As well as being protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), free expression is protected under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty the UK ratified in 1976. It is similar to Article 10 of the ECHR, protecting the right to freedom of expression and the right to hold opinions. These rights can be restricted to protect national security, public order and the rights of others. The United Nations Human Rights Committee issued guidance on the interpretation of Article 19 in its General Comment No 34, adopted in 2011. On counter-terrorism laws, it said:
States parties should ensure that counter-terrorism measures are compatible with paragraph 3 [of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. Such offences as “encouragement of terrorism” and “extremist activity” as well as offences of “praising”, “glorifying”, or “justifying” terrorism should be clearly defined to ensure that they do not lead to unnecessary or disproportionate interference with freedom of expression. Excessive restrictions on access to information must also be avoided. The media plays a crucial role in informing the public about acts of terrorism and its capacity to operate should not be unduly restricted. In this regard, journalists should not be penalised for carrying out their legitimate activities.
The General Principles of the 2016 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Countering Violent Extremism, written by the four inter-governmental mandate holders on freedom of expression, state:
Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, especially on matters of public concern, including issues relating to violence and terrorism, as well as to comment on and criticise the manner in which states and politicians respond to these phenomena.
Any restrictions on freedom of expression should comply with the standards for such restrictions recognised under international human rights law.
In his 2016 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights said:
[It] must remain clear that simply holding or peacefully expressing views that are considered “extreme” under any definition should never be criminalised, unless they are associated with violence or criminal activity. The peaceful pursuance of a political, or any other, agenda – even where that agenda is different from the objectives of the government and considered to be “extreme” – must be protected. Governments should counter ideas they disagree with, but should not seek to prevent non-violent ideas and opinions from being discussed.
The report added:
The Human Rights Committee has highlighted that offences of “praising”, “glorifying” or “justifying” terrorism must be clearly defined to ensure that they do not lead to unnecessary or disproportionate interferences with freedom of expression. The Secretary-General has deprecated the “troubling trend” of criminalising the glorification of terrorism, considering it to be an inappropriate restriction on expression.