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.”

“I struggle with Kanye West being given a platform by anyone”

Every day there seems to be a new public controversy, with clear free speech elements, which dominates our public discourse for a day or two. Each one typically leads to a discussion within Index, our professional staff debating not just whether we should make an intervention and what that could look like. But sometimes, more importantly, the team has the intellectual debate about where the lines on the right to freedom of speech fall. What are the rights and responsibilities we all have towards the societies we live in?  Where is the line on incitement, on hate speech, on civility?

From Kanye West, to the revoking of TV Rain’s broadcast licence in Latvia, to the death of Jiang Zemin. All had freedom of expression angles, all were complicated, no part of the reality behind the news was clear cut and nuance in the debate was seemingly lost in the maelstrom of the debate.

Personally I struggle with Kanye West being given a platform by anyone; his words incite violence against a minority and there can be little debate that his public statements amount to hate speech. I have spent the majority of my life campaigning against racism and anti-Jewish hate and Mr West, aka Ye, is clearly a racist who espouses views that I will always challenge. And I struggle to be convinced that he has the right to celebrate and justify his racism on every platform available.

However, there are those within the Index family, including some of our founders, who consider (or considered) free speech to be an absolute right – where no limitations on speech could be tolerated. That freedom of expression enables us to shine a light on extremist views and therefore can act as an antidote to them. Intellectually I can understand that approach, I even have huge sympathy with it. Pushing extremist views to the fringes and making them illicit, gives them a mystery and an appeal that they otherwise might not attract. But there has to be a balance, at least in my opinion.

Which brings me back to the right to speak versus the right to be heard. I have the absolute right to write this blog but you have the absolute right not to read it. I have the right to speak, to draw, to argue, but you have the right to ignore me. Because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives me the right to have my own views and to be able to share them without fear or favour – but it doesn’t force anyone to have to listen to them. So the onus is on all of us to find the balance between respecting our freedom of expression and protecting and enhancing the public spaces of the societies we live in.

Mapping Media Freedom: In review 21-27 October

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Each week, Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project verifies threats, violations and limitations faced by the media throughout the European Union and neighbouring countries. Here are five recent reports that give us cause for concern.

Russia: Columnist claims independent journalists should be “cured in gas chambers”

Sergey Leleka, a columnist for the pro-government newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, suggested in an article on 24 October that independent journalists Anton Nosik and Sergei Parkhomenko should be “cured in gas chambers”.

According to Leleka, he wrote the article in reaction to jokes by Nosik and Parkhomenko about the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov which passed through the English Channel emitting thick black smoke.

After the journalists complained to KP, the media outlet deleted the offending paragraph. However, Leleka’s original post is still available on his Facebook page.

Belgium: Newspapers websites suffer DDoS attack from Syrian hackers

A number of Belgian media websites, including De Standaard, RTBF, Het Nieuwsblad, Gazet van Antwerpen and Het Belang van Limburg were subject to a co-ordinated DDoS attack on 24 October, which temporarily shut the sites down.

A group that calls itself the Syrian Cyber Army claimed responsibility.

“We have attacked the Belgian media outlets that support the terrible actions of their Air Force in Syria,” the group said in a message to the newspapers. It wanted to “shame the Belgian authorities, which killed dozens of civilians in the village of Hassajik near Aleppo on 18 October”.

Belgium’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation.

Kosovo: Editor receives death threats for war crimes documentary

Editor-in-chief of Gazeta Express, Leonard Kerquki, received death threats after the airing of his documentary which mentions war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The documentary, Hunting the KLA, aired in two parts and covers crimes and prosecutions from the war between Serbia and Kosovo at the end of the 1990s. The threats were made after the showing of the second part on 23 October.

The Journalist Association of Kosovo condemned the threats, as did the OSCE mission in Kosovo. “I condemn the threats and calls for violence against Kërquki. Freedom of expression must be upheld and respected in all circumstances,” said the head of Kosovo’s OSCE mission, Jan Braathu. “I call on rule of law authorities to investigate these threats immediately and bring the perpetrators to justice,” he said.

Latvia: Russia Today producer deported

Ella Taranova, a senior producer for Russia Today, was detained by Latvian border guards on 21 October and later deported.

