' journalists, international law recognises one further class of persons who should be entitled to invoke the right. Principle 2 of the above-cited CoE Recommendation states:

Other persons who, by their professional relations with journalists, acquire knowledge of information identifying a source through the collection, editorial processing or dissemination of this information, should equally be protected under the principles established herein.

In other words, the right to withhold a source's identity belongs not only to the 'middleman,' but also to others collaborating with him or her. This purpose of this rule is, of course, to prevent the protection of sources from being simply side-stepped by going around the 'middleman'. 

Exceptions to the right

Like the right to freedom of expression it is derived from, the right to maintain confidentiality of sources is not an absolute one: in certain narrowly defined circumstances, it may be subject to some limitations. As always, such restrictions must be justifiable under the three-part test. 

Principles 3-5 of the 2000 CoE Recommendation[26] elaborate extensively on the application of the three-part test to the protection of sources, in particular the necessity-leg of the test. The 2002 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa echoes the main points of the CoE Recommendation.[27]

The most important points in these documents are the following:

  • A journalist should only be ordered to disclose the identity of a source if there is an overriding requirement in the public interest, and the circumstances are of a vital nature. The CoE Recommendation states that this could be the case only if disclosure was necessary to protect human life, to prevent major crime or for the defence of a person accused of having committed a major crime.[28]
  • The interest in disclosure should always be balanced against the harm of ordering disclosure to freedom of expression.
  • Disclosure should only be ordered at the request of an individual or body with a direct, legitimate interest, and who has demonstrably exhausted all reasonable alternative measures to protect that interest.
  • The power to order disclosure of a source's identity should be exercised exclusively by courts of law.
  • Courts should never order disclosure of a source's identity in the context of a defamation case.
  • The extent of a disclosure should be limited as far as possible, for example just being provided to the persons seeking disclosure instead of general public.
  • Any sanctions against a journalist who refuses to disclose the identity of a source should only be applied by an impartial court after a fair trial, and should be subject to appeal to a higher court.

Perhaps the most crucial of these principles is the requirement to balance interests: even when there is a strong public interest in uncovering the identity of a source, the vital function of the protection of sources in a democracy should not be overlooked. In fact, as the Norwegian Supreme Court has pointed out, the arguments against disclosure often are strongest precisely when those in favour are also strong:

In some cases ... the more important the interest violated, the more important it will be to protect the sources. ... It must be assumed that a broad protection of sources will lead to more revelations of hidden matters than if the protection is limited or not given at all.[29]

Search and seizure of journalistic material

International law increasingly recognises that information collected or created for journalistic purposes enjoys a special degree of protection from search and seizure by the authorities. There are various justifications for according journalists stronger immunity against search and seizure than others.

In the first place, there is an obvious risk that the police will use the power to search premises as a means to circumvent the protection of sources (see the previous section). A search and seizure operation whose purpose is to uncover the identity of an anonymous source is particularly objectionable. Not only does it prejudge a question which should normally be ruled on by a court, after carefully weighing both sides of the argument; it is also far more intrusive than a court order to disclose a source's identity. This point was underscored by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Roemen and Schmit v. Luxembourg:

The Court considers that, even if unproductive, a search conducted with a view to uncover a journalist's source is a more drastic measure than an order to divulge the source's identity. This is because investigators who raid a journalist's workplace unannounced and armed with search warrants have very wide investigative powers, as, by definition, they have access to all the documentation held by the journalist. The Court … thus considers that the searches of the first applicant's home and workplace undermined the protection of sources to an even greater extent than the measures in issue in Goodwin. [30]

A second reason why courts have held that journalistic material should be given greater immunity from search and seizure is the 'chilling effect' exerted by such operations. The storming of someone's house or office by armed police is clearly an alarming and intimidating experience; it can have the effect of discouraging the person concerned, or others in the same profession, from continuing their activities, even if those activities are in fact legal. This is highly problematic, especially if the activity in question is one guaranteed by international law – such as the practice of journalism. To prevent unnecessary intimidation of journalists, whether deliberate or not, courts in several countries have required a stronger justification for, and stricter judicial oversight over, the issuing of search warrants affecting journalists. For example, the US Supreme Court stated, in a case where police had seized books suspected to be obscene:

The authority to the police officers under the warrants issued in this case, broadly to seize "obscene . . . publications," poses problems not raised by the warrants to seize "gambling implements" and "all intoxicating liquors" … the use of these warrants implicates questions whether the procedures leading to their issuance and surrounding their execution were adequate to avoid suppression of constitutionally protected publications.[31]

An English court noted that particular caution is necessary when the media outlet targeted by the warrant has been investigating alleged wrongdoing by the authorities:

