Media, Corporate Responsibility and Free Speech with Prof Sarah Joseph


On August 9th, Professor Sarah Joseph gave a lecture on Media, Corporate Responsibility and Free Speech at the AHRCentre. The focus was on applying the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to the media industry and how, in their current state, these principles are conceptually inadequate to deal with the human rights responsibilities of the contemporary media.  

According to Professor Joseph, the media routinely contributes to, or is complicit in human rights abuses. To elucidate this point, Joseph drew on the example of Terry Jones, a US pastor who publically burned the Koran in 2011. Jones was given extensive media coverage, which arguably played a hand in fuelling the violent protests that ensued in Afghanistan, which led to vicious murders of UN staff.  This example brought to the fore the media’s unique relationship with free speech and the elevated status of this right above others in the context of reporting.  There is an almost paradoxical dilemma that inheres in cases such as Terry Jones, where it could be argued that there is a duty not to report due to the foreseeable consequences of doing so. Yet imposing such an obligation equates to “muzzling the media”, representing both a disservice to human rights and a contravention of State duties under international human rights law.

Professor Joseph posited that the Guiding Principles are not robust enough to address situations where a business has countervailing rights and obligations, such as the clash between free speech and the rights of others in the Terry Jones scenario. And this inadequacy may extend to rights beyond freedom of speech, and industries beyond the media. At the very least, a dialogue should commence between media representatives and human rights networks with regard to potential media human rights responsibilities. The current invisibility of one of the world’s most important industries from the business human rights debate should not continue.


With thanks to Jess Clarke (AHRCentre intern) and Prof Sarah Joseph for this summary.


Photo © DM2016 of Prof Sarah Joseph