Our manifesto: the next UK government’s necessary actions to restore freedom of expression
From protecting protest rights to addressing transnational repression, the upcoming government has a lot to do to fully restore freedom of expression
25 Jun 24

Protesters outside the Ugandan High Commission in London, including Peter Tatchell, call for action over Uganda's anti-LGBTI+ laws. The UK should call out the Ugandan government more on its free expression violations . Photo: Maggie Jones via Flickr (PDM 1.0 DEED)

Political parties in the UK are now in the final stages of campaigning as they approach the general election on 4 July 2024. During the circus of the campaigning season, important issues can and have slipped through the cracks. We, the undersigned, want to ensure that the next government, whoever it may be, will stand firmly on the side of free expression.

Back in January, Rishi Sunak laid out key targets he wished to deliver before the end of his term, with varying degrees of success. In this spirit, we have compiled our own manifesto outlining key issues relating to free speech that we would like the next UK government to address. They are:

Enact Anti-SLAPP Legislation 

Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, are a means for those with money to abuse the legal system by threatening critics with costly lawsuits in order to intimidate them into abandoning their position. They have become a silencing tactic in recent years, with journalists in particular being targeted, alongside environmental defenders, writers and sexual violence survivors.

Particularly worrying is the current trend of SLAPPs becoming more common throughout Europe. Over 820 cases were registered by Case, the Anti-SLAPP Coalition, in 2023, 161 of which were lawsuits filed in 2022, a significant jump compared to the 135 filed in 2021. Such lawsuits are a stain on our free speech and media freedom credentials. Many journalists live in fear of them. In addition to the lawsuits we know about there are likely scores of articles that never make it to print because newsrooms fear the potential legal ramifications, articles that could serve the public interest.

Prior to the election being called, a private members bill, called the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, had been put forward by MP Wayne David in an attempt to address the issue. Although the bill itself contained significant flaws and was weaker than many had hoped, it was at least a promising starting point from which to address the problem. However, with the announcement of the general election, the bill is dead.

We call upon the next government to take up the mantle against SLAPPs and to push forward with another, stronger bill that takes a much firmer approach to resolve the problem.

Protect the right to protest

The UK has seen a number of concerning attacks being made on protest rights in recent years. Legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the 2023 Public Order Act have given the police and government sweeping powers to restrict protest, a move criticised by rights groups such as Amnesty International.

In May 2024, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman was ruled by a high court to have acted unlawfully by making it easier to criminalise peaceful protests. Various groups conducting peaceful protests have suffered as a result, such as environmental activists being handed lengthy prison sentences and pro-Palestine protesters being arrested.

Index has previously spoken out against the increasingly authoritarian approach to protesting in the UK and the worrying climate this creates for those wishing to peacefully exercise their right to free assembly and free expression. We would like to see the next government address the issues raised by repealing these alarming pieces of legislation, ensuring that peaceful protesters are no longer restricted in such fashion, and releasing and/or compensating those who have already been punished.

Take a stand against transnational repression

Transnational repression refers to the various ways that authoritarian governments, such as Russia, China, Iran, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia, reach across borders in order to silence dissent, using a range of tactics including online smear campaigns, threats and physical violence. Awareness of transnational repression has increased in recent years but so too has the phenomenon, not least in the UK.

The most famous example is probably the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018. Other examples include high-profile Hong Kong activists, Iranian journalists and Saudi comedians being assaulted on UK soil. Even on a less violent level, there are too many reports of students being spied on and university courses changed in acts of appeasement.

In November 2022 the UK government formed the Defending Democracy Taskforce, which is meant to be reviewing the UK’s approach to transnational repression. Late last year the taskforce announced it would be taking a more active role in coordinating electoral security, which is welcome given several hacks that have been traced back to China. But as for the broader issue of protecting dissidents overseas, and indeed those who challenge authoritarian regimes, there is little movement.

Index, for example, has worked extensively to highlight the dangers of transnational repression and we ask the next government to take a more proactive approach to tackle it by both protecting those within the state and sanctioning foreign states who utilise such tactics.

Support journalists in exile and in the UK

In May 2024, the BBC reported that the number of BBC World Service journalists working in exile is estimated to have nearly doubled since 2020, in part due to crackdowns in countries such as Russia, Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Similarly, in 2023 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) provided financial assistance to 460 journalists in exile – nearly twice as many as in 2022 – after being inundated with requests from journalists who had been threatened for their work.

As the number of media workers forced to flee their home country grows, the need for the international community to step in and help intensifies. The UK has an obligation to support and protect journalists in this situation by prioritising press freedom in their foreign policy objectives and calling for accountability for those countries who violate it.

For a journalist facing the distressing and difficult reality of living in exile, one of the most useful pieces of aid is a visa. By holding a visa they can live without fear of being sent back to a country where they face persecution, and can continue their work. We call upon the next government to ensure that journalists from abroad who are living in exile are able to obtain emergency visas in order to be kept safe from authoritarian regimes.