The incident occurred after Taranova was admitted to Latvia and to participate in a conference in a seaside suburb of Jurmala.

Taranova was blacklisted for being an employee of Russia Today, which the Latvian authorities see as a hostile propaganda organ of the Russian government. The head of Russia Today, Dmitry Kiselyov, is blacklisted from travelling to the European Union and other countries under EU sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

After her detention, Taranova told journalists: “I did not engage in any political activities nor do I intend to.” She added that she was unaware that she had been blacklisted since 2014 and had attended several such conferences prior to 2014.

Russia: Investigative Committee searches apartment of prominent journalist

At around 6am on 21 October, Russian Investigative Committee (SKR) officers entered and searched the apartment of Ksenia Babich, journalist and spokesperson for human rights international organisation Russian Justice Initiative.

According to Shelepin, SKR officers confiscated a notebook, phones and memory cards.

Babich was also asked to go to the SKR for questioning, Ilia Shelepin, a journalist and Babich’s acquaintance, wrote on Facebook. Babich believes the search is related to the case of Artyom Skoropadski, a press secretary of the Ukrainian organisation Pravyi Sektorwhich, which is banned in Russia.

Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at

Mapping Media Freedom: Two years of uncovering attacks on Europe’s press

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Mapping Media Freedom launched to the public on 24 May 2014 to monitor media censorship and press freedom violations throughout Europe. Two years on, the platform has verified over 1,800 media violations.

“The data the platform has collected over the last two years confirms that the state of press freedom across Europe is deplorable,” said Hannah Machlin, project officer for Mapping Media Freedom. “Media violations are occurring regularly in countries with strong democratic institutions and protective laws for journalists. Legislation limiting the press, violence across the continent and authoritarian governments are also fuelling this rapid and worrying decline. We hope that institutions and leaders take note of this information and take action swiftly.”

To mark the anniversary, we asked our correspondents to pick a key violation that stood out to them as an example of the wider picture in their region.

Russia / 113 verified reports
Several journalists and human rights activists attacked in Ingushetia

“The brutal attack on a minibus carrying six journalists and several human rights activists near the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya on the 9 March 2016 demonstrates the dangers faced by media professionals working in Russia’s North Caucasus. No suspects have been established so far. This case stands out due to its extreme violence but also supports a common trend: the reluctance of the local authorities to ensure that the journalists’ rights are respected.” – Ekaterina Buchneva

Italy / 190 verified reports
97 journalists accused of breaking the law in mafia investigation

“This was a very relevant investigation, with no precedent, that took place in October, a few weeks away from the start of the trial known as Mafia Capitale, which concerns the scandal that involved the government of the city of Rome. It is a collective intimidation because it involved 97 journalists, who were denounced for violating the secret on the ongoing investigations. It is a really serious form of intimidation because it was activated within the field of law and thus is not punishable.” – Rossella Ricchiuti 

Turkey / 57 verified reports
Zaman newspaper seized by authorities

“These attacks and actions taken by the government against independent media in Turkey attest to the shrinking space of independent media overall. In addition, it illustrates the shifting power dynamic within the ruling government in Turkey where once upon a time friends, are turned into enemies by the regime. As the paper wrote itself, Turkey is headed through its ‘darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press.'” – MMF’s Turkey correspondent

Azerbaijan/ 5 verified reports
Writer banned from leaving country

“Aylisl’s 12-hour interrogation at the airport and later charges of hooliganism were just as absurd as the claim that a 79-year-old man, suffering from a heart condition and other health issues would attack an airport employee to such an extent that it would cause hemorrhage. I chose this example to illustrate the absurdity of charges brought against individuals in Azerbaijan but also the extent to which the regime is ready to go in order to muzzle those voices who different.” – MMF’s Azerbaijan correspondent

Macedonia / 59 verified reports
Deputy Prime Minister attacks journalist

“This incident best demonstrates the division in society as a whole and among journalists as a professional guild. This is a clear example of how politicians and elites look upon and treat the journalist that are critical towards their policies and question their authority.” – Ilcho Cvetanoski

