We have a duty to protect our politicians

I was a British MP from 2015 until 2019.

I was friends with Jo Cox and I knew Sir David Amess. I was involved in the effort to protect Rosie Cooper and was also a target for a huge amount of abuse and too many threats of violence to count. So the news in the last week, after months of stories about politicians being targeted because of a war thousands of miles away, of more reports of threats of violence to politicians at home and abroad isn’t just a news story for me – it’s been my life.

I love politics, for me it’s the main vehicle in a democratic society to change the world. It allows us to support people who need it and to challenge the status-quo. Elections are the frontline in a battle of ideas about the type of country and world we want to live in. Words dominate and debate makes all of us better. Elections are the bedrock of our democracy and our rights to freedom of expression. For me this is everything. Which means the participants need to feel safe to make those arguments – to challenge each other, to debate. This is the ultimate test of how robust our democracy really is.

However, recent events have shed light on a concerning trend: the increasing need for special police protection for individual politicians or even their withdrawal from political life due to threats on their lives because of what they believe.

Politicians like Mike Freer MP in the United Kingdom and Nikki Haley in the US, the last remaining serious challenger to Donald J Trump for the Republican Party nomination, have become appalling examples of the risks individuals face for daring to voice their convictions.

Mike Freer, the Member of Parliament for Finchley and Golders Green, has been subjected to vile threats and intimidation, culminating in his constituency office being firebombed. Unable to persuade him to change his views, extremists have sought to silence him through fear and intimidation. In response Mike Freer has understandably announced his retirement from politics at the next election. 

Similarly, Nikki Haley, the Republican Party nominee vying for the presidency of the United States of America, has been thrust into a whirlwind of threats and intimidation due to her challenging Donald J. Trump for the nomination. She finds herself the focus of extremists who seek to undermine her campaign through fear and violence. Faced with the grim reality of constant danger, Haley has felt compelled to request secret service protection — a sobering indication of the challenges confronting modern democracy even at the highest levels of political discourse.

These stories are unfortunately increasingly common, British politicians now have a security assessment as standard. American politicians in a leadership role are provided with security protections. This is now common practice in nearly every western democracy.

The threats faced by Freer, Haley, and countless others are not isolated incidents but symptoms of a broader trend towards intolerance and extremism. In an era marked by polarisation and ideological division, the space for civil discourse is rapidly shrinking, replaced by a climate of hostility and intimidation. This not only undermines the democratic process but also erodes the very foundations of our society.

Since 1689 parliamentary privilege, otherwise known as protected free speech for parliamentarians, has been enshrined in British law, ensuring legal protections for political debate and opinion. It is an incredibly important core tenet of freedom of political speech. But this is for nothing if people are protected from being sued for making a political point – but not protected from violence.

As defenders of freedom of expression, it is incumbent upon us to confront this trend head-on and reaffirm our commitment to protecting the voices of those who dare to speak out, protecting those that seek to engage in our democracy. Politicians like Mike Freer and Nikki Haley should not have to live in fear for simply expressing their beliefs. We must stand in solidarity with them and demand that they be afforded the safety and security they deserve as public servants.

Politicians are the custodians of our national conversation – in turn we must be custodians of them. 

Trump raises the stakes on media freedom

The threats to freedom of expression are multifaceted and seem to be coming from all directions. Every day we hear about a new international threat to freedom of expression, a new SLAPP or a new campaign to silence or cancel. These threats are compounded by those who are seeking to spread misinformation and propaganda campaigns to shape the national and international narrative to suit their purposes.

From the dark recesses of the internet and the spread of deep fake videos to trolls spreading disinformation and national governments, usually the tyrants, attempting to control information sources and restricted access to media.

However, we expect protections against these threats from our democratically elected leaders and the countries that they run. Take the United States, with all the protections afforded by the First Amendment. Donald Trump and his administration unfortunately never seem to have got the memo. As president he attacked the media every day and undermined the cross-party consensus that has afforded journalists protection for over 200 years. And he hasn’t changed his stance since he left office, attacking mainstream media outlets who dare to do their job and challenge his version of reality.

And this week he has taken these attacks a step further, threatening to withdraw the licences of those media outlets he perceives to be critical of him should he be reelected in the 2024 presidential election. He literally threatened to shut them down, naming NBC and MSNBC as his initial targets.

It’s not even clear that the President has the power to do this. But the threats alone are enough to undermine media freedom in the US.

In Trump’s eyes, critical media is dishonest, corrupt and lying. He’s even accused them of treason in his angry posts on TruthSocia, his own social media platform. This attitude towards the media has an incredibly damaging effect on democracy; we’ve seen it happen in country after country. Afterall it wasn’t too long ago that President Putin was referring to critical media in Russia as liars and traitors – and now there is no independent media left within Russia’s borders.

Can you imagine a situation in which NBC News and MSNBC have to operate outside the US’s borders? Sadly, Russia has shown us that the independent media can disappear in no time at all.

Independent journalism is a key element of every democracy. Journalists provide the ultimate check and balance to power. They can shine a spotlight on corruption and speak truth to power. And of course, with that power they have the responsibility to report the news objectively and impartially.

But in turn for their professionalism and impartiality we have a duty to support them against attacks from those with an agenda. Media freedom is the first defence of our democracy. We must all stand against Donald Trump’s ongoing threats and make it clear that media freedom is vital at home and abroad.

Regulating political advertising in Europe threatens freedom of expression


President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron at the European Parliament in 2022. Photo: France Diplomatie

Threats to free speech and freedom of expression can come from a range of different places. Most often it is the despotic tyrants who use fear and violence to crush dissent but sometimes, it comes from the unintended consequences of those trying to control something new.

