From the Danube to the Baltic Sea, Germany takes an authoritarian turn

Since the Hamas’ 7 October terrorist attacks and the subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza, German authorities are using increasingly illiberal measures to curtail pro-Palestine activism. Under the guise of combatting Israel-related antisemitism, civic space for freedom of expression and assembly is shrinking.

The seemingly isolated incidents highlighted in this article are piling up and the curtailing of civic space is starting to be noticed internationally: Civicus, which ranks countries by freedom of expression rights, recently downgraded Germany in a review from “open” to “restricted” due to repression of pro-Palestinian voices, as well as of climate activists.

Stigmatisation of pro-Palestine activism

In her speech celebrating the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 2008, former chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the historical responsibility of Germany for the Shoah, including the security of Israel, as part of Germany’s “Staatsräson” (reason for existence). As Hamas has never credibly renounced its goal of destroying Israel, many German policymakers instinctively lean towards near unconditional support for Israel in the face of such adversaries. For them, the 7 October attacks only served to highlight that Germany cannot give an inch to critics of Israel.

There are long-standing disagreements around where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and attacks on Israel that single it out because it is a Jewish state, are expressed in antisemitic ways or are motivated by antisemitic views. For example, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” but identifies seven examples of when attacks on Israel may be antisemitic (taking into account the overall context). For example, it could be antisemitic to reference classic antisemitic tropes such as the blood libel conspiracy myth to describe Israel, deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or blame Jews collectively for the actions of Israel, according to IHRA.

While Germany has adopted IHRA, much looser standards seem to be applied by authorities and commentators committed to tackling Israel-related antisemitism. Calls for a binational state, advocacy for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or accusations that Israel is committing Apartheid are regularly identified as antisemitic. There is a strong sense that given its historical responsibility, it is not Germany’s place to judge, or let anyone else judge, Israel even as its offensive in Gaza has resulted in one of the highest rates of death in armed conflict since the beginning of the 21st century, and disproportionately affects civilians.

Against this background, advocacy for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights is cast as suspicious. In the liberal Die Zeit newspaper, journalist Petra Pinzler criticised the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as she “sympathises more and more openly with the Palestinians and thus divides the climate movement.” Apparently sympathy with the Palestinians has become a cause for concern.

The debates since 7 October have created an atmosphere in which pro-Palestinian voices are more and more stigmatised. Pro-Palestinian protests have repeatedly been banned by local authorities. Their dystopian rationale for these bans revolves around the idea that, based on assessments of previous marches, crimes are likely to be committed by protesters. The practice is not new: in the past, German police have even banned protests commemorating the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the collective mass expulsion and displacement of around 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1947-49 wars following the adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine by the United Nations. In reaction to pro-Palestine protests since 7 October, the antisemitism commissioner of North Rhine Westphalia and former federal justice minister even suggested the police should pay closer attention to the nationality of pro-Palestine protest organisers as protests organised by non-Germans could be banned more easily.

Furthermore, pro-Palestinian political symbols are being falsely associated with Hamas or other pro-terrorist organisations. In early November, the Federal Interior Ministry banned the chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” as a symbol of both Hamas and Samidoun, a support network for the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.

While one plausible interpretation of the “From the River to the Sea” slogan is that it is a call for the destruction of Israel, it is equally plausible to understand it as a call for a binational state with full equality of all citizens. Without context, the slogan cannot automatically be identified as antisemitic, though it is of course entirely legitimate to criticise this ambivalence. As has been extensively documented, the slogan does not originate with nor is exclusively used by Hamas.

Apart from being based on misinformation, banning “From the River to the Sea” has also created the ludicrous situation that the German police force is asked to make assessments on whether holding a “From the River we do see nothing like equality” placard is an expression of support for terrorism. A former advisor to Angela Merkel even called for the German citizenship of a previously stateless Palestinian woman to be revoked who posted a similar slogan (“From the River to the Sea #FreePalestine”) on her Instagram.

In some cases, these dynamics venture into the absurd. On 14 October, the activist Iris Hefets was temporarily detained in Berlin for holding a placard that read: “As a Jew & an Israeli Stop the Genocide in Gaza.”

