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15. The right to observe and record assemblies, including law enforcement operations

The presence of the journalists, monitors and other observers plays a key role in ensuring the accountability of security personnel during the management of large gatherings. The Grand Chamber of the ECtHR has held that the authorities should not deliberately prevent or hinder the media from covering a demonstration.[1]

In Pentikäinen v. Finland [ click for full case explanation ], it stated:

[T]he crucial role of the media in providing information on the authorities’ handling of public demonstrations and the containment of disorder must be underlined. The “watch-dog” role of the media assumes particular importance in such contexts since their presence is a guarantee that the authorities can be held to account for their conduct vis-à-vis the demonstrators and the public at large when it comes to the policing of large gatherings, including the methods used to control or disperse protesters or to preserve public order. Any attempt to remove journalists from the scene of demonstrations must therefore be subject to strict scrutiny.[2]

The IACtHR has similarly emphasized the role of journalists in holding the authorities to account. In Vélez Restrepo and Family v. Colombia, a reporter had filmed how members of the Colombian army were beating a defenseless protester during a demonstration. Several soldiers then attacked the journalist, causing serious injuries, attempting (unsuccessfully) to seize his cassette, and destroying his camera. The IACtHR found that:

[T]he content of the information that Mr. Vélez Restrepo was recording was of public interest. Mr. Vélez Restrepo captured images of soldiers involved in actions to control the demonstration … The dissemination of that information enabled those who saw it to observe and verify whether, during the demonstration, the members of the armed forces were performing their duties correctly, with an appropriate use of force. This Court has stressed that “[d]emocratic control by society, through public opinion, encourages transparency in the State’s actions and promotes the accountability of public officials in relation to their public functions.”[9]

The Court went on to conclude that the attack on Vélez Restrepo had violated his rights to personal integrity and to freedom of thought and expression. It also found various violations stemming from the State’s failure to meet its duty to investigate (see Assembly Section 14) the attack and act against subsequent threats and harassment directed against Vélez Restrepo.[10]

UN Special Rapporteurs and several regional human rights mechanisms have similarly emphasized that there is a right to observe and make recordings at assemblies and to disseminate these.[11]

When the authorities decide to disperse an assembly (see Assembly Section 13.4), those observing or recording should not be prevented from continuing to do so. The OSCE-ODIHR Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly state:

Third parties (such as monitors, journalists and photographers) may also be asked to disperse, but they should not be prevented from observing and recording the policing operation.[12]

The AComHPR takes a similar view.[13]


  1. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 114.
  2. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 89. See also Najafli v. Azerbaijan, ECtHR, Judgment of 2 October 2012, para. 66.
  3. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 114.
  4. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 97.
  5. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 98.
  6. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 104.
  7. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 101.
  8. Pentikäinen v. Finland, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 20 October 2015, para. 114.
  9. Vélez Restrepo and Family v. Colombia, IACtHR, Judgment of September 3, 2012, para. 145.
  10. Vélez Restrepo and Family v. Colombia, IACtHR, Judgment of September 3, 2012, p. 89.
  11. See UN Human Rights Council, Joint report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on the proper management of assemblies, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/66, 4 February 2016, para. 71; IACHR, Annual Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression 2005, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.124 Doc. 7, 27 February 2006, p. 145, para. 101; OSCE-ODIHR and Venice Commission, Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, 2nd edn, 2010, Guidelines 5.9 and 5.10 and Explanatory Notes, paras. 169 and and 206-10; Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Special Report on handling of the media during political demonstrations, 21 June 2007, p. 2; Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 2116 (2016), 27 May 2016, para. 7.11.
  12. OSCE-ODIHR and Venice Commission, Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, 2nd edn, 2010, Explanatory Notes, para. 168.
  13. AComHPR, Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa, 4 March 2017, para. 22.7.
  14. Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 8 November 2016, paras. 165-68.
  15. IACtHR, Compulsory Membership in an Association Prescribed by Law for the Practice of Journalism (Arts. 13 and 29 of the American Convention on Human Rights), Advisory Opinion OC-5/85, November 13, 1985, paras. 74-81.
  16. UN Human Rights Council, Joint report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on the proper management of assemblies, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/66, 4 February 2016, para. 71.
  17. See British Broadcasting Corporation v. the United Kingdom, EComHR, Decision of 18 January 1996; Sanoma Uitgevers B.V. v. the Netherlands, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 14 September 2010, para. 60.
  18. UN Human Rights Council, Joint report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on the proper management of assemblies, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/66, 4 February 2016, para. 71; see also OSCE-ODIHR and Venice Commission, Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, 2nd edn, 2010, Explanatory Notes, para. 169 (“any requirement to surrender film or digitally recorded images or footage to the law-enforcement agencies should be subject to prior judicial scrutiny”).
  19. British Broadcasting Corporation v. the United Kingdom, EComHR, Decision of 18 January 1996; Nordisk Film & TV A/S v. Denmark, ECtHR, Decision of 8 December 2005.