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    The Scope of National Security

    Module 9: National Security

    “Freedom of expression” and “national security” are very often seen as principles or interests that are inevitably opposed to each other. Governments often invoke national security as a rationale for violating freedom of expression, particularly media freedom. Yet national security remains a genuine public good — and without it, media freedom would scarcely be possible. On the other hand, governments are seldom inclined to recognise that media freedom may actually be a means to ensure better national security by exposing abuses in the security sector. In South Africa, for example, media revelations about abuse in the police and military led to reforms that arguably make for improved national security.(1)

    The Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the ICCPR (Siracusa Principles) define a legitimate national security interest as one that aims “to protect the existence of the nation or its territorial integrity or political independence against force or threat of force.”(2) Subsequent articles indicate that a national security limitation “cannot be invoked as a reason for imposing limitations to prevent merely local or relatively isolated threats to law and order.”

    The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has repeatedly limited the scope of a national security limitation in similar terms.  For example:

    “For the purpose of protecting national security, the right to freedom of expression and information can be restricted only in the most serious cases of a direct political or military threat to the entire nation.”(3)

    In a similar vein, the Johannesburg Principles define a national security interest as being:

    “To protect a country’s existence or its territorial integrity against the use or threat of force, or its capacity to respond to the use or threat of force, whether from an external source, such as a military threat, or an internal source, such as incitement to violent overthrow of the government.”(4)


    1. Katie Trippe, ‘Pandemic policing: South Africa’s most vulnerable face a sharp increase in police-related brutality’ for Atlantic Council, (2020) (accessible at: Back
    2. United Nations Economic and Social Council, ‘Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,’ Principle 29 (1985) (accessible at: Back
    3. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the nature and scope of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and restrictions and limitations to the right to freedom of expression,’ (1995) (accessible at: Back
    4. Johannesburg Principles above no. 17 at Principle 2(a). Back