Back to main site


    Module 9: National Security

    Since the terror attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, an important focus of security legislation has been on countering terrorism.  In part, this reflects a genuine change in understanding the nature of threats to national security, seen also in the notion that terrorism or terrorist organisations are the objects of a “war.”  More generally, it serves as a rhetorical device whereby dissent — including critical media coverage — may be characterised as giving succour to terrorists.

    The UN Security Council has required member states to take a number of steps to combat terrorism.  One measure of particular relevance to the media is contained in Resolution 1624 of 2005, which was the first international instrument to address the issue of incitement to terrorism.  The preamble to Resolution 1624 condemns “incitement to terrorist acts” and repudiates “attempts at the justification or glorification (apologie) of terrorist acts that may incite further terrorist acts.”(1)

    Defining Terrorism

    One serious problem with legal restrictions on glorification (or even incitement) of terrorism is the lack of any commonly accepted definition of terrorism in international law.  Early counter‑terrorism treaties focused on the criminalisation of particular acts, such as hijacking aircraft, without using the term terrorism.  Later treaties, such as the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism,(2) do offer a definition, although this has no binding character beyond parties to the treaty.

    Many states, as well as entities such as the European Union, define terrorism by reference to certain organisations “listed” as terrorist entities.  This may hold particular dangers for the media in reporting the opinions and activities of such organisations, which they have a right to do.  In their 2008 Joint Declaration on Defamation of Religions, and Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Extremism Legislation,(3) the freedom of expression mandate-holders of the United Nations (UN), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Organisation of American States (OAS) stated:

    “The public has a right to know about the perpetration of acts of terrorism, or attempts thereat, and the media should not be penalised for providing such information.”(4)

    The United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on counter-terrorism and human rights has offered a definition of terrorism, based upon best practices worldwide, which focuses on the act of terror rather than the perpetrator:

    “Terrorism means an action or attempted action where:

    (1) The action:

    a. Constituted the intentional taking of hostages; or

    b. Is intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to one or more members of the general population or segments of it; or

    c. Involved lethal or serious physical violence against one or more members of the general population or segments of it; and

    (2) The action is done or attempted with the intention of:

    a. Provoking a state of terror in the general public or a segment of it; or

    b. Compelling a Government or international organization to do or abstain from doing something; and

    (3) The action corresponds to:

    a. The definition of a serious offence in national law, enacted for the purpose of complying with international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism or with resolutions of the Security Council relating to terrorism; or

    b. All elements of a serious crime defined by national law.”

    Sometimes expression on its own is deemed a threat to national security — and these situations are addressed under incitement.  For more detail on incitement, see Module 6 of this series on Hate Speech.

    Terrorism and Internet Shutdowns

    General Comment No. 34 on the ICCPR states that the media plays an important role in informing the public about acts of terrorism, and it should be able to perform its legitimate functions and duties without hindrance.(5) While some governments argue that internet shutdowns are necessary to ban the spread of news about terrorist attacks to prevent panic or copycat attacks, the UNSR on freedom of expression has instead found that maintaining connectivity may mitigate public safety concerns and help restore public order.(6) Indeed, in their 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet,(7) the freedom of expression mandate-holders stated:

    Cutting off access to the Internet, or parts of the Internet, for whole populations or segments of the public (shutting down the Internet) can never be justified, including on public order or national security grounds. The same applies to slow-downs imposed on the Internet or parts of the Internet.(8)


    1. UN Security Council, Resolution 1624 of 2005, (2005) (accessible at: Back
    2. International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism, article 2(1) (1999) Back
    3. Id. Back
    4. UN Human Rights Council, ‘General Comment no. 34 at para 46 (2011) (accessible at Back
    5. UN Human Rights Council, ‘2017 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’ at para. 14 (2017) (accessible at: Back
    6. Adopted 1 June 2011. Back