Major new global free expression index sees UK ranking stumble across academic, digital and media freedom

A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.

In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.

The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.

Key findings include:

  • The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.

  • The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

  • Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.

Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:

“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.

“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.

“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”

Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:

“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.

“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”

Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said: 

“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.

“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”

The free speech Euros: Group B


A Russian fan at the Euro 2020 match between Belgium and Russia. Stanislav Krasilnikov/Tass/PA Images

In celebration of one of football’s biggest international tournaments, here is Index’s guide to the free speech Euros. Who comes out on top as the nation with the worst record on free speech?

It’s simple, the worst is ranked first.

We continue today with Group B, which plays the deciding matches of the group stages today.

1st Russia

Unlike their relatively miserable performances on the football pitch, Russia can approach this particular contest as the clear favourites.

The group would be locked up after the first two games, with some sensational play from their three talismans: disinformation, oppressive legislation and attacks on independent media.

Russian disinformation, through the use of social media bots and troll factories, is well known, as is their persistent meddling in foreign elections which infringes on the rights of many to exercise their right to vote based on clear information.

Putin’s Russia has increased its attacks on free speech ever since the 2011 protests over a flawed election process. When protests arose once again all over the country in January 2021 over the detention of former opposition leader Alexei Navalny, over 10,000 people were arrested across the country, with many protests violently dispersed.

Police in the country must first be warned before a protest takes place. A single-person picket is the only form of protest that does not have this requirement. Nevertheless, 388 people were detained in Russia for this very act in the first half of 2020 alone, despite not needing to notify the authorities that eventually arrested them.

Human rights organisation, the Council of Europe (COE), expressed its concerns over Russian authorities’ reactions to the Navalny protests.

Commissioner Dunja Mijatović said: “This disregard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law is unfortunately not a new phenomenon in a country where human rights defenders, journalists and civil society are regularly harassed, including through highly questionable judicial decisions.”

Unfortunately, journalists attempting to monitor these appalling free speech violations face a squeeze on their platforms. Independent media is being deliberately targeted. Popular news site Meduza, for example, is under threat from Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ law.

The law, which free expression non-profit Reporters Without Borders describes as “nonsensical and incomprehensible”, means that organisations with dissenting opinions receiving donations from abroad are deemed to be “foreign agents”.

Those who do not register as foreign agents can receive up to five years’ imprisonment.

Being added to the register causes advertisers to drop out, meaning that revenue for the news sites drops dramatically. Meduza were forces to cut staff salaries by between 30 to 50 per cent.

2nd Belgium

Belgium is relatively successful in combating attacks on free speech. It does, however, make such attacks arguably more of a shock to the system than it may do elsewhere.

The coronavirus pandemic was, of course, a trying time for governments everywhere. But troubling times do not give leaders a mandate to ignore public scrutiny and questioning from journalists.

Alexandre Penasse, editor of news site Kairos, was banned from press conferences after being accused by the prime minister of provocation, while cartoonist Stephen Degryse received online threats after a cartoon that showed the Chinese flag with biohazard symbols instead of stars.

Incidents tend to be spaced apart, but notable. In 2020, journalist Jérémy Audouard was arrested when filming a Black Lives Matter protest. According to the Council of Europe “The policeman tried several times to prevent the journalist, who was showing his press card, from filming the violent arrest of a protester lying on the ground by six policemen.”

There is an interesting debate around holocaust denial, however and it is perhaps the issue most indicative of Belgium’s stance on free speech.

Holocaust denial, abhorrent as it may be, is protected speech in most countries with freedom of expression. It is at least accepted as a view that people are entitled to, however ridiculous and harmful such views are.

The law means that anyone who chooses to “deny, play down, justify or approve of the genocide committed by the German National Socialist regime during the Second World War” can be imprisoned or fined.

Belgium has also considered laws that would make similar denials of genocides, such as the Rwandan and Armenian genocides respectively, but was unable to pursue this due to the protestations of some in the Belgian senate and Turkish communities. It could be argued that in some areas, it is hard to establish what constitutes as ‘denial’, therefore, choosing to ban such views is problematic and could set an unwelcome precedent for future law making regarding free speech.

Comparable legal propositions have reared over the years. In 2012, fines were introduced for using offensive language. Then mayor Freddy Thielemans was quoted as saying “Any form of insult is from now on [is] punishable, whether it be racist, homophobic or otherwise”.

3rd Denmark

Denmark has one of the best records on free speech in the world and it is protected in the constitution. It makes a strong case to be the lowest ranked team in the tournament in terms of free speech violations. It is perhaps unfortunate then, that they were drawn in a group with their fellow Scandinavians.