These illiberal and ill-conceived measures are not limited to protests. In response to the 7 October attacks, authorities in Berlin allowed schools to ban students from wearing keffiyeh scarves to not “endanger school peace”.

Curtailing civic spaces

While these trends have been accelerated since 7 October, they predate it. In 2019, the German Bundestag passed a resolution that condemned the BDS movement as antisemitic. It referenced the aforementioned IHRA definition of antisemitism (which does not comment on boycotts), compared the BDS campaign to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish business and called on authorities to no longer fund groups or individuals that support BDS.

BDS calls for the boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from companies involved in the occupation of Arab territories and sanctions to force the Israeli government to comply with international law and respect the rights of Palestinians, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Inspired by the boycott campaign against Apartheid South Africa, BDS has attracted many supporters, but critics have claimed that BDS singles out Israel and delegitimises its existence. Accusations of antisemitism within the movement should of course be taken seriously: BDS supporters have previously been accused of employing antisemitic rhetoric about malign Jewish influence and intimidating Jewish students on campus. However, many of BDS’ core demands are clearly not antisemitic. Since the BDS lacks a central leadership that would issue official stances, it is difficult to make blanket statements about the movement in its entirety.

The 2019 resolution is now being cited to shut down cultural events. A planned exhibition in Essen on Afrofuturism was cancelled over social media posts that, according to the museum, “do not acknowledge the terroristic attack of the Hamas and consider the Israeli military operation in Gaza a genocide” and expressed support for BDS. The Frankfurt book fair “indefinitely postponed” a literary prize for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, after one member of the jury resigned due to supposed anti-Israel and antisemitic themes in her book. Shibli has since been accused by the left-wing Taz newspaper of being an “engaged BDS supporter” for having signed one BDS letter in 2007 and a 2019 letter that criticised the city of Dortmund for revoking another literary price for an author that supports BDS. A presentation by the award-winning Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths (University of London), which has analysed human rights abuses in SyriaVenezuela and Palestine as well as Neo-Nazi murders in Germany, was likewise cancelled by the University of Aachen which cited the group’s founder Eyal Weizman’s support for BDS.

The curtailing of civic space increasingly affects voices that have stood up for human rights at great personal risk. The Syrian opposition activist Wafa Ali Mustafa was detained by Berlin police near a pro-Palestine protest, reportedly for wearing a keffiyeh scarf. Similarly, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, which is associated with the centre-left Green Party, pulled out of the Hannah Arendt prize ceremony, which was due to be awarded to the renowned Russian dissident, philosopher and human rights advocate Masha Gessen. Despite acknowledging differences between the two, Gessen had compared Gaza to the Jewish ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Europe in an article about the politics of memory in Germany, the Soviet Union, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Israel.

Conversation stoppers

Alarm bells should ring as one of Europe’s major liberal democracies has taken an authoritarian turn in the aftermath of 7 October. Germany’s noble commitment to its historical responsibility in the face of rising antisemitism is morphing into a suppression of voices advocating for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights.

In this distorted reality, civic spaces are eroded, cultural symbols banned, political symbols falsely conflated with support for terrorism and events are shut down. So far, there has been little pushback or critical debate about these worrying developments. To the contrary: politicians, foundations, cultural institutions and media outlets seem to be closing ranks under the shadow of the 2019 BDS resolution and a skewed interpretation of the IHRA definition.

Following the appalling violence committed by Hamas on 7 October, and the scale of civilian suffering in Gaza due to the subsequent Israeli military offensive, polarisation and tension between communities have been on the rise. In this context, it is crucial to be able to have passionate, empathetic, controversial and nuanced discussions about the conflict, its history, the present impasse, potential ways forward and its impact on Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities abroad. With the voices of activists, authors and even internationally renowned human rights advocates being increasingly isolated, these vital exchanges are prevented from taking place.

