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Threats to freedom of speech can come from a variety of places. Sometimes it is tyrants seeking to crush dissent. But it can also come from well-meaning attempts to improve society, that come with unintended consequences. The European Union is currently discussing ways of regulating online political advertising and is in danger of creating mechanisms which will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.
So as Spain assumes the rotating presidency of the EU, now is the time to take stock, reflect on debates so far and recommit the European Union as an ally of freedom of expression. I’ve written to the Prime Minister of Spain urging a rethink.
Dear Senor Sanchez,
With Spain having assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, it is an opportune moment for the European Union to reflect on the draft Political Advertising regulations.
Index on Censorship has raised a series of concerns about the impact that the proposals will have on free speech and the power that it places in the hands of tech companies to arbitrate on what is and what isn’t legitimate free expression.
We know that countering disinformation and bringing transparency to political processes is good for democracy. We support that activity around the world where dissidents are using their voice to stand up against totalitarian regimes.
Unfortunately, the draft proposals which are currently being considered in trialogue have the potential to have a chilling effect on free speech across the European Union.
We have welcomed the recognition by the European Union that any new rules governing political advertising in the digital sphere should only apply to content promoted through paid-for political advertising services.
The original “catch-all” proposals would have wrongly sought to impose restrictions on journalists, individual citizens expressing their own point of view and/or civil society campaigns seeking to promote a cause or policy.
It would have seen unacceptable interference into free speech and free expression with the work of journalists, reporting on elections or referendums, subject to state-determined censorship administered by algorithms within big tech corporations.
Imagine if, in your own upcoming general election, a citizen wishing to express how they intend to vote via their own social media had to be regulated? It would reduce the citizen’s right to speak their mind.
However, while some advancement has been made on the scope of the proposals, we still have serious concerns about the processes for flagging content, how that should be regulated and how the proposals will safeguard against bad faith actors.
Platforms are risk adverse and when faced with new rules requiring them to consider concerns raised about content or face fines themselves, bad faith actors will overwhelm those systems and subsequently content will be removed while it is assessed.
Misuse and these unintended consequences will be the tools of censorship for those seeking to silence dissent and close down campaigns and campaigners they disagree with.
As you assess your priorities for the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, I would urge you to be an ally for freedom of expression.
In celebration of one of football’s biggest international tournaments, here is Index’s guide to the free speech Euros. Who comes out on top as the nation with the worst record on free speech?
It’s simple, the worst is ranked first.
We continue today with Group E, which plays the deciding matches of the group stages today.
Poland is divided. The recent 2020 presidential election was the smallest election victory since the end of communism in 1989. Its record on free speech is also increasingly problematic.
Incumbent president won the race to the Pałac Prezydencki with 51.2% of the vote. He is opposed to reform on LGBTQ+ rights as well as his extremely divisive abortion laws.
In January 2021, Duda’s government imposed a law that allows an abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. It caused country-wide protests.
Assistant professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Katarzyna Kasia explained in the recent winter issue of Index’s magazine how the restrictions on abortion laws by Duda is indicative on regressive policy that threatens freedom of expression.
“I fear that Duda will continue his work as a strong supporter of the ruling nationalist coalition, obediently signing laws that will limit the power of the judiciary, freedom in academia and media, and the rights of minorities and women,” she said.
Duda has attacked the Poland’s independent media too, and thus the dissenting voices in the country have less of a platform to speak from.
This is due, in part, to the Polish state-owned oil company Orlen purchasing 20 of 24 regional newspapers previously owned by German company Polska Press. During the election there was mistrust around the media due to its German ties and accusations, therefore, that Germany was interfering in Polish politics.
All 24 of the papers have a combined readership of around 17 million people.
It is fairly clear that Orlen purchasing the papers is a deliberate attempt to change the editorial line to support Duda and consolidate support for him and his party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Four of the editors were recently fired, despite a court ruling by the Warsaw District Court to suspend the acquisition, pending a review.
Defamation laws also acta as a deterrent for open criticism of party officials. Under Article 212 of the criminal code, defamation is an offence that can be punished by up to two years’ imprisonment. According to Reporters Without Borders, there is “a growing tendency to criminalise defamation”.
Under Duda, the situation is unlikely to improve and there have been other attempts to control the narrative.
There is a bill supposedly designed to protect freedom of speech online and force social media companies to stop blocking content online by fining them, as well as the setting up of a “free speech council”. However, there are concerns that this will have a negative aspect on free speech and encourage disinformation online.
