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Backsliding on freedom of expression around the world needs to end

‘Once voices are silenced, autocracy is easy work.’

Protesters demonstrating on 17 February 2021 against last year's military coup in Myanmar. Freedom of expression has been quashed in the country since the military took power, part of a broader global decline.
Protesters demonstrating on 17 February 2021 against last year's military coup in Myanmar. Freedom of expression has been quashed in the country since the military took power, part of a broader global decline. (STR/NurPhoto)

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Internet blackouts. Strategic lawsuits against journalists. Regulations restricting the activities of NGOs. The weaponisation of health and security policies. These are all strategies that governments around the world are increasingly using to curtail the right to dissent, protest, and even just access information. 

 

The data is clear: 80 percent of the world’s population lives with less freedom of expression than they had a decade ago, according to this year’s The Global Expression Report, which I authored, working with statistician Nicole Steward-Streng. The report is published annually by Article 19, a NGO that promotes freedom of expression around the world.

 

Our research this year shows that only seven percent of people live in a country where freedom of expression has improved over the last decade, and more than one third – or 2.6 billion people – live in countries where it is in crisis. 

 

 

Myanmar and Afghanistan saw the largest ever declines in freedom of expression scores last year. This followed a military coup in the former, and the return of the Taliban to power after two decades of insurgency in the latter. In both cases, the new regimes severely limited freedom of the press, social space for activism, and access to information.

 

 

While the scores have not been tabulated since Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, both countries are expected to suffer similar plunges this year: Armed conflict is a catastrophe for freedom of expression – without exception. 

 

While these dramatic events naturally make headlines, less attention is paid to the slow-marching decline of freedom of expression over time. 

Armed conflict is a catastrophe for freedom of expression – without exception.

Freedom of expression and democracy are intimately linked, and both are deteriorating on a global scale. State restrictions on free speech are a clear sign that a government is turning away from its people. And once voices are silenced, autocracy is easy work.

 

The slow reduction of freedom of expression is most marked in the Americas, where countries like Colombia, El Salvador, and Brazil, have seen sustained declines over time as institutions have been eroded and the environment for organisation, civic action, and dissent has been constricted. Hungary and Poland have also seen a steady deterioration of their scores. 

 

These types of declines might happen more slowly, and without violence and upheaval, but they can be just as severe for the people living through them. 

 

Slow erosion 

 

Varieties of Democracy, or VDem, is a research initiative that uses hundreds of indicators to measure how robust a given democracy is. Their data shows us that attacks on free expression are often the first step in a democratic backslide, and are frequently followed by the erosion of democratic institutions and then the undermining of elections.

 

The downward trajectory often starts with restrictions on the press, internet censorship, suppression of protests, or the murder of activists with no accountability. Once on this path, the destination is clear: democratic decline.

 

The career of Russian President Vladimir Putin provides a clear example of how the decline progresses. Since he took office in 2000, Putin has been eroding the space for public debate in Russia. He moved from dismantling independent media and establishing discursive control to eroding governing institutions, centralising power, and ensuring his permanence in leadership via a referendum and elections where the outcomes were largely predetermined. 

 

 

Putin’s efforts have been repeated on a smaller scale across the globe: The level of democracy enjoyed by the average citizen around the world in 2021 has regressed to 1989 levels: 70 percent of the global population lives under dictatorships, according to VDem’s data. That’s a rise of 20 percent over the past decade. 

 

If this trend continues, we risk reaching a tipping point where enough countries are governed by autocrats and dictators, who support and bolster one another economically and in the international arena, that sanctions will become ineffective and that international governance and human rights bodies will be undermined and diluted to the point of futility. 

The level of democracy enjoyed by the average citizen around the world in 2021 has regressed to 1989 levels.

The effort to suppress free expression by anti-democratic regimes is also not limited to within their borders. We have seen abductions and the kidnapping of journalists and dissidents across borders and the abuse of Interpol notices. Cases like that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in 2018, have shown us that authoritarian states feel increasingly confident in their ability to commit crimes and to attempt to silence freedom of expression beyond their borders, without facing consequences.

 

Russia, for example, has long targeted dissidents outside its borders. But only in the wake of the Ukraine invasion has the international community taken strong measures to hold Putin’s government to account. Meanwhile, the wider lesson seems to have escaped the international community: Even as Western countries slap sanctions on Russia, they have slowly allowed Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman back into the fold, despite his appalling record of suppressing freedom of expression online and evidence that he played a role in the murder of Khashoggi. 

 

Time for action

 

The international response to attacks on freedom of expression has been, at best, uneven, consisting of empty words or slaps on the wrist that do little to deter countries from attacking protesters, journalists, and netizens. 

 

We can no longer allow this impunity to reign. As an urgent first step, we must reframe the conversation. There is a growing tendency towards sensationalist and myopic discussions of ‘free speech’ focusing on hot-button political issues that miss the bigger picture: Freedom of expression means freedom of all expression – in the press, through protest, and online. It also encompasses our right to access the information we need about government decisions. 

 

The very real attacks on those rights have many faces, which we must continue to identify and begin to push back against by demanding better of our leaders and representatives, as well as the companies who inform and mediate our means of expression and the information we consume. 

 

The right to freedom of expression defines how we interact, what we know, and how we partake in the way our societies are run – and therefore, how we live as individuals and collectively. We must start to defend it by demanding consistent, meaningful action from leaders to protect and ensure that freedom, both for ourselves, and for others within our societies – and beyond. 

 

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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