The introduction by the cross party agreement of statutory provisions supporting a Royal Charter setting up a “Recognition Panel” (see our post here) has led, once again, to complaints that any political involvement in press regulation – however indirect – is incompatible with press freedom. For example, the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, Kirsty Hughes, has argued that
“If press freedom,and freedom of expression, are to be respected as fundamental rights, politicians should not vote on specific laws and rules aimed at the press”.
This is a surprising contention bearing in mind that broadcasters are subject to statutory regulation and a new provision – section 12 – was inserted into the Human Rights Act 1998 to protect freedom of expression.
But even statutory provision which directly deals with regulation of the press is not contrary to any internationally recognised human rights principle relating to freedom of expression. Examples can be provided from countries which are generally recognised to have an exemplary free press. The NGO “Reporters without Borders” compiles a “Worldwide Press Freedom Index“. The first country on the list – in other words that assessed as having the freest press in the world is Finland. The United Kingdom is at number 29.
Finland has a media statute. This is the 2004 “Act on the Exercise of Freedom of Expression in the Mass Media“. The objective of the Act is described as being to make “more detailed provisions on the exercise, in the media, of the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution”.
By section 4 of the Act a publisher must
designate a responsible editor for a periodical or a network publication. The broadcaster shall designate a responsible editor for a program. Also several responsible editors may be designated for periodicals, network publications and programs.
The responsible editor has a duty to direct and supervise editorial work, to decide on the contents of a periodical, network publication or program, and to see to the other tasks assigned to him or her by the Act.
A publication must disclose the identity of the publisher and of the “responsible editor” (section 5). These duties are backed by criminal sanctions and a fine may be imposed for a breach of them (section 21)
The Act provides for a right to reply and a right to correction
Section 8 — Right to reply
A private individual, who has a justified reason to consider that a message contained in a periodical, network publication or a comparable program that is broadcast on a repeated basis is offensive, has the right to have a reply published in the same publication or program.
Section 9 — Right to correction
A private individual, a corporation, a foundation and a public authority have the right to have erroneous information on them or their operations contained in a periodical, network publication or program corrected in the same publication or in a program by the broadcaster in question, unless such correction is manifestly unnecessary owing to the minor significance of the error.
The publisher has a correlative duty to publish the reply or correction (section 10).
The demand for the publication of a reply or correction must be made in writing within 14 days of publication (section 11). If the publication rejects this demand it must be done in writing within 7 days. If the demand is refused
“The person presenting the demand has the right to submit the issue of whether the preconditions for the right of reply or correction have been met for consideration by [the Court] … . no later than 30 days after the reception of the written notification of the reasons for the rejection. In the event that the District Court orders the responsible editor to comply with his or her duties under section 10, the court may reinforce the order by imposing a threat of a fine” (section 11).
The Act imposes criminal sanctions on “responsible editors”, so that
If the responsible editor intentionally or negligently fails in an essential manner in his or her duty to manage and supervise editorial work, and the failure is conducive to the occurrence of an offence arising from the contents of a message provided to the public, and the offence occurs without him or her being considered the perpetrator or accomplice, the responsible editor shall be convicted of editorial misconduct and sentenced to a fine (section 13)
The Act goes on to make express provision for confidentiality of sources and right to anonymous expression (section 16).
It is clear from the position in Finland that a statutory framework for the media is not, of itself, inimical to press freedom. Rights and responsibilities can be expressly set out – to the benefit of both press and public.
In Denmark (number 6 on the list) has a “Media Liability Act”, which establishes by law, a “Press Council” – the chairman and vice chairman of which are lawyers, appointed on the recommendation of the President of the Supreme Court.
The Press Council can receive complaints against newspapers and
“may direct the editor of the mass media against which the complaint has been lodged soonest possible to publish a decision to an extent specified by the Council. Such a publication shall be made without comments and in any such conspicuous manner as may reasonably be demanded” (section 49).
The website of the Danish Press Council has information in English on the system.
In Ireland (number 15 on the list) there is a statutory provision in section 44 of the Defamation Act 2009 for the recognition of a “Press Council” – which meets certain minimum requirements. As is well known, this body has been established (its website is here) whose members include the Irish Daily Mail, the Irish Daily Mirror, the Irish Daily Star, and the Irish Sun.
All these countries are subject to the European Convention on Human Rights – and indeed, incorporate it into their domestic law. None of these statutory regimes has been found to have been incompatible with the right to freedom of expression or the rights of the media. As we have said, Reporters without Borders believe that each of these countries has a press which is freer than that in the United Kingdom.