Freedom Of Information Must Be Used Responsibly, says Human Rights Pioneer

Is access to independent information a fundamental human right? Stéphane Hessel, former French ambassador to the UN commission on human rights, in conversation with Dominique Jaccard.

Dominique Jaccard: Do we still need to fight for freedom of information in this world of the Internet so saturated with information?

Stéphane Hessel: I think we need to distinguish between the concept of freedom of information as a fundamental right, and the question of whether channels of information are independent. Because given what freedom of information has come to mean, it can be very manipulative. I am wary of freedom of information that has no ethics, no principles of independence or professionalism. If everyone has it, bad forces as well as good, then it’s freedom without rules. This in my view is where journalists, men and women of the media need to take care that they are impartial in the way they report on a subject. We need media with scruples. I think that unscrupulous media serving any cause just because they think it’s great to be able to broadcast information, well they are dangerous. So we need to defend the fundamental freedom that is enshrined in international texts. I was one of those that helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and freedom of information is one of the fundamental rights contained therein. But we have learned over the last decades how such freedom can be dangerous in the hands of non-professionals and when it is used to serve political or economic ideologues that cause harm to people.

DJ:  Do you think these fundamental rights are more or less respected than in the past?

SH: I think the history of human societies is filled with ups and downs. But with the ethnic, religious and other conflicts that have developed in recent years I have the impression that we risk living in a world in crisis. This crisis affects especially these fundamental rights including freedom of information. And you are right to ask whether we are in a period of progress or regression. Overall, I think we are in a long period of progress. If you look at how the world was when I was young and how it is now, there have been enormous changes for the better. But in the last two decades I also see that some things have regressed, and I am concerned particularly that there are a certain number of States, as well as economic and financial forces that don’t care about fundamental human rights but only about their own power and profit. And we need to be very vigilant about this.