Freedom of expression has declined around the world and has, in part, facilitated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to free speech campaigners.
Those were among the findings of the 2022 Global Expression Report by UK-based human rights organisation Article 19.
In Russia the long-standing environment of propaganda and criminalisation of reporting of news unfavourable towards the Kremlin has helped create an environment where those against the Ukraine war have been unable to express their opposition. Article 19 has downgraded the country’s freedom of expression score from 30 points to 15 over the last decade. The score tracks freedom of expression across 25 indicators, scoring countries out of 100.
Quinn McKew, Article 19’s executive director, said: “Undoubtedly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the biggest concern from a global political, security, economic, humanitarian and human rights point of view. This does not concern only Ukraine, albeit the impact of the war is most severe there, but is a stark reminder what happens when the international community fails to address the erosion of rights and rising authoritarianism.”
She added: “We know that what happened in Russia did not happen overnight, that the Russian Government’s sustained attack on fundamental rights and freedom and Vladimir Putin’s steady erosion of civic space, independent media and breakdown of respected institutions all worked towards what he has now achieved: a monopoly on truth. This has undeniably emboldened other regimes.”
Quinn said Putin’s attack on what he considers to be “fake news” has emboldened Croatia and Slovenia officials to attack the work of journalists.
Eighty percent of the global population, 6.2 billion people live in countries with less freedom of expression now than ten years ago, according to the report, continuing a decline that started at least a decade ago. Only 7% of the population has seen an improvement since 2011.
Currently, just 15% of the global population lives in countries where they can express themselves freely. In contrast over a third (35%) of people live in places where free expression is, according to the report, "in crisis".
While Article 19 said that coups and takeovers had dropped several countries’ freedom of expression scores, media and free expression were also being eroded in a number of democratically-elected but populist regimes including Brazil, Hungary and Poland.
The report evaluates the freedom of expression of everyone, not just journalists, but noted that self-censorship by the media was one of four key factors that had contributed to a decline in freedom of expression more broadly in the last year.
Among the countries where freedom of expression was hardest hit in 2021 were Myanmar and Afghanistan - the biggest one-year falls in the index for at least 20 years, in the context of a military coup in Myanmar and the Taliban takeback of control in Afghanistan.
Article 19 found that nearly 90% of the population in Asia lives in countries where free expression is either restricted or in crisis, including in Chinese-administered Hong Kong where the government recently shut down Apple Daily and Factwire, two of Hong Kong’s best-known pro-democracy news outlets.
Looking to Africa, the report criticised the Ethiopian government for blocking social media, arresting journalists and targeting foreign media in an attempt to control the information coming out from conflicts in the country. For the third year in a row, no African country was considered by Article 19 to have an "open" environment for freedom of expression.
The Middle East and North Africa was the other world region with no countries considered to be "open". Over seven in ten (72%) of the population in the region live in countries in crisis – far more than in any other part of the world.
Although European countries scored better than much of the world, the report noted that "the EU is not immune: human rights in some EU countries are deteriorating, including in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia".
The report noted that physical attacks on journalists have increased 61% while the number of SLAPPs - lawsuits aimed at silencing criticism - is also growing.
The report also highlighted the polarisation and disinformation that it said were a feature of the media landscape in many countries. Divisive content, it said, often performed well due to the algorithms of social media platforms. It said, however, that legislative changes such as the EU’s Digital Markets Act could be starting to tip the balance against the tech giants that have dominated online media.
The UK: SLAPPs tourism hotspot
Article 19 rated the UK as comfortably within the "open" category, although its score has fallen in recent years .
The report singled out the UK as a hotspot for cross-border SLAPPs, noting that most of the 10% of cross-border SLAPPs cases recorded in 2021 originated in the UK and that the country had “truly become a haven for libel tourism”.
McKew told Press Gazette, however, that "there have been some significant wins for media freedom in recent months, including Carol Cadwalladr’s win in a defamation case brought by Arron Banks. The government’s consultation into SLAPPs is also definitely welcome - we hope to see strong and comprehensive anti-SLAPPs legislation emerging from this process."
However she added that the overall picture for media freedom in the UK was far from positive.
"The government claims to be a world leader in freedom of expression, but its hypocrisy was exposed only recently in the decision by Priti Patel to extradite Julian Assange. It sent a troubling message that journalists and activists who expose important truths about crimes, including those committed by governments and businesses, do not deserve protection for their rights," said McKew.
McKew also raised concerns about the push for implementation of the Online Safety Bill, saying it "will pose a significant threat to free expression online".
US: Drop of over 20 places since 2011
The US has seen a sharp decline in its freedom of expression score in the last decade since 2011 when it was ranked ninth, Its current position of 30th places it towards the bottom of the “open” category.
While the drop has been steep, the issues most closely associated with the decline in the US this year said McKew “have less to do with media freedom and more to do with rising inequality, as well as increased polarisation in politics, and society more generally”.
Picture: Reuters/Carlos Barria