At the same time we’d like to go one step further; the next government should place attacks on the media high on the list of their foreign policy priorities, calling for true accountability for those violating press freedom. Ideally emergency visas shouldn’t be necessary as journalists everywhere are protected and we ask the next government to lead the way in upholding and defending media freedom.

In the process the government must show it respects media freedom in the UK. Stories like “Braverman criticised for shutting out Guardian and BBC from Rwanda trip” must become a thing of the past and some of the sections of the 2023 National Security Act should be repealed given their concerning implications for both journalists and whistleblowers.

Don’t go soft on authoritarian regimes

Over the years, the UK has had a habit of welcoming leaders from authoritarian states and overlooking their poor records on human rights. This was a common theme when David Cameron was prime minister, for example. He welcomed, among others, Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi less than two years after 800 unarmed protesters were killed at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo and Chinese leader Xi Jinping just days after the arrest of bookseller Gui Minhai.

The tradition has continued since. Under current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak the UK has developed a unique relationship with Rwanda, with the state being at the centre of the Conservative’s policy on asylum seekers. It was recently revealed that Rwanda’s top diplomat in the UK oversaw the use of the international justice system to target critics of the regime overseas in a clear example of transnational repression.

Indeed Cameron, in his new role as foreign secretary, went to Saudi Arabia in April for the World Economic Forum and did not press them on their poor human rights record, which amongst other issues sees many punished under draconian blasphemy laws or, in the case of Salma al-Shehab, for simple retweets. Meanwhile senior British government officials last month congratulated the newly appointed head of the Ugandan army, a man accused of abusing critics and of torture. The list could go on.

The next government would do well to choose its friends wisely, rather than helping authoritarian rulers maintain their grip on power and improve their international status.

Reform the Online Safety Act

The aim of the Online Safety Act – to protect children and adults online – is a commendable one. However, there are elements of the bill that are problematic when it comes to the protection of free speech, particularly those relating to encryption. One section of the act seemingly requires service providers to search for illegal content online by breaking end-to-end encryption, which threatens both privacy and cyber-security, as well as leaving the door open for government interference and surveillance.

Encryption is vital to ensure people can express themselves online safely, especially when they’re living under a repressive regime. Not only does the Online Safety Act put the privacy of online users at risk in the UK, the problematic language used in the bill can also be co-opted by other countries with more sinister intentions.

The next UK government needs to address the issues that have been raised by the bill’s passing by reforming and re-wording the legislation.

Advocate for a global limit on commercial surveillance

Another growing threat to free speech both globally and in the UK is the rise in spyware. This problem has worsened as technology has advanced, with highly sophisticated surveillance software – such as the infamous hacking software Pegasus – becoming readily available to governments around the world.

Pervasive surveillance clearly encroaches on people’s right to privacy and data protection and is a threat to free speech more broadly. People can be put off political participation, or even just from expressing their opinion freely, if they think they are being spied upon by the state. Spyware also often targets individuals like journalists, politicians and activists as a means of repression and intimidation.

We call upon the UK government to support the implementation of a global moratorium on commercial spyware until proper safeguards are put in place to deal with these threats. Controls and guardrails must be enforced globally to ensure that any surveillance tools comply with human rights.

Preserve academic freedom

Threats to academic freedom are widely viewed to be more of a problem in the USA than the UK. That said there have been worrying signs here which ought to be addressed before the problem escalates.

The number of reports of university events and speakers being cancelled has grown in recent years. This was supposedly the motivation behind the government’s introduction of a free speech tsar in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, which came into effect in 2023 and has been criticised by some for being “lip service” to free speech issues.

The tsar, Arif Ahmed, said at the time of his appointment that he would remain politically neutral in his efforts to combat attacks to free speech on campus. We can only hope he is true to his word. The current government has tried to interfere in universities, such as threatening to regulate certain academic approaches (in 2020 the then-equalities minister Kemi Badendoch condemned critical race theory – an academic field focussed on discussions of white privilege and structural racism – and the government declared itself “unequivocally against” the concept, for example).

Another threat is aforementioned – that of transnational repression – with students reporting growing fears of surveillance on campus, especially Chinese students. When you add in increasing fears around book banning in school libraries, there is a clear argument that free speech in education needs close attention in order to truly preserve academic freedom. But this must not come from a party-political position. Politics must not enter the classroom or lecture hall.

Support British nationals overseas

There are several British nationals overseas who are currently in prison, serving time for no crime at all. They are people who have been committed to free expression, human rights and democracy and for this they have lost their own freedom. Three of the most prominent are Jimmy Lai, a media mogul who is in jail in Hong Kong, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a writer and activist who has been in and out of prison in Egypt for a decade now, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, a journalist and activist who has been behind bars since 2022.

The UK government has demonstrated a lack of commitment to help free these three men and we urge the next government to reverse this trend. The unjust imprisonments of them, and others like them, must be a priority and must then act as a blueprint for future action if other British nationals find themselves at the mercy of authoritarian regimes.


Index on Censorship

Article 19

Humanists UK