A lot of hot air: Johnson, Braverman and climate protests

The temperature is rising, and not just for former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The heat has increased in the UK in more literal ways, leading the National Grid to fire up a coal power plant to create enough energy to power all our air-con units. The irony of this is lost on no-one, particularly environmental campaigners.

No, we haven’t gone off on an environmental tangent. There are plenty of free speech issues stemming from the climate crisis, as we have reported many times in the past. Yesterday morning some of the very people who are protesting dirty energy were dealt another blow. After Home Secretary Suella Braverman gave further clarification that “serious disruption” included slow walking protests that block roads, the amendments to the Public Order Act, which further lowers the “serious disruption” threshold, came into effect. The Home Office said: “While the right to peaceful protest remains a cornerstone of our democracy, causing traffic to halt, delaying people getting to work and distracting the police from fighting crime will not be tolerated.”

Disruptive environmental groups have been targeted in government legislation before (à la the Public Order Bill policy paper’s specific reference to Extinction Rebellion), and this latest example is no different. Braverman said: “The public are sick of Just Stop Oil’s selfish and self-defeating actions, which achieve nothing towards their cause.”

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, commissioned by Friends of the Earth, gave his legal opinion on the matter, highlighting “serious implications for the right to freedom of speech and protest”. He said there will be a chilling effect on people who want to attend protests, “because people who are deciding whether to organise or attend a protest would not be able to predict with sufficient certainty whether the police are likely to impose conditions”. Human rights group Liberty, meanwhile, is launching a legal action over the legislation, which they describe as being “brought in by the back door”.

Groups like Just Stop Oil do indeed divide opinion. But they cannot be used as an excuse to further erode public assembly and protest rights. Imagine a future controlled by the very worst of governments — now imagine how they could use this law.

Last week also was the anniversary of the deaths of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who were killed while reporting in Brazil’s Javari Valley in the Amazon last year. There were memorials across the world. At an event at Rich Mix in London, people not only remembered their lives, they also shone a light on the threats that Indigenous people continue to face in the Javari Valley, as they stand in defence of the rainforest.

Back in autumn 2021 our special report examined the silencing of the planet’s Indigenous peoples. We reported on how environmental defenders in Ecuador were criminalised, threatened and attacked and Australia’s history of selective listening when it comes to First Nations voices. Indigenous communities are just as at risk now as they were then — and as they have been for centuries.

As the mercury levels keep going up globally and defenders of the planet keep raising their voices, we have not forgotten about the threats they face, and the importance of their voices being heard.

“We deserve more on freedom of expression”

Sanaa Seif, the sister of Egyptian writer and activist Alaa abd el-Fattah, speaking at COP27

It shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this that I care passionately about freedom of expression. I have dedicated my life to political engagement and campaigning and have used every right afforded to me under article 10 of the Human Rights Act as I have sought to fix problems in our society.

At Index I spend every day seeking to ensure that those people who are silenced by despotic regimes have a platform for their words and their art. I speak to journalists and stakeholders daily about threats to freedom of speech at home and abroad. After all, Index was founded to protect this most fundamental of human rights everywhere it is threatened.

But there are some weeks when even I am surprised by the scale of news coverage of freedom of speech. Especially in the UK. It increasingly feels like the phrase freedom of speech is dominating political debate as well as the comment pages in our mainstream media. Of course I welcome every mention and the truth, in an age of disinformation, trolling and political populism, is that we need a national conversation about how language, speech and debate need to be protected and cherished as our communication tools evolve and develop.

But in the last week I’m not sure that’s what we’ve seen. I want a debate about freedom of speech and expression. About how to protect and promote media, artistic and academic freedoms. Instead what we have seen is journalists arrested, in the UK, for doing their job and covering the news. We’ve seen an elected politician denounce media outlets for having the audacity to cover protests.

On the international stage we’ve seen a social media platform used by millions of people change dramatically on the whim of a billionaire within a matter of days of his taking ownership. World leaders attending COP27 in Egypt failing in all efforts to intervene in the case of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a democracy campaigner, imprisoned because he dared to support a political protest. And in the US we’ve once again seen too many politicians undermining the very basis of their democracy as a political tool.

We deserve so much better than this.

We deserve more than political rhetoric about free speech while populists seek to hijack their own definition of free speech for political gain.

We deserve more than token diplomatic gestures when people are rotting in prison for having the audacity to demand their basic human rights.

We deserve more than our police forces arresting journalists and undermining media freedom because they seek to cover the news.

We deserve better. And Index will keep demanding better – at home and abroad.