Freedom of Expression vs. Honour: Your rights end where mine begin

Let’s share the story of a friend of mine:

She was born in a small and humble home of a little town, but she wanted to be somebody, to succeed in life, so she worked really hard for her dreams. That’s how she was able to go to school, but this wasn´t enough for her. She wanted to go to high school, but in her little town there were none.

Determinate to overcome her limits, she moved to a large city in order to continue with her studies and by the end of her final year she made up her mind: she wanted to be a teacher. This looked almost impossible, considering her economic background. Nevertheless, during those same years she did put in lots of efforts to improve herself and her community.

All those years of hard work were rewarded: her excellence awarded her with a scholarship so she was able to study her dreamed carrier. Years passed and she contributed a lot to the educational community. She even became the Principal of one of the biggest educational institutions of the city. Her humble beginnings were not an excuse for her.

Really inspirational right? But the story does not end here. Many people desired her position[1], and they were capable of doing anything following the famous phrase “end justifies means”. By using their connections, they were able to spread all kinds of infamies and lies about her, which by the magic of the sensationalist press, it was extended like wildfire which damaged her reputation and honour… Really unfair and sad, isn’t it?

There are a lot of rights involved in this story. The problem is how to balance them. On one hand, the Right to Honour and Reputation was damaged. Journalists claim that they have the right to freedom of the press and the one was who actually said something that wasn’t true to damage the good name of the woman, claims the right to freedom of expression. Yes! We all have rights. But there is a principle by which your right ends when other’s rights begin.

The art. 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says that “No one shall be subjected… to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks”. And the article 19 establishes “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”[2].  As you can see, there is a thin line between those rights.

If you read the websites of international organizations, you will find that they tend to protect more the right to freedom of expression, and they even recommend that “calumny and defamation”[3] should be removed from criminal law. Criminal Law penalties, besides punishing the wrongdoers, have a preventive purpose[4]: to avoid the repetition of the crimes through warning or intimidation[5]. “The object of civil sanction is the redress of wrongs by compelling compensation or restitution, the wrongdoer is not punished”[6]. That’s why there are people against protecting this right only with civil sanctions.

The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression states that: “Protection of reputation should be guaranteed only through civil sanctions, in cases where the offended person is a public official or a public or private person who has engaged voluntarily in matters of public interest…” So if you want to contribute to your country by working in public function or you are involved in matters of public interest, just get ready. People will be able to damage your reputation easily, because civil sanctions are not as intimidating as criminal law penalties.People will tell you to be ready for the attacks and lies others are going to say about you. “It’s always like that”, “that’s how it works” and “you just have to ignore them”; with this phrases people tell you “DO NOT DEFEND YOUR RIGHTS”.

It’s true that a lot of politicians use this juridical figure to persecute journalists who publish acts of corruption that they have carried out[7]. But it must be with accurate information, because Freedom of Expression has its limits. And those limit should be clearly defined.

Freedom of Expression and the right to Honour and Reputation are human rights. They are confronted on many occasions, so mechanisms should be sought both to balance and protect these rights.

[1] Referred to the position of “principal of an educational institution”

[2] United Nations website. Link:

[3] These two juridical figures are mentioned according to the Paraguayan system, it may be some differences in the denomination or specific characteristics in other countries.

[4]Quoted in: Rivacova y Rivacova, Manual of Function and Application of Penalty, Ed. Depalma 1993, Pág. 18, of the book: Problems of the Penalty, Recife, 1958, Pag. 342

[5]Feuerbach.German jurist of the early nineteenth century. For him, the purpose of imposing a penalty lies in the foundation of the effectiveness of the criminal threat, since without this threat would be ineffective. Quoted in: en http://www.bahaid/lapluma/derecho/revista002/

[6] Link:

[7]Referred to politicians.




Antonella Méndez is an educator, environmentalist and agent of change. She holds a Bachelor Degree in International Trade and she is graduating this year (2017) with a Professional Law Degree at the National University of Asunción. She is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Law and she is member of the research committee at university.  She is host of a live TV program about analysis and debate of general interest topics.

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