A changing nationalist narrative is worrying and this now extends to Poland’s role in the holocaust.
Two prominent Polish historians were forced to apologise to the niece of a former polish mayor. This, after the two had co-authored a book about Polish complicity in the holocaust.
Previously, the Polish government has attempted to criminalise any suggestion of complicity.
Free speech in Slovakia is currently at the mercy of a hugely significant murder case.
In February 2018, journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová were shot dead in their home, around 50 kilometres from the capital Bratislava.
Kuciak was heavily involved in investigating both tax fraud relating to the then ruling Slovak party Smer, as well as report examining an Italian mafia organisation. The murders caused country-wide protests.
Prime Minister Robert Fico insisted there would be an investigation, but had shown repeated showings of disdain for the media, generating what non-profit Freedom House describes as a “hateful atmosphere”. He was later forced to resign.
Two of the five original suspects were sentenced, and the retrial of influential businessman Marián Kočner in connection with the murders was ordered on 15 June. The judge ordered the retiral on the basis of “several mistakes” in the original trial that acquitted Kočner.
In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) spoke of the significance of the retrial.
“We welcome the Slovak Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the acquittals of Marián Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová and hope to see full justice in the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.”
“This ruling is a crucial step toward ending impunity in Kuciak’s killing and ensuring that all journalists can work safely and freely in Slovakia.”
Any rightful conviction of Kuciak’s murderers will surely be a positive sign for journalists working in Slovakia and symbolic of a country that holds such murders accountable to the law and deter any acts similar to this in the future.
Other journalists have also received alarming threats. In June 2020, journalist for online news site Aktuality.sk, Peter Sabo, received a pistol cartridge in his mailbox.
Independent media in Slovakia is lacking. Much of the country’s news outlets are owned by a select few and there are also concerns over the impartiality of the public broadcaster Radio and Television of Slovakia after a number of its staff were sacked in 2018.
The far-right is on the rise in Spain. Populist party VOX have been relatively successful in helping to create an atmosphere where journalists are being targeted.
In 2020, protests against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and VOX supporters were heard shouting abuse at Spanish reporters.
During the pandemic, controversy arose over the Spanish governments attempt to control the questions given in press conferences by ordering journalists to send questions into the press secretary beforehand. In response, over 400 Spanish journalists were forced to sign an open letter asking the government to reconsider.
The information released by the government during the pandemic was also problematic. Data journalists found that the information released by the governments was overly confusing. As the CPJ reported, one journalist explained why this was a problem: “In Spain, the government sometimes releases data on the number of people who have tested positive on viral tests, while at other times it also includes the number who have tested positive on antibody tests.”
“Other reports contain different figures, such as the number of asymptomatic cases. The constant changes “hinder good analysis and projections,” he said. To complicate things further, national and local data sets often do not add up with national authorities reporting far fewer deaths from the virus than the total number reported by local authorities.”
There have been several notable attacks in the past few years.
Police have been criticised for being heavy-handed during protests. During the demonstration for Catalonian independence in October 19, there were numerous incidents of journalists being targeted by police and protesters.
Police detained El País reporter Albert Garcia after he documented the arrest of a protester, while French journalist Elize Gazendgel reported two separate occasions where she “received blows” from police. Both were wearing the correct, identifiable media accreditation.
Earlier the same month, a particularly appalling incident took place when Laila Jiménez of Telenico TV, was repeatedly pushed and subjected to abuse, as well as having vodka poured over her head.
Despite protests being of vital importance to upholding free speech in a democracy, the Spanish Citizen Security Law (also known as the “gag law”) puts bureaucratic barriers in the way of organising a protest, where authorities must be informed beforehand. Sharing images of police officers that may “endanger” them is also prohibited.
Laws such as this have come under further scrutiny after the case of Spanish rapper Pablo Hasél earlier this year.
Hasél has been jailed for his lyrics, which are crass at best and he has rapped about a “noose for the king”. But Spanish law deems these words illegal.
His arrest sparked widespread protests, particularly among Spanish youths. In response, the government has promised a review in to Spanish free speech laws.
Sweden’s record on free speech is encouraging and were the first country in the world to adopt a press freedom law, they also have a media ombudsman to deal with ethical issues.
However, one damaging defamation case could set an alarming precedent, concerning the finance publication Realtid.
The case has seen Monaco-based Swedish businessman Svante Kumlin use a vexatious defamation lawsuit against Realid after they began to investigate his company Eco Energy World.’