Britain’s Holocaust island

In a West London art gallery, a pock-marked relief sculpture provides a devastating visual representation of a wartime Nazi atrocity. The piece is both a work of art and evidence from a crime scene: a cast of a wall riddled with bullet holes. The cast could have been taken from any number of sites across Nazi-occupied Europe. But this wall is on Alderney – one of the Channel Islands and part of the British Isles – which surrendered to the German army in 1940.

The artist Piers Secunda, who created the work, has been told by forensics experts that it was used by a German firing squad. Secunda is part of a growing group of campaigners, journalists, researchers and politicians who believe the full story of the occupation of Alderney has never been told. In particular, he believes the fate of Jewish prisoners on the island has been conveniently minimised to protect the idea of British exceptionalism. If he is right, we will have to reassess our understanding of the history of the geographical boundaries of Hitler’s Final Solution. Hence the exhibition’s title: The Holocaust on British Soil.

Just eight Jews are officially recorded as dying on Alderney. Secunda, who describes himself as a researcher as well as an artist, is sceptical. Another of his works includes reproductions of lists of deportees compiled by the French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld. Secunda is now writing to the families of 400 French Jews who are known to havebeen transported to the island from the notorious transit camp at Drancy in the suburbs of Paris.

“If many hundreds of Jews were sent to Alderney and we know the death rate of prisoners was high-between 30% and 40% – how is it possible that only eight people died on the island? There is a disconnect, and my interest is to join the dots,” he told Index.

An inconvenient truth

While Alderney is technically a Crown Dependency and not a part of the United Kingdom, the British government was responsible for the surrender of the Channel Islands. The occupation of these islands has always been an inconvenient truth. By the summer of 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet concluded the islands could not be defended, and at the beginning of July, Jersey, Guernsey, Sark and Alderney were all occupied.

However, unlike on the other islands, all but a handful of people on Alderney were evacuated. This paved the way for the island to be turned into a vast prison for slave workers constructing Hitler’s sea defences. In January 1942, therefore, four camps – Helgoland, Norderney, Sylt and Borkum – were set up for workers from so-called Operation Todt. Conventional wisdom is that the majority of those transported to the island were Russian prisoners of war. But the records show a significant proportion of those in the camps were Spanish Republicans, north African Arabs and French Jews.

The conditions on Alderney were appalling and, in common with other Nazi work camps, prisoners were beaten and starved. Many succumbed to disease. Those who could no longer work were sent to camps in mainland Europe where they were murdered. The overall numbers of those who died on the island is also the subject of academic controversy: the minimum estimate is between 700 and 1,000 people, but experts believe the actual figure could be much higher.

Immediately after the liberation of Alderney, two senior British soldiers, Major Cotton and Major Haddock, were sent to investigate war crimes. As a result, the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office, the body responsible for bringing Nazis to justice, concluded the conditions were akin to those in other concentration camps in German-occupied territory: “The position here is somewhat similar to Belsen, stronger perhaps because the offences were committed on British territory.” A young captain, Theodore Pantcheff, was brought in to carry out a full investigation. In September 1945 he wrote: “Wicked and merciless crimes were carried out on British soil in the last three years.”

And yet Britain did not bring a single German officer to justice for what happened on Alderney. Instead, the authorities chose to focus on the Russian victims of the regime in the island’s camps and shift the responsibility for any investigation to the Soviet authorities. In October 1945, Pantcheff’s report was sent to Moscow, where it lay in the archives until 1993. The British copy was destroyed.

When the report finally came to light, it revealed that 15 suspected war criminals had been in British custody at the end of the war. In his memoirs, Pantcheff claimed that three of the most notorious of these, Maximilian List, Kurt Klebeck and Carl Hoffman, had not survived the war. This was untrue. Hauptsturmführer List was in charge of Sylt, the only SS camp on British territory. After the war, he
was traced to a British prisoner-of-war camp and was said to have been handed over to the Russians. In fact, he was living in Germany well into the 1970s. Obersturmführer Klebeck, List’s deputy, lived out his days in Hamburg, despite being convicted of other war crimes in 1947 and being the subject of German investigations in the 1960s and the 1990s.

