For around six decades after WWII ideas, laws and institutions supporting free expression spread across borders globally. Ever more people were liberated from stifling censorship and repression. But in the past decade that development has reversed.
On April 12 Russian lawmakers in the State Duma completed the first reading of a new draft law on social media. Among other things the law requires social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk hefty fines. Sound familiar? If you think you’ve heard this story before it’s because the original draft was what Reporters Without Borders call a “copy-paste” version of the much criticized German Social Network law that went into effect earlier this year. But we can trace the origins back further.
In 2016 the EU-Commission and a number of big tech-firms including Facebook, Twitter and Google, agreed on a Code of Conduct under which these firms commit to removing illegal hate speech within 24 hours. In other words what happens in Brussels doesn’t stay in Brussels. It may spread to Berlin and end up in Moscow, transformed from a voluntary instrument aimed at defending Western democracies to a draconian law used to shore up a regime committed to disrupting Western democracies.
US President Donald Trump’s crusade against “fake news” may also have had serious consequences for press freedom. Because of the First Amendment’s robust protection of free expression Trump is largely powerless to weaponise his war against the “fake news media” and “enemies of the people” that most others refer to as “independent media”.
Yet many other citizens of the world cannot rely on the same degree of legal protection from thin-skinned political leaders eager to filter news and information. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented the highest ever number of journalists imprisoned for false news worldwide. And while 21 such cases may not sound catastrophic the message these arrests and convictions send is alarming. And soon more may follow. In April Malaysia criminalised the spread of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false”, with up to six years in prison. Already a Danish citizen has been convicted to one month’s imprisonment for a harmless YouTube video, and presidential candidate Mahathir Mohammed is also being investigated. Kenya is going down the same path with a draconian bill criminalising “false” or “fictitious” information. And while Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump has been unduly influenced by Russian President Putin, it seems that Putin may well have been influenced by Trump. The above mentioned Russian draft social media law also includes an obligation to delete any “unverified publicly significant information presented as reliable information.” Taken into account the amount of pro-Kremlin propaganda espoused by Russian media such as RT and Sputnik, one can be certain that the definition of “unverified” will align closely with the interests of Putin and his cronies.
But even democracies have fallen for the temptation to define truth. France’s celebrated president Macron has promised to present a bill targeting false information by “to allow rapid blocking of the dissemination of fake news”. While the French initiative may be targeted at election periods it still does not accord well with a joint declaration issued by independent experts from international and regional organisations covering the UN, Europe, the Americans and Africa which stressed that “ general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression”.
However, illiberal measures also travel from East to West. In 2012 Russia adopted a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad and involved in “political activities” – a nebulous and all-encompassing term – to register as “foreign agents”. The law is a thinly veiled attempt to delegitimise civil society organisations that may shed critical light on the policies of Putin’s regime. It has affected everything from human rights groups, LGBT-activists and environmental organisations, who must choose between being branded as something akin to enemies of the state or abandon their work in Russia. As such it has strong appeal to other politicians who don’t appreciate a vibrant civil society with its inherent ecosystem of dissent and potential for social and political mobilisation.
One such politician is Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary’s increasingly illiberal government. In 2017 Orban’s government did its own copy paste job adopting a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register as “foreign supported”. A move which should be seen in the light of Orban’s obsession with eliminating the influence of anything or anyone remotely associated with the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros whose Open Society Foundation funds organisations promoting liberal and progressive values.
The cross-fertilisation of censorship between regime types and continents is part of the explanation why press freedom has been in retreat for more than a decade. In its recent 2018 World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders identified “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies”. This is something borne out by the litany of of media freedom violations reported to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom, which monitors 43 countries. In just the last four years, MMF has logged over 4,200 incidents — a staggering array of curbs on the press that range from physical assault to online threats and murders that have engulfed journalists.
Alarmingly Europe – the heartland of global democracy – has seen the worst regional setbacks in RSF’s index. This development shows that sacrificing free speech to guard against creeping authoritarianism is more likely to embolden than to defeat the enemies of the open society.