With advancements in AI, online advertising and digital news outlets, those with both the power and responsibility to regulate the internet are grappling with complex new challenges at a time when more and more people want to protect their online rights.

We’ve seen this happen in the UK as the Online Safety Bill slowly grinds through Westminster and lawmakers try to find new ways of protecting both users and free speech.

But it’s not just the UK which is struggling to find that balance: there is another piece of proposed regulation in Europe that is rapidly becoming a potential threat to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Since 2016, post the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, there has been much discussion about proposals to regulate political advertising online. Seven years later, the European Union is finally taking its first steps into this tangled web and trying to come up with rules which will seek to regulate exactly how political advertising can work inside the union.

As it is currently drafted, Europe’s political ads regulation could have a huge chilling effect both for Europeans and for those who rely on the EU’s protection of expression. We would all agree that scrutiny of, and transparency in, political campaigning is a cornerstone of a thriving and functioning democracy. To be able to hold political parties and their leaders to account for what they say and do is integral to democratic societies.

Paid-for political advertising is nothing new. It has been a part of traditional campaigning across Europe for years. From newspapers to billboards, political actors have always paid to get their message across to the electorate.

But the EU is proposing to go much further than regulate just paid political online advertising, their draft regulation could include any content that could be deemed to advance a political view.

This sweeping definition would include unpaid content, created by citizens or grassroots campaigners, regardless of whether someone has paid for the content to be placed.

Online content including YouTube videos and tweets from members of the public could suddenly become subject to strict rules on what they can and cannot say, with legal consequences for platforms if content deemed to be political is not removed within a tight 48-hour window.

Imagine the silencing of online public commentary during the French Presidential debates or the Irish Dail elections if platforms are suddenly required to regulate every comment offered by every pundit, every journalist or every citizen. Such a broad definition would likely lead to the zealous over-removal of any content deemed political for fear of penalty, opening the door for manipulation by tyrants, bad-faith actors and political opponents looking to limit freedom of speech online.

Even analysis about a political party’s electoral fortunes might be caught in the net and that is before we even know what the Commission plans for citizen journalism or those who run third-party campaigns against extremists.

What is more, citizens and campaigners in countries where freedom of speech is not afforded the same protections as in the EU often rely on European media outlets for access to real news. If news commentary and debate in the run-up to elections is undermined then this poses a direct threat to Europe’s role as a human rights leader. Suddenly, voices of democracy based in Europe would be silent and all as a consequence of the EU trying to protect the integrity of their own democracy.

Allowing people to express their political views is a fundamental component of freedom of expression. Not only that, restricting online content in this way goes much further than any offline restriction on freedom of speech. Much like the Digital Services Act that we campaigned on in 2021, the unintended consequences of trying to regulate our digital world appears to affect our real-world freedoms.

Index’s position then, as it is now, is clear: what is legal to say offline should be the benchmark for what is legal to say online. Content created online to promote a legitimate political ideology, viewpoint or authorised candidacy should be afforded the same freedom of speech protection that it would enjoy offline.

We should all be more cautious about believing what we read on the internet – just as we should approach our daily newspaper reports with a healthy dose of scepticism.  But, if politicians and political actors have a message they wish to promote, they should be free to do so, however much we might disagree with their view. If campaigners want to support or oppose what they see and hear online, we should welcome the discourse and accept that in a vibrant democratic society there will be differences.

Ultimately, the people who will properly regulate political advertising are the voters themselves. If they think they are being conned or hoodwinked, they will show that at the ballot box.

By all means, let’s ensure that the rules governing online adverts are the same as the rules governing offline campaigning. Let’s bring in the transparency and the openness that ensures a level playing field and a fair fight for politics offline but let’s not imperil political advertising or push out the marginal voices who so often rely on digital ads to be heard.

The EU must reconsider their online political ads regulation and use it as a chance to embed transparency, not eliminate debate.

At the end of the day, voters will have the final word but before then, they have a right to hear what is being said.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also wish to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Raised voices: why we must continue to listen

This week has been awful.

The news has been devastating and all consuming. But that feels like it’s becoming the norm.

In Belarus, our friends remain under attack – Andrei and Irina’s trial began on Monday. We have no idea of the outcome.

In Brazil, Dom Phillips and his colleague Bruno Araújo Pereira remain missing – but with reports of fresh blood being found, our hearts break for their loved ones.

In Ukraine, we see daily the death and destruction caused by the Russian invasion, up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers killed a day. And the reports of cholera in Mariupol are beyond my comprehension in the twenty-first century.

In Russia, the crackdown against dissidents continues unabated – with limited coverage. 160 people are currently defending criminal cases for anti-war statements and this week a close associate of Alexei Navalny was tried in absentia and placed on the international wanted list.

In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr has been elected as the next President and made his first visit to the US as President-Elect – seemingly the legacy of his parents no longer an electoral or diplomatic issue.

In Hong Kong, six brave democracy protesters were arrested for the temerity of marking the anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

In the US – the inquiry into the Capitol Riot is officially underway – highlighting just how fragile our collective democracy is and how desperately we need to cherish and protect it.

And that’s before I even touch on what is happening in the UK, the ongoing political crises, and the ideologically incoherent approach to freedom of expression protections.

And in too many countries this is now framed through the prism of a cost-of-living crisis as a scale that we haven’t seen for a generation.

My only comfort is that we know what is happening. In a digital age it is very difficult for any leader, however repressive, to completely silence dissent about their domestic actions. The joy of a free press in democratic countries is that it enables us to be informed and to demand more and better – from our own leaders and from those that claim a global role. It enables us to analyse the scale of the threat and to try and prioritise our efforts in assisting those brave enough to stand against tyranny.

Index exists to provide a platform for the persecuted. We work every day with those who refuse to be silenced. The least we can do is listen to them and then join their fight.