Most shocking is the story of Major Hoffman, the Kommandant of Alderney and its four camps, who Pantcheff said had been handed over to the Russians and executed in Kyiv in 1945. The British government was forced to admit the truth in 1983: that Hoffman was taken from Alderney and held in the London Cage – for prisoners of war – until 1948, when he was released and allowed to return to Germany. He died peacefully in his bed in Hamelin, West Germany, in March 1974.

The story of Alderney is one of silence, state censorship and missed opportunities. Hoffman and the other war criminals should have faced justice immediately after the end of hostilities. The British government has never explained why it allowed them to go free nor why it pursued a policy of “Russification” of the atrocities committed on the island. But there is no doubt this was a conscious policy. The details are contained in Madeleine Bunting’s 1995 book, The Model Occupation. In it she said that Brigadier Shapcott from JAG wrote in 1945 that all the inmates on Alderney were Russian, and Britain’s Foreign Office concluded that “for practical purposes Russians may be considered to be the only occupants of these camps”. JAG also told the Foreign Office: “No atrocities were committed against the French Jews. On balance they were treated better than the others working for the Germans.”

There have been a number of attempts to correct the historical record by drawing attention to the camps on Alderney and the presence of Jewish prisoners. Most notable is the work of Jewish South African archaeologist Solomon H Steckoll, whose book The Alderney Death Camp was published in 1982 and serialised in The Observer newspaper. His direct, impassioned approach is captured in the cover blurb: “In 1943 the SS built a concentration camp on the British island of Alderney. Prisoners were worked as slaves, beaten, starved, hanged, garrotted, hurled from cliff-tops, even buried alive in setting concrete. Why have these horrific acts been kept from the public for so long?”

The Alderney Death Camp is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism driven by the author’s own burning sense of injustice. Many on Alderney dismissed it as a tabloid hatchet job. But it is nothing of the kind, not least because Steckoll made it his personal mission to find Hoffman and reveal the full scale of the British government’s cover-up. This will be his legacy.

Steckoll’s revelations prompted a grudging recognition from the British government that it had not told the truth about Hoffman. It did not, though, lead to full disclosure. Those files on the Channel Islands that had not been destroyed remained closed for at least another decade, when Labour MP David Winnick, who is Jewish, began campaigning for their release.

From May 1992, Winnick also pushed for an investigation into the war crimes on Alderney committed by Klebeck, who was by then known to be at large in Hamburg. By the end of the year, he had succeeded on both fronts (although no files released made any reference to Alderney). Winnick’s campaign was followed two years later by the publication of Bunting’s book. Nearly 30 years on it still bears scrutiny as a major piece of journalism; Bunting’s tone as she grapples with the British government’s decision-making is a mixture of shock and justified anger.

Her conclusion is stark: “Trials on British soil would have been an acutely embarrassing reminder to the British public of several painful facts about the war which the government wanted quickly forgotten: that British territory had been occupied for five years; that British subjects had collaborated and worked for the Germans on Alderney; and that Nazi atrocities, including the establishment of an SS concentration camp, had occurred on British soil.”

Silence on the island

One block on transparency has been the attitudes on Alderney itself. Academics and journalists have faced hostility on the island. Caroline Sturdy Colls, professor of conflict archaeology at Staffordshire University, was the first to apply modern forensic techniques to sites on Alderney. Her book, Adolf Island: The Nazi Occupation of Alderney, was published last year. Nearly 80 years after the end of the war, the subject of what really happened on Alderney remains highly sensitive among some residents who don’t want their island paradise to become part of what they see as the Holocaust industry.

“There are certainly some islanders who want to help memorialise the victims and tell their stories, so not everyone wants to forget,” Sturdy Colls told Index. “Those that do often provide reasons like not wanting the island to be tarnished by this dark history or not wanting tourism based on Nazi sites.”

The archaeologist said there were a host of other reasons why the subject of the camps on Alderney has proved controversial. “There are many people who still don’t recognise the crimes that were perpetrated as being part of the Nazi programme of persecution and/or the Holocaust. After the war, there was a conscious effort by the government to play down the atrocities that were carried out, and so a sanitised narrative emerged that a good proportion of the British public believed or chose to believe. Some of the islanders who went back to Alderney found it too painful to discuss what had happened there, whilst some residents after the war didn’t (and still don’t) want the island to be known for the occupation-era sites that exist there.”

