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Freedom of expression is often restricted in conflicts

Sally Longworth is a doctoral student in public international law and does research on freedom of expression and propaganda in connection with armed conflicts, among other things. Read her views on the war in Ukraine.

Photo: Neydstock / Mostphotos

Research shows that parties to armed conflict often impose measures limiting or restricting the means of expression, including restrictions on expressing opinions in favour of the opponent, even down to bans on specific words.

“There are countless examples of this throughout history, but one example that does stand out is the experiences of those living in Germany and German occupied territories during the Second World War. Individuals who try to exercise their right to freedom of expression are vulnerable to further violations of their rights based on this,” says Sally Longworth, doctoral student in public international law at Stockholm University. 

She adds that this was extremely telling during the conflict in Iraq in 2003, which marked a turning point in the number of deaths of journalists in conflict. 

Violations of the right to freedom of expression have been raised as a concern since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine in 2014.

“The actions seen within recent days need to be understood against the backdrop of these violations. This has contributed to creating a significant mistrust in events and information, spreading fear and uncertainty among the civilian population.”

Cyber operations make transparency difficult

Last weeks, there have been numerous reports of cyber operations against Ukrainian government websites and banks. The combination of blocking access to other information sources and manipulation of information available amplifies the problems created by these activities. 

“This is of course particularly concerning for those affected within the area of the conflict, but is also of grave concern for those outside the conflict area trying to verify if the parties to the conflict are upholding their obligations to respect international humanitarian law,” says Sally Longworth. 

Information blocked in Russian-controlled areas

Within Crimea free access to information has been restricted through a variety of measures, including requirements for media and journalists to register with the Russian authorities, blocking access to alternative information sources and prosecuting individuals who voice critique against the occupation from the beginning of the occupation. Similar measures have been introduced by armed groups in control of territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as violent suppression of individuals trying to exercise their right to freedom of expression, such as journalists and bloggers. In addition to restrictions on local journalists, foreign journalists have difficulties accessing and reporting on events in these areas. 

“The civilian population are therefore left in a very vulnerable position. Similarly, there are other violations and concerns relating to the population in Russia,” says Sally Longworth.

Legal opportunities to hold states accountable for restricting freedom of expression

Sally Longworth says that Ukraine has been using diplomatic channels to encourage other states and international organisations to use the means available to put pressure on Russia. In addition, Ukraine lodged a claim with the International Court of Justice. The International Criminal Court announced they will be investigating potential international crimes committed in the conflict. Individual states, regional and international organisations have already implemented a wide range of measures to put pressure on Russia to stop its aggression. For example, Russia has been suspended from rights of representation in the Council of Europe. 

“Armed conflict constitutes a threat to the international peace and security of all states, and as such, the United Nations has a pivotal role, together with all of its members states. NATO has also responded by activating its Response Force as a defensive measure, the first time it has done so. In addition, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has played an important role in monitoring and mediating the conflict, and will no doubt/hopefully continue to do so in these latest tragic developments,” says Sally Longworth.

Sanctions and aid to address the situation in Ukraine

States are sending both financial and humanitarian aid, and military assistance through equipment and ammunition. States and organisations have also imposed numerous measures to address the situation, including closing their airspace to Russian flights. Sanctions have also been imposed in an effort to address interferences with the right to freedom of expression, including banning Russian state-backed media channels. 

“These are exceptional circumstances where a state has breached one of the cardinal rules of international law. This means all states have an obligation to address the situation, and provides more opportunities for them to do so in comparison to other situations,” says Sally Longworth. 

States also continue to use diplomatic channels and statements to condemn the actions that have taken place, and put pressure on the parties to the conflict to negotiate a ceasefire. 

“These measures are important examples of state practice in international customary law, indicating what states consider is the legal position and, in and of themselves, a means of holding other states to account for their actions. This is also one of the ways in which states develop international law”, says Sally Longworth.

For individuals, in addition to domestic routes of redress, both Ukraine and Russia are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights. Numerous inter-state applications have already been lodged before the European Court of Human Rights since 2014, together with thousands of applications by individuals, claiming relief for breaches of human rights related to the armed conflict. More are likely to follow the latest hostilities.

“The oversight of the court is essential in upholding the human rights obligations of member states, and provides an important and effective avenue for redress for victims of human rights violations”, says Sally Longworth. 

What further legal restrictions do you think may be relevant?

“IHL offers further protections to individuals seeking to exercise their right to freedom of expression in the current circumstances. In addition to the obligation to protect and respect journalists and to treat journalists captured accompanying the armed forces as prisoners of war, there are multiple obligations that provide complementary, additional protections to those under the protection of freedom of expression under international human rights law. These include the prohibition of arresting, the prohibition of threatening that there be no survivors and the prohibition of prosecuting or convicting protected persons in occupation for acts done or opinions expressed before the occupation or during an interruption thereof, to name a few”, says Sally Longworth.

Researchers in law: Russia is violating international law 
Stockholm Centre for International Law and Justice