Canada Human Rights Foundation Conference On The Media

By Paige Fairlie

John Peters Humphrey’s speech, “Canadian Human Rights Foundation Conference on the Media”, focuses on the significance of the media as a vehicle for the production of information for the general public. The media can be an instrument of not only freedom but also of power, and it is therefore an instrument that can be abused.  Humphrey emphasizes that individuals have the right to freely hold opinions without interference. As such, he argues that freedom of information must be protected and the truth must be told without prejudice. Any regulation the media must therefore strike a difficult balance. In his “Conference on the Media” speech, Humphrey concentrates on the tension around regulating freedom of information specifically the power that the state takes over the media.

In providing a historical overview, Humphrey characterizes freedom of information as advanced by the United Nations and UNESCO as major disappointments. In 1948, the United Nations Conference on the Freedom of Information was held in Geneva. A miracle was said to have occurred when Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was later adopted. However, it was not a total victory. The term “public order” was added to the article, recognizing the legitimacy of restricting the exercise and enjoyment of freedom of information in different situations. Humphrey notes that in the United Kingdom, interviews by the media with suspected members of the I.R.A are prohibited by law. Humphrey states that the delegate of Spain to the General Assembly saw a resemblance between public order and raison d’état, which would mean that there would be little limit on what the state could do when it came to interfering with freedom of information. Humphrey believed that the two governments in these examples had misunderstood the meaning of public order.

In his speech, Humphrey emphasized the relationship between the state and media, and specifically the regulation of freedom of information. This was an issue in 1948 and approximately 70 years later it is still a major issue. Governments hold masses of important information and they hold this information on behalf of the public. This situation does not mean that the public has access to all of the government’s information holdings. In 2013, an example of tension between the power of the state and freedom of information affected the whole world. Edward Snowden, an American computer professional who was working for the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, copied classified information from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) without prior authorization. The information he obtained revealed numerous global surveillance programs run the NSA, including programs that surveilled American citizens. After fleeing the country, he shared this information with writers from many American journals. Snowden’s revelations forced the NSA, which is one of the nation’s most secretive organizations, to publicly explain itself. Since then, there have been traceable increases in the general public’s knowledge about the United States government’s cyber security initiatives as well as an increased awareness of how those initiatives have impacted the privacy of individuals, businesses and foreign governments (Peev 2015). Snowden influenced the freedom of information issue for the American population by forcing the state to become more transparent.

Information held by public authorities is not acquired for the benefit of officials or politicians but for the public as a whole. John Peters Humphrey had been working on this issue since 1948 at the United Nations Conference on the Freedom of Information, and even 70 years later, there are still cases of power struggles between the media and the state, which interferes with the freedom of information for the general population.


Peev, Gerri. “MEPs hail Snowden as Human Rights Hero.” Mail Online (2015). Accessed February 22, 2016.


Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.