The lawsuit is also known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (Slapp) and are used by governments or large corporations to saddle a journalist (or anyone publishing allegedly defamatory claims) with long term court cases and legal costs.
The case is awaiting a judgement from to see if it can be tried in England and Wales, where defamation laws are not constitutionally protected.
In December, Index, along with free expression groups RSF, Article 19 and Defence and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) expressed their concern over the matter.
The letter read “Realtid is being sued by Svante Kumlin, a Swedish businessman, domiciled in Monaco. Realtid had been investigating Kumlin’s group of companies, Eco Energy World (EEW), ahead of an impending stock market launch in Norway, a matter of clear public interest. The investigation began in September when Realtid’s reporters wrote about another stock market launch and discovered off-market sales of shares in EEW.”
While Swedish journalists report in a relatively safe environment, there have been threats towards journalists foreign or exiled reporters in recent years. Turkish journalist Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt was beaten by three men in Stockholm in September 2020 in an incident that was believed to be a threat to exiled Turkish journalists working abroad.
Critic of the authorities in the Chechen region of Russia, Tumso Abdurakhmanov was assaulted by two individuals in his hometown of Gävle, Sweden in February 2020.
Group D[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114463″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]“Journalists are very, very afraid. They are being seen as enemies of the state because of this surveillance, because of their political activism, opposition politicians are afraid, everybody is afraid of the government,” said Issa Sikiti da Silva, a journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has travelled to and reported from many countries across Africa. Sikiti da Silva was speaking at the digital launch party of the Index on Censorship summer magazine, held on Friday 31st July.
The summer issue looks at the ways in which our privacy is being increasingly infringed upon in the coronavirus era. From health code apps in China dictating when people can leave their homes to poor digital literacy levels in Italy (and beyond) leaving people vulnerable to exploitation, the magazine takes a broad view.
Sikiti da Silva was joined by Turkish writer and journalist Kaya Genç and Spanish journalist Silvia Nortes. The panel was chaired by Rachael Jolley, editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship magazine.
“The state is tapping our phones, the state is following us into Starbucks branches…they’re all around you. But with online surveillance it’s impossible for me to know whether someone from the Turkish embassy in Britain is watching this event or someone from the intelligence agency in Turkey is watching this event. So it puts us on the spot, this new age of digital surveillance, and that’s what my piece was about for the new issue of Index,” said Genç as part of the discussion.
When asked if recent increased surveillance, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, was a cause for concern in terms of media freedom all panellists said it was.
Genç explained how digital surveillance is a more insidious form of government espionage, which is causing a fresh set of worries: “In a country like Turkey the state is a very palpable thing, you see it on the street…and its presence makes it a bit vulnerable because we are the one that is scrutinising that visible entity. But now it seems with apps like Life Fits Home [a Covid-19 tracing app], the state became invisible and its surveillance powers have increased.”
Nortes discussed how, in Spain, reactions to Covid-19 tracing apps and state surveillance have fallen along generational lines: “Younger people are more open to using this kind of app because, of course, they are aware that we live in a hyper connected society.”
She suggested that historical precedents may have imbued older generations with a different perspective on security around their personal information: “They feel more reluctant to give in their data and I believe this is connected somehow with [General] Franco’s dictatorship.”
She continued: “The surveillance of these years really has something to do with the concept of private life that older generations have in Spain.”
Sikiti da Silva painted a picture of Africa as a continent in which dictators continue to rule.
“Journalists are being watched over [by the state] and by the time they have enough evidence then they will move on you or arrest you or kill you whatever they want to do with you.”
When Jolley asked if anyone was fighting back against this kind of oppression, Sikiti da Silva was blunt in his reply. He said that without money or power, there is no fighting back. “What people do mostly is to run away. In Africa we only have one solution. You run away…that’s all you can do. You just leave the country before it is too late.”
This has informed Sikiti da Silva’s travels around Africa: “Where there is media freedom I stay. Where there is no media freedom I do two or three stories, then I run away.”
Nortes said that the national security force in Spain is working on detecting ‘fake news’ which could “generate hostility toward the government’s decisions”.
“This is targeted surveillance, they’re just looking for news that could affect in a bad way the government’s management of the pandemic.” This is a trend that Index has been reporting on as part of a global project to map media freedom during the coronavirus crisis.
“We need to be sure that once the pandemic is over we will have the same rights that we had before,” added Nortes.
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