Legal proceedings directed towards the seizure of the working papers of an individual journalist, or the premises of the newspaper or television programme publishing his or her reports, or the threat of such proceedings, tend to inhibit discussion. When a genuine investigation into possible corrupt or reprehensible activities by a public authority is being investigated by the media, compelling evidence is normally needed to demonstrate that the public interest would be served by such proceedings. Otherwise, to the public disadvantage, legitimate inquiry and discussion, and 'the safety valve of effective investigative journalism' ... would be discouraged, perhaps stifled (reference omitted).[32]

Concerns like these have led several countries to specify a separate procedure in their code of criminal procedure for the search and seizure of journalistic premises and materials. This procedure usually has most or all of the following characteristics:

  • Search warrants may only be issued by a judge, who must balance the importance of the search against the importance of preventing harm to the right to gather news.
  • No warrants may be issued if the same goal can be achieved in a way less detrimental to freedom of expression.
  • No warrants may be issued for the seizure of material covered by the protection of sources, except in very exceptional circumstances.
  • The police must be accompanied on their search by a judge or prosecutor. 

For example, the French Criminal Procedure Code provides: 

Searches of the premises of a press or broadcasting company may be conducted only by a judge or a State prosecutor, who must ensure that the investigations do not endanger the free exercise of the profession of journalism and do not obstruct or cause an unjustified delay to the distribution of information.[33] 

The key point is that searches and seizures of journalistic material and premises are, in almost all cases, an interference with the right to freedom of expression. As such, they may only be conducted in accordance with the three-part test. 

Violence against media workers

Physical threats and attacks against media workers aimed at 'shutting them up' are arguably the most egregious interference with the right to freedom of expression possible. When attacks occur, they are usually ostensibly committed by private persons; the government's involvement ranges from none at all to tacit approval to active instigation. A government which consents to media workers being attacked is clearly in breach not only of the right to freedom of expression, but also of the right to liberty and security of the person, and even to life. But the duty imposed on States under international law goes further: media workers must be actively protected, and threats and attacks against them must be investigated carefully.

Duty to prevent attacks 

States are under not only a so-called 'negative obligation' to refrain from violating human rights but also a 'positive obligation' to ensure enjoyment of those rights. Article 2 of the ICCPR, for example, requires States to "adopt such legislative or other measures as may be necessary to give effect to the rights recognised by the Covenant."[34] Several international courts and bodies have confirmed that this entails a duty to offer sufficient protection from violent attacks to citizens in general, and media workers in particular.

The African Commission's Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression states:

1. Attacks such as the murder, kidnapping, intimidation of and threats to media practitioners and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, as well as the material destruction of communications facilities, undermines independent journalism, freedom of expression and the free flow of information to the public. 

2. States are under an obligation to take effective measures to prevent such attacks […][35]

The UN, OSCE and OAS special mandates on freedom of expression have declared that the worldwide problem of violence against media workers has reached a crisis point and have called on States to: 

Take adequate measures to end the climate of impunity and such measures should include devoting sufficient resources and attention to preventing attacks on journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression ….[36]

An important question is exactly how far the duty to protect reaches. On the one hand, the protection should at least markedly reduce the risk of violence occurring; on the other hand, it should not go so far as to impose an extreme burden on the State or provide an excuse for constantly shadowing a journalist. In the case of Osman v. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights provided some guidelines on this subject. The case concerned the question whether British police should have acted to prevent violent attacks against a child. The Court noted that it was beyond dispute that Article 2 of the ECHR, protecting the right to life, "may also imply in certain well-defined circumstances a positive obligation on the authorities to take preventive operational measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk from the criminal acts of another individual."[37] On the other hand, the duty to protect should not be such as to place an "an impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities." Not every claimed threat would automatically give rise to a right to protection. The Court found that the deciding factor should be whether "the authorities knew or ought to have known at the time of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified individual or individuals from the criminal acts of a third party." [38]

Duty to investigate attacks

If the authorities have been unable to prevent an attack against a media worker, they are obliged to investigate its circumstances and prosecute those responsible. The purpose of such an investigation should be, in the words of the HRC, to enable victims "to discover the truth about the acts committed, to learn who are the authors thereof and to obtain suitable compensation."[39] The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has stressed the importance to society as a whole of investigating attacks against the media. If this is not done, media workers may be deterred from performing their important task of informing the public, and ordinary citizens may also become more reluctant to denounce criminals or criticise public officials. In sum, an insufficient investigation "constitutes an incentive for all violators of human rights."[40]

To combat the risk that the authorities will conduct a sham investigation, the Inter-American Court has also specified criteria by which it will measure their sufficiency. Quoting jurisprudence from the ECHR, it has held that the investigation must be concluded within a reasonable time; three factors are crucial for deciding what is 'reasonable': a) the complexity of the matter; b) the judicial activity of the interested party; and c) the behaviour of the judicial authorities.[41] State authorities must take the initiative: the investigation "must … be assumed by the State as its own legal duty, not as a step taken by private interests which depends upon the initiative of the victim or his family or upon their offer of proof, without an effective search for the truth by the government."[42]

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has applied these principles in two similar cases before it involving violence against media workers. In Miranda v. Mexico, the Commission found that the authorities had made very little effort to investigate the murder of a journalist known for his criticism of the government. While the investigation remained technically open, little concrete action was being taken. The Commission found that this constituted a violation of the State's duty to investigate: "such an investigation lacks any meaning and is irremediably doomed to failure."[43]


[1] Compulsory Membership in an Association Prescribed by Law for the Practice of Journalism, Advisory Opinion OC-5/85 of 13 November 1985, Series A. No. 5, available online in English at http://www.corteidh.or.cr/serieapdf_ing/seriea_05_ing.pdf.

[2] Id., para. 69.

[3] Id., para. 76.

[4] Id., paras. 71-72.

[5] Id., para. 77.

[6] Id., para. 79.

[7] Kasoma v. Attorney General, 22 August 1997, 95/HP/29/59.

[8] Joint Declaration of 18 December 2003. To access this document, see the link in note 30.

[9] Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights during its 108th regular session, 19 October 2000, available online in English at http://www.cidh.oas.org/declaration.htm.

[10] See note 75.

[11] De Becker v. Belgium, 8 January 1960, Application No. 214/56 (European Commission on Human Rights).

[12] The Commission no longer exists but it used to act as the initial complaints body within the ECHR system for protecting human rights.

[13] Kaneko v. Japan, 23 Keishu 1490, SC (Grand Bench), 26 Nov. 1969 (translated in H. Itoh & L. Beer, The Constitutional Case Law of Japan (1978), 248).

[14] Gauthier v. Canada, 7 April 1999, Communication No. 633/1995, UN Doc. CCPR/C/65/D/633/1995, para. 13.6.

[15] See note 75.

[16] Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Follow-up Meeting 1986-1989, Vienna, 4 November 1986 to 19 January 1989, Concluding Document, para. 39.

[17] Goodwin v. the United Kingdom, 27 March 1996, Application No. 17488/90 (European Court of Human Rights), available through the link in note 23.

[18] Id., para. 39.

[19] Report No. A3-0434/93, published 18 January 1994, OJ C 44, p. 34.

[20] Recommendation No. R (2000)7 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the right of journalists not to disclose their sources of information, adopted 8 March 2000. To access this document, see the link at note 26.

[21] Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, Principle 8; see note 76.

[22] See note 29, Principle XV.

[23] Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Follow-up Meeting 1986-1989, Vienna, 4 November 1986 to 19 January 1989, Concluding Document, para. 40.

[24] See note 76.

[25] See note 90.

[26] See note 90.

[27] Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, note 29 above, Principle XV.

[28] As quoted in the Explanatory Memorandum, note 90, paras. 37-41.

[29] Edderkopp case, 15 January 1992, LNR 10/1992, JNR 34/1991, p. 39.

[30] Roemen and Schmit v. Luxembourg, 25 February 2003, Application No. 51772/99 (European Court of Human Rights), para. 57. For the Goodwin case, see section 6.1.6.1.

[31] Marcus v. Search Warrant, 367 U.S. 717 (1961), p. 730 -731.

[32] Ex parte the Guardian, the Observer and Martin Bright, [2001] 2 All ER 244, 262.

[33] Article 56-2, Criminal Procedure Code. See also, for example, Sections 97-98 of the German Criminal Procedure Code, Article 18.01(e) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

[34] ICCPR, Article 2. All regional human rights treaties contain a similar provision: see Article 1 of the ECHR; Article 2 of the ACHR; and Article 1 of the AChHPR. See also Article 13 of the ECHR and Article 25 of the ACHR, which require States to provide an 'effective remedy' for alleged violations and a right to judicial protection against violations.

[35] Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, note 29 above, Principle XI.

[36] Joint Declaration of 29-30 November 2000. To access this document, see the link in note 30.

[37] Osman v. the United Kingdom, 28 October 1998, Application No. 23452/94 (European Court of Human Rights), para. 115.

[38] Id., para. 116.

[39] United Nations Committee on Human Rights, Observations and Recommendations to the State of Guatemala, doc. CCPR/C/79/Add.63, para. 25.

[40] Miranda v. Mexico, Case 11.739, Report Nº 5/99, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.95 Doc. 7 rev., p. 755 (1998), para. 52.

[41] Genie Lacayo v. Nicaragua, 29 January 1997, Series C No. 30, para. 77. See also König v. Germany, 28 June 1978, Application No. 6232/73 (European Court of Human Rights), para. 99.

[42] Velásquez Rodriguez v. Honduras, 29 July 1988, Series C No. 4, para. 177.

[43] Miranda v. Mexico, note 114, para. 65. The Commission made a similar finding in the case of Oropeza v. Mexico, concerning a writer who had been murdered for his denunciations of links between police and drug traffickers: Case 11.740, Report Nº 130/99, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.106 Doc. 3 rev., p. 1058 (1999).

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