Bosnia / 56 verified reports
Police raid offices

“This was the most serious incident over the last two years in Bosnia regarding the state’s misuse of institutions to gag free media and suppress investigative journalism. In this specific incident, the state used its mechanisms to breach media freedoms and send a chilling message to all other media.” – Ilcho Cvetanoski

Croatia / 64 verified reports
Journalist threatened by disbanded far-right military group

“After the centre-right government in Croatia came to power in late 2015, media freedom in the country rapidly deteriorated. Since then around 70 media workers in the public broadcaster were replaced or removed from their posts. This particular case of the prominent editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Novosti receiving a threatening letter from anonymous disbanded military organisation demonstrates the polarisation in the society and its affect on media freedom.” – Ilcho Cvetanoski

Greece / 34 verified reports
Golden Dawn members assault journalists covering demonstration

“This was the second attack against journalists by Golden Dawn members within one month. With more than 50,000 asylum seekers and migrants trapped in Greece, the tension between members of the far-right group and anti-fascist organisations is rising.” – Christina Vasilaki

Poland / 35 verified reports
Over 100 journalists lose jobs at public broadcasters

“This report highlights the extent of the ongoing political cleansing of the public media since the new media law was passed in early January.” – Martha Otwinowski

Germany / 74 verified reports
Journalist stops blogging after threats from right-wing extremists

“The MMF platform lists numerous incidents where German journalists have been threatened or physically assaulted by right-wing extremists over the last two years. This incident stands out as a case of severe intimidation that resulted in silencing the journalist altogether.” – Martha Otwinowski

Belgium / 19 verified reports
Press asked to respect lockdown during anti-terrorism raids

“On 22 November 2015, the Belgian authorities asked the press to refrain from reporting while a big anti-terrorist raid was taking place in Brussels. While understandable, this media lock-down raised questions for press freedom and underlined the difficulties of reporting on terror attacks and anti-terror operations.” – Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

Luxembourg / 2 verified reports
Investigative journalist on trial for revealing Luxleaks scandal

“This Luxleaks-related case is the only violation we have become aware in Luxembourg over the period (which is not to say that no other cases occurred). Along with two whistleblowers, a journalist was prosecuted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and accused of manipulating a whistleblower into leaking documents. This is a good example of the threat the notion of trade secrets can represent to journalism.” – Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

Ukraine / 127 verified reports
Website leaks personal information of more than 4,000 journalists

“This incident shows how fragile the media freedom and personal data of journalists are in armed conflict. Even after a great international scandal, the site continues to break the legislation and publishes new lists. It has been operating for two years already and those involved in its activities go unpunished. It seems that the post-Maidan Ukraine has simply ‘no political will’ for this.” – Tetiana Pechonchyk

Crimea / 18 verified reports
Journalists’ homes searched, criminal case filed

“This report shows the everyday life of independent journalists working on the peninsula. Only a few critical voices are still remaining in Crimea while the majority of independent journalists were forced to leave the profession or to leave Crimea and continue their work on the mainland Ukraine.” – Tetiana Pechonchyk

Spain / 49 verified reports 
Journalist fined for publishing photos of arrest

“The latest issue for the Spanish media is the Public Security Law, introduced in June 2015, which among other things limits space for reporters. The law prohibits the publication of photo and video material where police officers may be identified, unless official state permission is obtained. This was the first case of a journalist being fined by the new law.” – Miho Dobrasin

Belarus / 47 verified reports
Journalist beaten by police, detained and fined for filming police attacks

“The story has ended in impunity: a criminal case was not even filed against the police officers who had beaten the journalist.” – Volha Siakhovich

Latvia / 12 verified reports
Latvia and Lithuania ban Russian-language TV channels

“This was the beginning of a disturbing tendency to react with rather futile gestures against Russian television channels. The bans are not so much against the media, as telling the audience that the authorities, not the public, will decide what Latvian viewers may or may not see or hear.” – Juris Kaža

Serbia / 110 verified reports
Investigative journalists victim of smear campaign

“You have to be very brave to launch a new investigative journalism portal in Serbia and expose corruption and organised crime involving government officials. That is why the launch of KRIK in early 2015 has been so important for media freedom, but at the same time so dangerous for its journalists. Smear campaigns like this by pro-government tabloid Informer are a relatively new but common method in the Balkans to scare journalists off.” – Mitra Nazar

Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at