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July 5, 2023

Freedom of expression lower for 80% of global population than 20 years ago

Six billion people live in places where freedom of expression is in crisis or restricted.

By Aisha Majid

More than six billion people – 80% of the global population – have less freedom of expression than they had in the year 2000, according to a new report.

The Global Expression Report from UK-based free speech NGO Article 19 found that just 13% of the world’s population lived in countries classified as “open” in 2022, down from 22% at the turn of the 21st century.

Instead the largest share of the global population (34% or 2.7 billion people) lived in countries where the right to express opinions and beliefs and freely access information was in crisis.

The report found that 78% of global population – more than six billion people – lived in places where freedom of expression was considered to be “in crisis”, “severely restricted” or “restricted”, the worst three among the five possible categories.

While the report looked at the freedom of expression of everyone, not just journalists, Article 19's executive director Quinn McKew told Press Gazette it "has never been harder to be a journalist almost anywhere in the world in the past 30 years than it is right now".

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She added: "We've seen declines across the board. Even in friendly countries, it is becoming much more challenging. You have cases of lawsuits being filed against journalists. In difficult countries in Europe and in other places, you have increasing physical threats against them as well."

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Among the countries singled out by the report was Russia, which saw its score fall from 15 to seven in 2022. Press freedom in the country has worsened in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine as the country’s leadership used the conflict as a pretext to step up persecution of journalists, protesters and dissenters. More than 250 media outlets including the BBC, Voice of America and Novaya Gazeta have since been blocked in Russia.

McKew said: "This year’s Global Expression Report shows very clearly: freedom of expression is in decline and under threat around the world. With 80% of us now living with less freedom of expression than at the start of the century, we need to ask ourselves the question: what can be done to reverse this trend?"

She added: "While conflicts and power grabs prominently erode democracy and human rights, much of the decline comes from consistent, incremental erosion: changes in policy in the name of misguided understandings of 'public safety' or 'economic efficiency', or gradual shifts in attitudes of those in power – in autocracies and democracies alike.

"As the crackdown on free expression intensifies, so must our efforts to call out abuses of those in power – the big and the small – and advocate for solutions that put human rights at their heart. The global problems facing our societies can only be solved with more people being able to express themselves and have greater access to information, to hold power to account."

UK freedom of expression: Press freedom high but 'war on woke' has impact

Although the top ten countries for freedom of expression were all in Europe, the region has become increasingly polarised. Two decades ago most countries in Europe were rated as "open" by Article 19. Now, 82% of people in Europe live in countries classified as falling into one of the two extremes - either "open" or "in crisis".

While the UK is classified as "open", at rank 34 it places lower than comparable European nations such as Ireland (8), Germany (9) and France (23). Denmark and Sweden came out on top as the two most open countries in both the region and globally.

Of the UK, McKew said: "We continue to see a government that is incredibly hostile to the exercise of individuals right to dissent that is exacerbated by all the anti-protest laws. All of these are being housed under this kind of 'war on woke'. But it's not a 'war on woke', it's a war on people's ability to speak and to say things that are unpopular and that's the fundamental reason why freedom of expression is considered a protected right, because it's saying things that are unpopular leads to change, leads to calling out of corruption and leads to calling out of discrimination.

"Unfortunately, with things like the continued curbs on the rights to protest, the Online Safety Bill which puts incredible amounts of surveillance on individuals, and the continued push to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, the entire environment in the UK for full protection of human rights and civil rights in particular is increasingly hostile and becomes more worrying."

Press freedom in the UK is, however, a bright spot, with McKew saying the UK is continuing to make "good progress" on legally combating SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) - lawsuits aimed at silencing criticism.

"The fact that anti-SLAPP amendments have been added to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency bill is great and a real step forward," she said

"This is happening at the time that we're seeing the anti-SLAPP directive work in the EU pulling back from making really positive strides. So the UK is continuing to push all of this which is great to see. We'd like to see it, of course, expand beyond thinking that anti-SLAPP regulation and laws should be put in place just for economic crimes, but should be more broadly applied so that journalistic freedom is not impinged in this way."

She added: "The UK press is still very robust and very diverse. I think sometimes the robustness and diversity of the press can mask some of the other underlying problems when it comes to freedom of expression in the country."

Decade-long decline in global freedom of expression

Globally, freedom of expression has been in decline for over a decade. Between 2012 and 2022, 6.3 billion people living in 81 countries saw their freedom of expression worsen, while just 452 million people in 21 countries saw it improve. Much of this decline, however, was gradual, with no new countries entering the "open" or "crisis" categories in 2022.

In contrast to the stark falls of Afghanistan and Myanmar in 2021, there were no big one-year declines in 2022. The report noted that 2022 was a year of "consolidating autocracies, entrenching repression, and ongoing silence". Autocratic regimes in Hong Kong (score 14), Nicaragua (score 2), Turkey (score 7) and Belarus (score 2) entrenched power and cracked down on dissent and protest, said the report.

The report also found that restrictive countries increasingly have more economic clout. In 2000, open countries accounted for 63% of global income, compared to 39% today.

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