Free speech protection for ‘public watchdogs’ in international law

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesOral presentation


A free press that imparts information in the public interest free from arbitrary state interference is a necessary component of a well-functioning democracy. Since its early case law, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has recognised that the press acts as a ‘public watchdog’ (PW) due to its function of providing accurate and reliable information on matters of serious public concern. Recently, the ECtHR extended PW status beyond traditional media and press outlets, to encompass a broader range of speakers (including NGOs, academics, social media pundits and others) in recognition of their role in imparting information to the public. The term is not merely a rhetorical flourish. Assigning PW status to a speaker has important legal effects in the ECHR framework, as PWs enjoy significant benefits under freedom of expression compared to other, 'ordinary' speakers. The expansion of the speakers who enjoy PW status signifies a move towards a more functional approach – a recognition that some of the freedoms the press enjoys should also be accessible to other actors carrying out similar functions. Unlike the ECtHR’s case law, the jurisprudence on ICCPR Article 19 in the context of PWs is underdeveloped. This is striking in the sense that the Human Rights Committee has often been at the forefront of interpreting human rights protections in light of the evolving dimensions of technology and accountability in the globalised community of states. This paper will examine the lack of an equivalent ICCPR PW formulation in the context of: (1) identifying those speakers who impart information in the public interest; and (2) tailoring free speech protection to the speakers’ respective needs. On this basis, the paper explores whether the ECtHR’s approach should be adopted in broader international human rights jurisprudence.
Period3 Sept 2022
Event titleAssociation of Human Rights Institutes 2022: Technology and the future of human rights
Event typeConference
LocationPretoria, South AfricaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Freedom of expression
  • Public watchdogs
  • Human Rights