Global view: Who has freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression is a universal, fundamental human right. But who actually has access to free expression? Index CEO Kirsty Hughes looks at the evidence.

One approach could be to count the number of democracies in the world, and their populations, and call that a rough estimate of people who can exercise their right to free speech today. But in many democracies, freedom of expression is constrained in many ways — from hate speech and criminal defamation laws to public order and security constraints to obscenity laws. Many of those constraints, such as laws in the UK and India that criminalise offensive speech online, go too far. And many democracies are flawed — through corruption, inadequate press freedom, and poor defence of, or excessive constraints on, rights and freedoms more generally.

The recent Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) 2012 Democracy Index tells us that nearly half the world’s population live in “full” or “flawed” democracies, suggesting billions of us are enjoying freedom of expression to a considerable extent. That leaves the other half of the world’s population living in what the EIU calls “hybrid” or authoritarian regimes. Of this number, 2.6bn live in authoritarian regimes, with China accounting for almost half this figure.

With freedom of expression deteriorating in “hybrid” regimes such as Turkey and Russia, and with over half the European Union’s member states falling into the “flawed” category, this is not a reassuring global picture. EU member states are meant to achieve a decent standard of democracy and respect for rights even before they join the union, but the 14 out of 27 EU states that are categorised as “flawed” not only include many of the central and east European countries that joined the EU in 2004, but also Greece, France and Italy. Overall, democracy worldwide was at a standstill in 2012 compared to the year before, neither better nor worse.


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But the detail is more alarming, from repression in the Middle East and loss of trust in European political leaders to polarisation in the US. One classic barrier to being able to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media,” as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the right to free expression, is illiteracy. About one quarter of India’s population is illiterate, and this includes an astounding one third of all Indian women. This means hundreds of millions of people cannot read or write and are, as a result, unable to gain access to ideas, arguments or debates.

This is not just a problem for countries where poverty and illiteracy go hand in hand. In the UK, up to one fifth of the adult population, around 6 to 8m people, are estimated to be “functionally illiterate”, lacking the basic reading and writing skills necessary to participate effectively in society. One estimate puts the functionally illiterate in the US at 30m. And what about access to the arts or the internet? Because of poverty, people in both rich and poorer societies are being excluded from accessing vital information.

Many people in apparently free societies face discrimination. Cultural boundaries, religious controls, caste, class, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender can all have an impact on people’s ability to express their views in public fora. So when we ask who has access to freedom of expression in today’s world, the answer is not simply “not enough people” or “only half the world”. It’s a fact that, around the world, only a minority fully enjoy and are able to practise their right to free expression. So it’s something we have to change, not least in democracies where governments and elites presume or pronounce, often incorrectly, that their population already enjoys that right.

Women and free speech

When looking at freedom of expression globally, it is important to look at how access to it is limited — and who is being shut out. A global deficiency in gender equality goes hand in hand with a lack of free expression, as spelled out through trends in political representation, education, and political participation. A lack of freedom of expression is particularly illustrated in the disparity in literacy rates for women vs. men, as well as representation in national bodies.

Of the world’s estimated 796 million illiterate adults, 64 per cent are women — restricting access to information, education, and public debates taking place online or in newspapers. Women experience a much higher rate of illiteracy — as seen in India, where one in two women are illiterate versus a rate of one in four men.

Women only make up 20% of all national parliaments worldwide, meaning that they only account for 9,206 of 46,048 elected seats. Without representation in national bodies, women are being kept out of wider discussions on social, economic, and political issues. Even in developed nations, representation for women is a major problem. Women in the UK, for example, only hold 145 of the 650 seats in Parliament. With fewer women in decision-making roles across the board, there must be a discussion on how to promote and ensure free expression for all women.

While many well-established international initiatives exist to tackle gender inequality, many do not explicitly protect freedom of expression. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for example, places importance on political participation, human rights and education for women. CEDAW, first ratified in 1979, has been ratified by 187 out of 193 countries worldwide, but it does not include direct support for free expression for women as a key right.

It is vital that countries actually implement key international measures to promote gender equality — including CEDAW — rather than merely paying lip service to such commitments. In addition, it would be a huge step forward if international bodies and declarations commit states directly to ensuring equal and full access to free expression for all women.

Sara Yasin is editorial assistant at Index on Censorship

Illiteracy and free expression

Among the many issues concerning freedom of expression, it becomes easy to forget illiteracy, even though it serves as one of the most basic barriers to freedom of expression. Illiteracy limits the ability to access and receive information as well as to share and pass on information in written form — on — or offline. As such it is a block to participation in social and political life including writing on or engaging with a range of issues and debates. UNESCO in 2008 reported that 796 million adults worldwide are unable to read and write — an 8 per cent increase in literacy globally in the past 20 years. In 1995 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression said “the right to seek or have access to information is one of the most essential elements of freedom of speech and expression”.

Of the 796 million illiterate adults, 64 per cent of them are women, which not only reflects a deficiency in gender equality, but also reflects how in some cases lack of access can be a part of restricting the rights of women. According to UNHCHR resolution 2003/42, higher illiteracy rates can be a part of keeping them from being able to freely communicate, and contributes to constraining their rights to freedom of expression.

While a hindrance to freedom of expression, a high literacy rate does not necessarily correlate with a democratic and free society. While UNESCO estimates China’s literacy rate to be 94 per cent in adults, the single-party state  is notorious for its extreme censorship of both the internet and the press, and has earned a ranking of “not free” from the US-based organisation Freedom House this year. Democratic India, meanwhile has a literacy rate of 62.8 per cent in adults.

Illiteracy is not only a problem in developing countries, but also an ongoing obstacle in developed nations. In 2010, the Literacy Trust estimated that 1 in 6 adults in the UK is illiterate. In the United States, the US Education Department released a 2009 report stating that 32 million American adults are practically illiterate — struggling with even the most basic of literacy skills. Lower literacy means less citizens engaged with major debates within a state, or even access to basic information.

Such shocking numbers only mean that a significant portion of the populations of both the United States and United Kingdom are unable to adequately access information about issues, making it difficult to be an informed decision maker — something crucial for every member of a democratic society.

Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship