Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression is the bedrock of a thriving civil society. It allows people to formulate and exchange ideas, encourages transparency and accountability, and facilitates the promotion and protection of human rights and civic space.

ICNL works with its global network of partners to strengthen freedom of expression and combat threats to this fundamental right. Restrictive legislation, often justified on the grounds of national security, can limit individuals’ ability to speak their mind, criticize government policies, and report on current events. ICNL helps local partners understand threats to freedom of expression and provides them with tools and assistance to ensure that domestic legislation complies with international law. Our aim is to enable people to share their thoughts and opinions without fear of prosecution or retribution.

Key Resources

UNSR on the promotion & protection of the right to freedom of opinion & expression

The UN Special Rapporteur makes recommendations on how to best promote and protect freedom of expression. This includes gathering information relating to violations of this right, as well as discrimination against, threats or use of violence, harassment directed at the exercise of the freedom of expression. Opinions of the Special Rapporteur are considered persuasive interpretations of existing international human rights law.

Restrictions on a Foundational Right

This report outlines the fundamental elements of freedom of expression, including the conditions that must be met to ensure that any effort to restrict freedom complies with international law. It then discusses several national laws and evaluates the extent to which they restrict freedom of expression.

Responding to the Disinformation Dilemma

While disinformation is not a new problem, the digital age has created new threats. This ICNL policy prospectus examines legal and regulatory measures that can address the evolving challenges of disinformation while protecting the freedom of expression.

COVID-19: The Surveillance Pandemic

Some governments have incorporated surveillance technology into their efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19. While the use of all the tools at hand is understandable, emergencies do not obviate states’ obligations to consider the broader societal and human rights effects of these measures.

Protecting Activists from Abusive Litigation

In this report, ICNL presents the first cross-regional survey of SLAPPs in the Global South, along with the first rigorous comparative analysis of anti-SLAPP policy responses undertaken in both the Global North and South.

Closing Space in Higher Education

Higher education institutions around the world face increasing limitations on their autonomy. This report explores the ways in which states use legislative, regulatory, and other approaches to close academic space. In examining the ways in which restrictions are applied, the report seeks to help universities and other stakeholders reduce interference and maintain their independence.

Civic Freedoms in the Middle East & North Africa

This 2018 in-depth study assesses the effect of formal and informal restrictions on the viability of civil society organizations in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, including a focus on freedom of expression. The report is available in English and Arabic.

Elections and Freedom of Expression

Report on the realization of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in electoral contexts

This July 2014 report describes the international legal framework protecting the freedom of expression in electoral contexts, highlighting specific concerns such as direct attacks on journalists, activists, and political candidates and groups during elections, state interference in media content, and the need for pluralism in media. The report also includes recommendations for best practices for the protection of freedom of expression in electoral contexts.

Joint Declaration Freedom of Expression and Elections in the Digital Age

This April 2020 joint declaration by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Representative on Freedom of Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Election notes with concern the violence and restrictions against the media during election periods, and outlines recommendations to states and non-state actors to protect and promote the freedom of expression in elections in the digital age.

The Carter Center’s Election Obligations & Standards Database

This page outlines state obligations to protect the freedom of expression during elections. Each issue page includes specific links to international legal standards where relevant.

All Freedom of Expression Resources

Guidelines for Policing Post-Election Protests in the US

'I Voted' sticker spool on top of a ballot envelope. Stickers have an American flag on them and are in English and Spanish. (GPA PHOTO ARCHIVE/Flickr)
In the face of a potentially contested 2020 US election, there are concerns that authorities ... Read More

Threats to Artistic Freedom in Uganda

National ballet dancers perform at the Rwanda Uganda Business Forum Dinner - Kigali, 11 October 2013 (Paul Kagame/Flickr)
Uganda's recent Stage Play and Public Entertainment Rules threaten to stifle the creative arts by ... Read More

Hong Kong’s New Security Law

Protesters in Hong Kong getting arrested by police, July 2020. (Photo: Studio Incendo/Wikimedia)
The passage of Hong Kong’s new National Security Law threatens to upend civic freedoms and ... Read More

Protecting Activists from Abusive Litigation

Protecting Activists from Abusive Litigation
In this report, ICNL presents the first cross-regional survey of SLAPPs in the Global South, ... Read More

Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets, and Sonic Weapons

George Floyd protests in Philadelphia (Photo: Rob Bulmahn/Flickr)
In response to nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, law enforcement officials have ... Read More

Top Trends: COVID-19 and Civic Space

Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020. (Photo: Office of Tom Wolf/Flickr)
The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a parallel crisis for civic space. Many of the emergency ... Read More
Explore our full resource collection, which includes reports, legal analysis, and curated collections of materials covering an array of issues impacting civic space around the world.