Nevertheless, no country’s record on free speech is perfect and there have been some concerning cases in the country over the last few years.

2013 saw a contentious bill approved by the Danish Parliament “reduced the availability of documents prepared”, according to Essentially, it was argued that this was a restriction of freedom of information requests which are vital tool for journalists seeking to garner correct and useful information.

Acts against freedom of speech tend to be individual acts, rather than a persistent agenda.

Impartial media is vital to upholding democratic values in a state. But, in 2018, public service broadcaster DR was subjected to a funding cut of 20 per cent by the right-wing coalition government.

DR were forced to cut around 400 jobs, according to the European Federation of Journalists, an act that was described as “revenge” at the time.

There have been improvements elsewhere. In 2017, Denmark scrapped its 337-year-old blasphemy law, which previously forbade public insults of religion. At the time, it was the only Scandinavian country to have such a law. According to The Guardian, MP Bruno Jerup said at the time: “Religion should not dictate what is allowed and what is forbidden to say publicly”.

The change to the law was controversial: a Danish man who filmed himself burning the Quran in 2015 would have faced a blasphemy trial before the law was scrapped.

In 2020, Danish illustrator Niels Bo Bojesen was working for daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten and replaced the stars of the Chinese flag with symbols of the coronavirus.

Jyllands-Posten refused to issue the apology the Chinese embassy demanded.

The Council of Europe has reported no new violations of media freedom in 2021.

4th Finland

A good record across the board, Finland is internationally recognised as a country that upholds democracy well.

Index exists on the principle that censorship can and will exist anywhere there are voices to be heard, but it wouldn’t be too crass of us to say that the world would be slightly easier to peer through our fingers at if its record on key rights and civil liberties were a little more like Finland’s.

It is joint top with Norway and Sweden of non-profit Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index of 2021, third in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2020, sixth in The Economist’s Democracy Index 2020 and second in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

Add that together and you have a country with good free speech protections.

That is not to say, though, that when cases of free speech violations do arise, they can be very serious indeed.

In 2019, the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) called for Finnish authorities to drop charges against journalist Johanna Vehkoo.

Vehkoo described Oulou City Councilor Junes Lokka as a “Nazi clown” in a private Facebook group.

A statement by the CPJ said: “Junes Lokka should stop trying to intimidate Johanna Vehkoo, and Finnish authorities should drop these charges rather than enable a politician’s campaign of harassment against a journalist.”

“Finland should scrap its criminal defamation laws; they have no place in a democracy.”

Indeed, Finnish defamation laws are considered too harsh, as a study by Ville Manninen on the subject of media pluralism in Europe, found.

“Risks stem from the persistent criminalization of defamation and the potential of relatively harsh punishment. According to law, (aggravated) defamation is punishable by up to two years imprisonment, which is considered an excessive deterrent. Severe punishments, however, are used extremely rare, and aggravated defamation is usually punished by fines or parole.”

The study also spoke of another problem, that of increased harassment or threats towards journalists.

Reporter Laura Halminen had her home searched without a warrant after co-authoring an article concerning confidential intelligence.

Other groups

Group A

Group C

Group D

Group E

Group F[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Denmark: Cuts to funding threaten the future of DR’s public service journalism


The newsroom at DR. (Credit: James Cridland / Flickr)

The newsroom at DR. (Credit: James Cridland / Flickr)

Known across Europe for its journalistic quality and as an exporter of hit political dramas, Danish state broadcaster DR will this autumn be forced to make unprecedented layoffs in what some are calling an act of “revenge” by the government.

In a package of media reforms agreed by Denmark’s governing right-wing coalition, DR is to have its funding cut by 20% and will be forced to let several hundred staff go as a result.

A significant driver of the cuts is the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DF), a political movement founded in the mid-1990s that has grown to become a supporting partner of the conservative coalition government. DF politicians have been known to discredit public media outlets and encouraged voters towards alternative websites pushing strongly nationalistic content, with DR often caricatured as a hotbed of left wingers and politically correct liberals.

One longtime editor from DR’s current affairs team, who wished to remain anonymous, said he believes the cuts are a clear political power play: “This thing about DR being left wing goes 50 years back to the days when DR was a monopoly in Denmark when it was accused of being biased, but the funny thing is that all the DR stars that went into politics over many years all have gone to right-wing parties. In the past, there have been examples of DR leaning a little to the left, but nothing on the scale of what they’re being accused off; it simply makes no sense.”

Thoughts have now turned to where exactly the cuts will bite, combined with anger among DR journalists at what they see as a personal attack.

