The above instruments provide a number of guarantees for the freedom of expression, but this right is also counterbalanced by the right of the state to establish limitations for the sake of morality, public order, and general welfare:
In the above instruments, one’s freedom of expression is subject to the following limitations:
‘For the purpose of morality, public order, and general welfare’ (UNHR, Article 29);
‘For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals’ (ICCPR, Article 19);
‘In the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary’ (ECHR, Article 10); and
‘To ensure the protection of national security, public order, or public health or morals’ (ACHR, Article 13).
Thus, both the discussion and implementation of the right to freedom of expression must be put in the context of establishing a proper balance between the right and its limitations.
One of the main issues is that the limitations are open to many different interpretations of norms and ultimately different implementations. As a result, in many countries, the right is often curtailed through governmental online censorship and content control. In some cases, governments go as far as shutting down Internet access for regions or even for the entire country.
What are the reasons governments give for limiting the right to freedom of expression? There is a wide range of justifications, including protests, elections, and exams. In 2019, for instance, in various regions in India, access was interrupted over 100 times, due to protests mainly against the Citizenship Amendment Act. In Iran, the Internet was shut down due to protests over fuel subsidies cuts that hiked prices for consumers. In Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon, access was suspended during elections. In Ethiopia, Internet was cut off as a measure to counter cheating during national secondary school final exams.
A study by the Geneva Internet Platform in August 2019 confirmed that there has been an increase in partial and widespread Internet restrictions in recent years, and that there have been more shutdowns in 2019 than any other year.
Read more: Internet shutdowns: Mapping Internet restrictions and their implications (Digital Watch Newsletter, Issue 42)