Free Expression in the Digital World

Freedom of expression needs championing online as much as off. The internet and social media have opened up debate and interaction within and across countries, and transformed how we access and share information. But governments and companies are intervening in a mixture of ways to limit or even directly block and censor, and monitor, what we can do and see on the web. Index on Censorship’s work on freedom of expression in the digital world focuses on six big challenges: web governance; takedown orders, filters and intimidation; security and surveillance; privacy; copyright, and media rights online. Two big summits were held at the end of 2012 – the Internet Governance Forum in Baku in November, and the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in December. Index is campaigning with its partners to keep the net a free and open space.

Index advocates to protect internet freedom across the UK, at the EU and other transnational bodies on a range of issues from the UK’s Communications Data Bill – ‘the snoopers’ charter’ – to international web governance issues. We are an active member of the Global Network Initiative and other internet freedom campaign groups and incorporate new social media and digital advocacy techniques into all our work worldwide.

The Libel Reform campaign

The UK’s libel laws are internationally notorious for their bias towards often wealthy complainants and their chilling impact on free expression, as well as their encouragement of ‘libel tourism’ giving London a reputation as ‘libel-capital of the world’. The Defamation Bill now going through Parliament is a result of a three-year campaign run by Index with its partners English PEN and Sense about Science. But the current Bill is deficient, so the campaign continues. While the Bill tackles much of the problem of libel-tourism, it is too weak in other crucial areas: meaning that those who have been threatened with ruinous law suits in the past for expressing honest, serious views will continue to face these threats.

The Libel Reform Campaign is demanding a serious, effective public interest defence to be added to the Bill this autumn, and provisions to ensure free speech online, and to limit the power of corporations to sue for libel as if they are individuals.

60,000 people have signed our petition demanding reform. All three major UK political parties made election manifesto commitments to reform, culminating in the publication of a bill to change the law, now before Parliament. You can read our critque of the current Bill here, or see our policy positions as outlined to the Joint Select Committee on the draft Defamation Bill here.

The Leveson Inquiry

The Leveson Inquiry has been the focus of intense debate about the freedoms and responsibilities of the British press. Index is at the forefront of this debate, arguing and advocating to ensure the outcome of the Inquiry is not to muzzle the British press. The Leveson Inquiry’s report this year will be a watershed moment for the British press, exposing newspapers and their proprietors to unparalleled scrutiny. Index is arguing for a strong self-regulatory body that protects the rights of individuals who fall foul of the media, without opening the door to government regulation of the press.

Index submitted a paper at the beginning of 2012, and also a detailed joint proposal with English PEN, calling for an alternative system of fairly resolving public disputes with the media, without state regulation. In June 2012, Index submitted a final paper reminding the inquiry of its responsibility to protect free speech and journalism in the public interest.


The ‘Arab Spring’ started in Tunisia. Index campaigns for free expression in Tunisia – work that pre-dates the Arab Spring. We play a leading role in the Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a pioneering alliance of 21 Tunisian, Arab world and global free speech groups established in 2005. The work is diverse, including supporting radio stations, training political cartoonists, contesting political control of the judiciary, defending local campaigners and supporting the reform of national media laws.

A global rights campaign for Tunisia running before, during and after the ‘Arab Spring’, has under Index’s chairmanship delivered a million-dollar programme of monitoring, advocacy and investigation missions, often under intense surveillance and harassment. Today the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) presents the group’s organisation as a model for future human rights campaigns.


Belarus has rightly been described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. Index campaigns against censorship in Belarus and advocates in the European Union, Council of Europe and internationally at the UN for an end to human rights’ abuses and the harassment and imprisonment of journalists and activists. We work in partnership with The Belarus Committee of rights defenders.

Index, in partnership with Free Belarus Now, recently persuaded major European banks to quit trading in Belarussian state bonds. We also successfully campaigned with our partners to free prisoner of conscience and former Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov who was released in April 2012.


Azerbaijan today is a country where freedom of expression is under sustained attack – with journalists, activists, artists, musicians and others facing harassment, imprisonment and violence. Index campaigns, with partners in Azerbaijan and in the broader region, for full respect of human rights in Azerbaijan. We carry out advocacy towards the Council of Europe and European Union, and we jointly produce reports on the situation with the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA).

In 2012, we continued to shine a spotlight on abuses in Azerbaijan – the Eurovision Song Contest in May in Baku helped to draw international attention to these abuses, and Index campaigned around the Internet Governance Forum in Baku in November to highlight ongoing repression. In 2012, we also highlighted the case of Index journalism award winner, Idrak Abbasov, who was violently attacked when reporting on the state oil firm this spring. In the run-up to the May 2012 Eurovision contest in Baku, we campaigned for support for an e-petition to the Azerbaijani president, with a potential audience of five million to highlight local rights abuses on the night of the Eurovision final.


Since February 2011, the Bahraini government has been brutally clamping down on free speech and free assembly with violent attacks on protestors, the jailing of human rights defenders and public debate stifled. Index campaigns to keep world attention on the crisis – including online campaigning, developing interactive website content tracking dissent during this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, and publishing dissident perspectives.

We continue to support 2012 Index advocacy award winners the Bahrain Center for Human Rights when they and others are repeatedly intimidated and detained during protests calling for reform. The organisation’s head, Nabeel Rajab, is currently in prison and has been handed a three-year sentence for participating in “illegal protests”.

In November 2011, Index joined partners on a fact-finding mission to Bahrain that resulted in a hard-hitting report challenging official accounts and exposing the emirate’s failure to properly investigate rights violations.


Even with the recent thaw, freedom of expression is seriously constrained and threatened in Burma. We are working with Burmese artists, musicians, writers and performers, who often represent a channel to articulate public discontent with the ruling junta when the independent media and opposition parties are heavily obstructed.

We work with artist-led contemporary arts organisations in Yangon and Mandalay, where the lines between social and political activism and self-expression are blurred. In March 2013, Index co-produced a symposium on artistic freedom of expression with local partners, the first public conversation of its kind in recent history. As the country opens up new spaces for cultural and artistic expression, our programme offers the first ever courses in curation and arts management, audience and community participation in Burma, aimed at making the freedoms of contemporary art practice accessible to the wider public.


Index challenges the many ways that controversial or challenging art in the UK can be denied public space, including self-censorship, intimidation, the inappropriate use of law, and the growth of the ‘culture of offence’. We give platforms to free expression defenders and creative practitioners from marginalised communities.

Index works with the UK arts sector to stand up for freedom of expression rights – and not risk losing or constraining them. In collaboration with groups including the Young Vic, Belarus Free Theatre, Apples & Snakes and LIFT festival, we are leading a pioneering arts-led leadership programme for young people exploring principles of free expression.

Our major conference ‘Taking the Offensive: defending artistic freedom of expression’ at the Southbank in January 2013, discussed and debated the social, political and legal challenges to artistic freedoms and launched a range of new resources produced by Index to support artists’ rights.