There have been several key moments when a full and accurate narrative should have been told. Immediately after the war, the Pantcheff report could have led to a war crimes trial, but the British government chose to draw a veil over the atrocities.

The extraordinary work of Steckoll in 1982 could have prompted an inquiry, but instead it was dismissed as sensationalist. The combined efforts of Winnick in parliament and Bunting in the press could have opened the door in the mid-1990s, but again the government chose obfuscation rather than openness.

We have another such opportunity now. The mantle of Steckoll has been taken up by another Jewish investigator, Marcus Roberts, who is determined to pursue the truth about the Holocaust on British soil. He believes it is possible that between 15,000 and 30,000 people died on the island, with at least 1,000 being Jewish.

Roberts is the founder of the Jewish heritage charity JTrails. He began researching the Nazi camps of northern France in 2007. Two years later he turned his attention to the Channel Islands. He has been pushing for official recognition of Alderney as a Holocaust site, the establishment of an appropriate memorial and protection of Jewish graves. Roberts has established it was not just French Jews who were sent to Alderney; there were Jews from many from other parts of Europe and north Africa.

His research demonstrates that a considerable number of Jews are likely to have died on the island from dysentery and disease. His view is that the push for a Soviet inquiry was a smokescreen. Roberts told The Observer: “The way I read it is that the investigation regarding the Russians was undertaken first as a diversion from war crimes against other nationalities, but also there was definitely discussion in the papers we can read that they wanted to guarantee access to Allied war graves on Russian territory. It was also about plausible deniability.”

Although she has challenged the numbers cited by Roberts, Sturdy Colls also believes the scale of the Jewish atrocities has been downplayed. “It is evident from the wide range of testimonies available and from the surveys we did of the camps in which Jews were housed that they were treated appallingly, and more Jews likely died than we know of,” she said. “The conditions in which Jews were housed were an extension of those that they were kept in elsewhere in Europe. The camps on Alderney were part of a network of sites that housed Jews and harsh punishments, terrible working and living conditions, and torture characterised their lives on Alderney.”

She added that it was important to recognise the atrocities committed against other groups on Alderney – eastern Europeans and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. “Overall, the suffering of most of the people who were sent to Alderney and were under the control of Organisation Todt and the SS has been underplayed.”

The momentum towards full disclosure may now be irresistible. In recent years, investigative journalists
around the world have turned their attention to Alderney, and the story has been covered by The Sunday Times and ITV in the UK, Channel 9 in Australia, Der Spiegel in Germany and The Times of India. One of the most comprehensive investigations was carried out last year by Isobel Cockerell for the international online publication Coda Story.

Her article on Alderney has been nominated for the 2023 Orwell Prize for Journalism. In it she asks the key questions: “Why did the British government let evidence of German war crimes on its soil … remain in obscurity? Why was no one prosecuted?” She says the islanders have a range of answers: collective shame at surrendering the islands and subsequent collaboration; the post-war focus on rebuilding the country; a view that the scale of the atrocities didn’t merit war crimes trials; and also that “no government wanted talk of Jewish murders on its soil”.

A record to correct

Events in the next few years may force the government’s hand and prompt ministers to correct the historical record. In 2024, the UK will take its turn as chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association. The body is responsible for Holocaust education,remembrance and research around the
world. Lord Pickles is the UK’s special envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues and the head of the UK’s IHRA delegation. On visits to Alderney, Pickles has told islanders they need to come to terms with the troubled history of the camps and find a way of marking what happened with a respectful memorial.

Later this year, Pickles will announce an expert review of the numbers who died on Alderney and invite submissions from academics, researchers and members of the public. The IHRA is seeking to adopt a charter to safeguard all sites of the Holocaust in Europe. Gilly Carr, associate professor in archaeology at Cambridge University and chair of the IHRA Safeguarding Sites project, told Index: “Such sites play
a crucial role in educating current and future generations about the Holocaust and help us reflect on its consequences. In this charter we take a broad approach to what we consider to be a site of the Holocaust. Jews were held in camps in Alderney and we consider these to be Holocaust sites.”

