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Global view: Who has freedom of expression?

By Kirsty Hughes / 8 July, 2013

Freedom of expression is a universal, fundamental human right. But who actually has access to free expression? Index CEO Kirsty Hughes looks at the evidence.

One approach could be to count the number of democracies in the world, and their populations, and call that a rough estimate of people who can exercise their right to free speech today. But in many democracies, freedom of expression is constrained in many ways — from hate speech and criminal defamation laws to public order and security constraints to obscenity laws. Many of those constraints, such as laws in the UK and India that criminalise offensive speech online, go too far. And many democracies are flawed — through corruption, inadequate press freedom, and poor defence of, or excessive constraints on, rights and freedoms more generally.

The recent Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) 2012 Democracy Index tells us that nearly half the world’s population live in “full” or “flawed” democracies, suggesting billions of us are enjoying freedom of expression to a considerable extent. That leaves the other half of the world’s population living in what the EIU calls “hybrid” or authoritarian regimes. Of this number, 2.6bn live in authoritarian regimes, with China accounting for almost half this figure.

With freedom of expression deteriorating in “hybrid” regimes such as Turkey and Russia, and with over half the European Union’s member states falling into the “flawed” category, this is not a reassuring global picture. EU member states are meant to achieve a decent standard of democracy and respect for rights even before they join the union, but the 14 out of 27 EU states that are categorised as “flawed” not only include many of the central and east European countries that joined the EU in 2004, but also Greece, France and Italy. Overall, democracy worldwide was at a standstill in 2012 compared to the year before, neither better nor worse.


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This article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship, available now. For subscription options and to download the app for your iPhone/iPad, click here.

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But the detail is more alarming, from repression in the Middle East and loss of trust in European political leaders to polarisation in the US. One classic barrier to being able to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media,” as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the right to free expression, is illiteracy. About one quarter of India’s population is illiterate, and this includes an astounding one third of all Indian women. This means hundreds of millions of people cannot read or write and are, as a result, unable to gain access to ideas, arguments or debates.

This is not just a problem for countries where poverty and illiteracy go hand in hand. In the UK, up to one fifth of the adult population, around 6 to 8m people, are estimated to be “functionally illiterate”, lacking the basic reading and writing skills necessary to participate effectively in society. One estimate puts the functionally illiterate in the US at 30m. And what about access to the arts or the internet? Because of poverty, people in both rich and poorer societies are being excluded from accessing vital information.

Many people in apparently free societies face discrimination. Cultural boundaries, religious controls, caste, class, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender can all have an impact on people’s ability to express their views in public fora. So when we ask who has access to freedom of expression in today’s world, the answer is not simply “not enough people” or “only half the world”. It’s a fact that, around the world, only a minority fully enjoy and are able to practise their right to free expression. So it’s something we have to change, not least in democracies where governments and elites presume or pronounce, often incorrectly, that their population already enjoys that right.

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About Kirsty Hughes

Kirsty Hughes Kirsty Hughes is the CEO of Index on Censorship.

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One Response to Global view: Who has freedom of expression?

  1. Basil Venitis Reply

    23 July at 15:20

    EU practices double standards in civil rights. It’s freakish for EU to interfere in the civil rights of foreigners, but condone the abuse of civil rights of Greek dissident bloggers, who are citizens of EU!

    There is no justice in Greece for dissident bloggers. The Greek government is so stupid, so brutal, so freakish, and so barbarous that it robs, persecutes, and terrorizes dissident bloggers! The Greek government is a major enemy of blogosphere.

    Ex-officio law suit autepageltos αυτεπαγγελτος, the most dreadful word in justice, means the state sues somebody without involvement of the accuser. This terrible scheme has been used by Graecokleptocrats to persecute dissident bloggers. A Graecokleptocrat would sue an innocent dissident blogger, and the Graecokleptocrat wouldn’t show up in court, because the state takes over the position of the accuser!

    On October 18, 2010, a gang of six brutal policechimps of the violent Greek Cyber Crime Unit (CCU) broke into my home in Athens and into my college office, and stole my computers, software, files, documents, and personal data. The policechimps locked me in jail for a night, they humiliated me with handcuffs, fingerprints, mug shots, and lies, leaked false information to the media parrots, and the Greek government initiated sham ex-officio court proceedings for a stack of stupid fictitious freakish charges! There was neither pillow nor toilet facility in my jail cell. I had to urinate in a bottle! I, a 68 years old with high blood pressure, was not allowed to keep my hypertension pills with me. There was neither toilet paper nor soap in the whole CCU jail facility.

    At the ex-officio law suit, the accuser just hits and runs! This hit-and-run justice is the most disgusting justice on Earth. In all civilized nations, the accused is in a position to face his accuser eyeball to eyeball, but not in Greece. Just think about it for a while. The accuser slings false accusations against you, the state takes over, and the accuser disappears from court!

    The court trial is postponed infinite times to break the nerves of the innocent blogger at great cost of time and money. This is a disgusting punishment of the presumed innocent. Justice delayed is justice denied. Justice perpetuated is hell. The Greek government uses the ex officio law suit as a political tool. This has happened to me too!

    Graecokleptocrats just hit dissident bloggers with false accusations and run! Correspondents of http://venitism.blogspot.com report that agony of perpetual delay of trial in Greece is being used as a punishment of the innocent without trial. Greek justice is a spider web, catching small prey and swallowing them, while allowing crocodiles to penetrate and dominate it. Visiting Greek prisons, you could see all les miserables that fill them up, but you could not find any kleptocrats.

    Giving cybercensorship to blogbusters is giving gin to alcoholics! Blogbusters galore! Hit and run is freakish behavior against dissident bloggers. Freak! Freak! Freak! The freakish government of Greece, the most corrupt country in Europe, steals computers! Robbing dissident bloggers and locking them in jail is a freakish behavior that does not belong to the European Union, not even to this galaxy! No wonder some vain Greeks boast they come from Andromeda galaxy!

    The persecution of Greek dissident bloggers is a worrying example of how freedom on the net is under increasing threat. As more people use cyberspace to communicate, obtain information, express their views, socialize, and conduct commerce, governments are stepping up their efforts to regulate and control it. Tight control on the internet impinges on our freedom of speech, association and assembly. And it means that violations of other civil rights are kept away from us.

    Persecuting dissident bloggers, the outlaw government of Greece violates Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which states the European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, nondiscrimination, tolerance, and justice prevail.

    Greece also violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

    Greece also violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    Greece also violates Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which states that every citizen has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.

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