“This will cost around 600-700 jobs and people will get the sack in October,” says the editor. “Are they pissed off? Of course they are, because they feel it’s unjust. The budget of DR is £450 million a year and employs about 3,000 people. Yes, there’s room for cuts, they just have to be based on facts and necessities and not the whims of vengeful politicians.”

Traditionally DR has used large-scale audience capture to divert viewers and listeners towards its more educational and politically analytical content. Journalists fear that by being forced to hand over more popular content to commercial and entertainment-only channels, it will end up shedding audience share, which will then be used as a political justification for further cuts in public spending. The government has also removed the public broadcaster’s first refusal on international sporting events which bring in large numbers of viewers, much to the delight of commercial broadcasters.

DR’s politically cautious general director, Maria Rørbye Rønn, has said that the cutbacks will have serious consequences for the organisation’s users, viewers and listeners. Unions have been more forthright, with DR’s most senior union representative, Henrik Friis Vilmar, telling colleagues in an open letter: “[T]he ambitions of the Danish media are to my mind especially important at a time where Danish-produced critical news is more important than ever in order to stem the tide of fake news and troll factories.” Friis Vilmar went on to warn that the ability of DR to critically observe Danish society was at serious risk.

Morten Østergaard, a member of parliament for the opposition Danish Social Liberal Party, has described the cuts as a “vendetta against DR”, while the Social Democrats have also refused to back the government deal, claiming that cuts will mean less Danish content and less coverage of life in Denmark, which would also negatively impact the Danish democratic system.

The government has responded that it is saving Danes money by effectively giving them a small tax break, though the difference this will make to people’s personal finances is negligible, with people saving at most around 160 euros a year. As part of the package of reforms the government is abolishing the current system of media licences and instead financing DR through the tax system.

DR was founded in 1925 and has a reputation for being one of Europe’s most developed and innovative public broadcasters. In 2007 it moved to a new high-tech media campus on the south side of Copenhagen and currently runs six different TV channels and eight radio channels, including a comprehensive local radio network.

The opposition parties in the Danish parliament have said that they will restore DR’s funding if they win the next election. This might be welcome news for public service journalists, but with the axe hanging over so many of its staff, the next round of elections will see a leaner public broadcaster painfully aware that its detractors in power are watching its every move.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Incidents reported to Mapping Media Freedom since 24 May 2014.” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:14|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_raw_html]JTNDaWZyYW1lJTIwd2lkdGglM0QlMjI3MDAlMjIlMjBoZWlnaHQlM0QlMjIzMTUlMjIlMjBzcmMlM0QlMjJodHRwcyUzQSUyRiUyRm1hcHBpbmdtZWRpYWZyZWVkb20udXNoYWhpZGkuaW8lMkZzYXZlZHNlYXJjaGVzJTJGNzklMkZtYXAlMjIlMjBmcmFtZWJvcmRlciUzRCUyMjAlMjIlMjBhbGxvd2Z1bGxzY3JlZW4lM0UlM0MlMkZpZnJhbWUlM0U=[/vc_raw_html][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1532621766097-fa067966-c17c-8″ taxonomies=”6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Petition calls on Denmark to repeal blasphemy ban

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]We the undersigned respectfully urge the Danish Parliament to vote in favour of bill L 170 repealing the blasphemy ban in section 140 of the Danish criminal code, punishing “Any person who, in public, ridicules or insults the dogmas or worship of any lawfully existing religious community”.

Denmark is recognised as a global leader when it comes to the protection of human rights and freedom of expression. However, Denmark’s blasphemy ban is manifestly inconsistent with the Danish tradition for frank and open debate and puts Denmark in the same category as illiberal states where blasphemy laws are being used to silence dissent and persecute minorities. The recent decision to charge a man – who had burned the Quran – for violating section 140 for the first time since 1971, demonstrates that the blasphemy ban is not merely of symbolic value. It represents a significant retrograde step in the protection of freedom of expression in Denmark.

The Danish blasphemy ban is incompatible with both freedom of expression and equality before the law. There is no compelling reason why the feelings of religious believers should receive special protection against offence. In a vibrant and pluralistic democracy, all issues must be open to even harsh and scathing debate, criticism and satire. While the burning of holy books may be grossly offensive to religious believers it is nonetheless a peaceful form of symbolic expression that must be protected by free speech.

Numerous Danes have offended the religious feelings of both Christians and Muslims without being charged under section 140. This includes a film detailing the supposed erotic life of Jesus Christ, the burning of the Bible on national TV and the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed. The Cartoon affair landed Denmark in a storm of controversy and years of ongoing terrorist threats against journalists, editors and cartoonists. When terror struck in February 2015 the venue was a public debate on blasphemy and free speech.