Carr, like Sturdy Colls, believes the full story of Nazi atrocities has been downplayed in the past. “Certainly, the subject of victims of Nazism in the Channel Islands as a whole, a category within which I would include Jews, political prisoners and forced labourers, has come late to the table,” she said. “Because there were no war crimes trials resulting from the occupation of the Channel Islands, it became a ‘non-subject’ for many people.”

Carr has helped develop the concept  of “taboo heritage”, where the legacy of war is so sensitive that people become resistant to the idea of full remembrance.

“Taboo heritage can become heritage in the end if it receives political support, but this usually takes a lot of time and investment by stakeholders,” she said.

Pickles is also co-chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, the body responsible for planning a
Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, which will be built in sight of the Houses of Parliament. British
exceptionalism will be at the heart of the new memorial.

It will celebrate the Kindertransport, the scheme to rescue 10,000 children from Nazi Germany in the nine months before the outbreak of war. It will also celebrate British heroes of the Holocaust, such as Sir Nicholas Winton, who helped rescue 669 children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of war.

There is now a commitment to putting the occupation of the Channel Islands at the heart of the memorial. But what happened here does not sit easily with this narrative of exceptionalism. The horrors of Alderney are a blot on Britain’s reputation, which is perhaps why the full story has been suppressed for so long. The slogan chosen for the memorial is “Confronting Evil, Assuming Responsibility”. Will we now confront the evil of the camps on Alderney and assume responsibility for covering up what happened there?

Ordinary people, extraordinary times

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is ordinary people. Words have power and their meaning changes with context – and in the context of the Holocaust the word ordinary is one that brings conflicted emotions. Those killed were indeed ordinary people who happened to be different, Jewish, gay, Roma, disabled, trade unionists and political dissenters. Many of those that killed them probably started as ordinary people who believed the propaganda that inspired hate and murder. Those that intervened to save them were ordinary people with an incredible value set that demanded in many cases that they risked their lives to save people that they barely knew.

In the run up to Holocaust Memorial Day I had the privilege of hearing the testimony of Janine Webber, a Holocaust survivor who lost huge swathes of her family. There is nothing quite so stark and shocking as hearing first-hand the stories of those people who were confronted with the ultimate evil. Janine survived the ghetto and was hidden and betrayed several times, eventually finding sanctuary in a convent and then with an elderly Polish family. She was saved by ordinary people and betrayed by ordinary people and before this happened to her she was an ordinary little girl in Poland. But in the course of four years she lost her parents, her brother and all of her extended family – the only other surviving members of her family were her aunt and an uncle. Her story will stay with me – and everyone else who heard her testimony – for as long as we live.

The question that has stuck with me since I had the privilege of listening to Janine, is what happens when she is sadly no longer with us. When the survivors are no longer with us to challenge those people who seek to deny or distort the facts of the Holocaust? The onus is on all of us to tell their stories and to shine a light on the lies and misinformation spouted by political extremists who seek to use one of the worst chapters in human history as a political football.

Last week the British House of Lords held its first debate to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. As a new member of the Lords, it was my privilege and responsibility to contribute to the debate. You can read my speech here.

Speaking about such an important topic in a national legislature is not something that anyone would or should take lightly, it was politics at its best – informed, considered and heartfelt.

The debate has made me think repeatedly about the fundamental importance of our core human rights and how we have to cherish and protect them. I can write this blog today because I have a guaranteed right, under British law, to express myself and articulate my opinions. Tyrants and dictators, always, as one of their earliest actions, seek to restrict a free media, undermine academic freedoms, remove books from libraries, and silence their critics. Index exists to provide a platform to those being silenced and we always will – but we also provide a voice to those who seek to tell truth to power, who seek to challenge misinformation, who stand against tyranny. We have for the last fifty years and we will for the next fifty.

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.”