In this environment, Denmark must maintain that in a liberal democracy, laws protect those who offend from threats, not those who threaten from being offended.

Retaining the blasphemy ban is also incompatible with Denmark’s human rights obligations. In April 2017 Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagtland emphasised that “blasphemy should not be deemed a criminal offence as the freedom of conscience forms part of freedom of expression”. This position is shared by the UN’s Human Rights Committee and the EU Guidelines on freedom of expression and religion.
Since 2014, The Netherlands, Norway, Iceland and Malta have all abolished blasphemy bans. By going against this trend Denmark will undermine the crucial European and international efforts to repeal blasphemy bans globally.

This has real consequences for human beings, religious and secular, around the globe. In countries like Pakistan, Mauretania, Iran, Indonesia and Russia blasphemy bans are being used against minorities as well as political and religious dissenters. Denmark’s blasphemy ban can be used to legitimise such laws. In 2016 the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief pointed out that “During a conference held in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) [in 2015], the Danish blasphemy provision was cited by one presenter as an example allegedly indicating an emerging international customary law on “combating defamation of religions”.

Blasphemy laws often serve to legitimise violence and terror. In Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh free-thinkers, political activists, members of religious minorities and atheists have been killed by extremists. In a world where freedom of expression is in retreat and extremism on the rise, democracies like Denmark must forcefully demonstrate that inclusive, pluralistic and tolerant societies are built on the right to think, believe and speak freely. By voting to repeal the blasphemy ban Denmark will send a clear signal that it stands in solidarity with the victims and not the enforcers of blasphemy laws.

Jacob Mchangama, Executive director, Justitia
Steven Pinker, Professor Harvard University
Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, Exiled editor of Shuddhashar, 2016 winner International Writer of Courage Award
Pascal Bruckner, Author
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Human Rights Activist Founder of AHA Foundation,
Dr. Elham Manea, academic and human rights advocate (Switzerland)
Sultana Kamal, Chairperson, Centre for Social Activism Bangladesh
Deeyah Khan, CEO @Fuuse & founder @sister_hood_mag.
Fatou Sow, Women Living Under Muslim Laws
Elisabeth Dabinter, Author
William Nygaard, Publisher
Flemming Rose, Author and journalist
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO, Index on Censorship
Kenan Malik, Author of From Fatwa to Jihad
Thomas Hughes, Executive Director Article 19
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America
Pragna Patel – Director of Southall Black Sisters
Leena Krohn, Finnish writer
Jeanne Favret-Saada, Honorary Professor of Anthropology, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes,
Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Fariborz Pooya, Host of Bread and Roses TV
Frederik Stjernfelt, Professor, University of Aalborg in Copenhagen
Marieme Helie Lucas, Secularism Is A Women’s Issue
Michael De Dora, Director of Government Affairs, Center for Inquiry
Robyn Blumner, President & CEO, Center for Inquiry
Nina Sankari, Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation (Poland).
Sonja Biserko, Founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
James Lindsay, Author
Malhar Mali, Publisher and editor, Areo Magazine
Julie Lenarz – Executive Director, Human Security Centre, London
Terry Sanderson President, National Secular Society
Greg Lukianoff, CEO and President, FIRE
Thomas Cushman, Professor Wellesley College
Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law, New York Law School
Simon Cottee, the Freedom Project, Wellesley College
Paul Cliteur, professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University
Lino Veljak, University of Zagreb, Croatia
Lalia Ducos, Women’s Initiative for Citizenship and Universals Rights , WICUR
Lepa Mladjenovic, LC, Belgrade
Elsa Antonioni, Casa per non subire violenza, Bologna
Bobana Macanovic, Autonomos Women’s Center, Director, Belgrade
Harsh Kapoor, Editor, South Asia Citzens Web
Mehdi Mozaffari, Professor Em., Aarhus University, Denmark
Øystein Rian, Historian, Professor Emeritus University of Oslo
Kjetil Jakobsen, Professor Nord University
Scott Griffen, Director of Press Freedom Programmes International Press Institute (IPI)
Henryk Broder, Journalist
David Rand, President, Libres penseurs athées — Atheist Freethinkers
Tom Herrenberg, Lecturer University of Leiden
Simone Castagno, Coordinamento Liguria Rainbow
Laura Caille, Secretary General Libres
Mariannes Andy Heintz, writer
Bernice Dubois, Conseil Européen des Fédérations WIZO
Ivan Hare, QC[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1495443304735-e4b217b9-25e4-0″ taxonomies=”88, 53″][/vc_column][/vc_row]