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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.”
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”113057″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Donald Trump tells a US reporter that her questioning is “horrid”, Jair Bolsonaro dismisses Covid-19 as a media conspiracy and the Spanish prime minister is petitioned by over 400 journalists to answer more questions. These incidents from leaders of the USA, Brazil and Spain are part of an emerging trend we are tracking on the Index on Censorship global map monitoring media freedom violations during the coronavirus pandemic. The map has been put together by our staff, our contributors and readers as well as our partners at the Justice for Journalists Foundation.
Several leaders around the globe are finessing the art of question evasion during this critical time, as highlighted by the map. In fact, some leaders have gone as far as supporting this kind of behaviour with legislation. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has issued a provisional measure which means that the government no longer has to answer freedom of information requests within the usual deadline. Marcelo Träsel of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism has called the measure “dangerous” as it gives scope for discretion in responding to requests.
The measure comes after weeks of Bolsonaro being questioned about his own health following a visit to the USA in which more than 20 people in his entourage tested positive for coronavirus after. When pressed on whether he too has it, he has made claims that he has had two negative tests, but refuses to show the results of either. To this day Brazilians don’t know whether he has the virus or not. Bolsonaro has also repeatedly dismissed coronavirus as “just a little flu”, “a bit of a cold” and as a media trick.
US President Trump has his own distraction technique when it comes to journalist questions – defensiveness and lashing out. Just this week, when asked about testing failures by Fox News reporter Kristen Fisher he responded: “You should say ‘congratulations, great job,’ instead of being so horrid in the way you ask a question.”
He’d employed similar words a few weeks earlier when NBC News journalist Peter Alexander asked: “What do you say to Americans, who are watching you right now, who are scared?”
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people,” he replied.
Another way of dodging the question is simply to deny coronavirus’ existence. Turkmenistan is excelling here. Reports have swirled around the internet that the word “coronavirus” is forbidden in Turkmenistan. Upon investigating, Index have not found sufficient evidence of this. What we have found evidence of though are credible reports that the virus is indeed in the country and has taken lives. A well-known writer from Turkmenistan has told Index that while the word coronavirus is not forbidden (and indeed is occasionally used by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov himself on television), “the Turkmen government completely denies that coronavirus is present in the country”.
“At the same time, according to alternative information from the inside, in Turkmenistan, dozens of people die from the coronavirus daily since mid-March. However, everyone who dies of coronavirus gets another devised diagnosis, e.g. influenza, high blood pressure, food poisoning and so on,” he said.
This trend is deeply troubling. Knowing as much about a deadly, incredibly contagious virus that is spreading in your country is essential information. Journalists have every right to ask questions about it and should be receiving honest, accurate information in return. When these leaders withhold and barriers are put up, the situation is exacerbated and more people’s lives are put at risk.
Of course when it comes to some of the leaders and governments, their reluctance to engage with the media is nothing new. Bolsonaro has appeared on Facebook raging against journalists several times in the year he has been in power, while Trump has famously kicked media out of the room. But coronavirus has given a new lease of life to these tactics – with consequences that will become more devastating as the days pass.
Fortunately, there has been pushback. In Spain, politicians’ refusal to engage with media has led to an open letter being signed by over 400 Spanish journalists. They asked the government to revise the new policy which demands questions to be sent to the press secretary, who can chose to ask them, or not, thereby impacting journalists’ ability to hold power to account. And MEPs in Europe have said they will keep an eye on legislation that is being passed in EU member states in the name of coronavirus to ensure that it is proportionate, justified and doesn’t hamper human rights.
We hope these measures are effective at curtailing this trend. There is no good time to shut out and attack the media, not least during a global pandemic. In the meantime, we’ll continue to map.
If you know of any incidents of attacks against the media as a result of coronavirus, please report them to our map here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]
After the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent organisation created by the US Congress to evaluate religious freedom conditions around the world, released its 2015 report, it became clear that an insufficient amount of progress had been made since Index on Censorship last reported on the issue.
Here’s a roundup of some the most appalling religious freedom violations from across the globe.
Bigotry and intolerance continue to scorch the lives of religious and ethnic minorities in Burma, particularly Rohingya Muslims. The Burmese government demonstrated little effort toward intervening or properly investigating claims of abuse, including those carried out by religious figures in the Buddhist community. As internet availability spread throughout the country, social media played a role in promoting a platform of hate and proposed violence against minority populations. Rohingya Muslims in the country face a unique level of discrimination and persecution. The government denies them citizenship and the right to identify as Rohingya. Additionally, four discriminatory race and religion bills could further the prejudices affecting religious minorities.
North Korea is a nation where genuine freedom of religion or belief is non-existent; it remains one of the most oppressive regimes and worst violators of human rights. Punishment comes to those who pose difficult questions while the government maintains its control through a constant threat of imprisonment, torture and even death for those who break the law regarding religion. Estimates suggest up to 200,000 North Koreans are currently suffering in labor camps, tens of thousands of whom are there for practicing heir faith. In February 2014, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released its report documenting the systematic, severe violations of human rights in the country. It found “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience”.
Officially an Islamic state with eight to ten million expatriate workers of different faiths, Saudi Arabia continues to restrict most forms of public religious expression inconsistent with its interpretation of Sunni Islam. The government continues to use criminal charges of blasphemy to suppress any dialogue between dissenting viewpoints, with a new law helping drive home the goal of silence. The Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing criminalises virtually all forms of peaceful dissent and free expression, including criticising the government’s view of Islam. Lastly, authorities continue to discriminate grossly against dissident clerics and members of the Shia community.
The Sudanese government continues to engage in massive violations of freedom of religion, due to president Omar al-Bashir’s policies of Islamisation and restrictive interpretation of sharia law. Despite 97% of the population being Muslim, there is a wide range of other religions practiced. The country’s turmoil from religious persecution rests on the 1991 Criminal Code, the 1991 Personal Status Law of Muslims, and state-level “public order” laws, which have restricted freedom for all Sudanese. The laws – which contradict the country’s constitutional and international commitments to human rights and freedom of religion – allow death sentences for apostasy, stoning for adultery, cross-amputations for theft, prison sentences for blasphemy and floggings for undefined “offences of honor, reputation and public morality”. Since 2011, more than 170 people have been arrested and charged with apostasy.
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You’ll also get access to an exclusive collection of articles from our landmark 250th issue of Index on Censorship magazine exploring journalists under fire and under pressure. Your downloadable PDF will include reports from Lindsey Hilsum, Laura Silvia Battaglia and Hazza Al-Adnan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Uzbekistan
In Uzbekistan, the government imprisons individuals for not conforming to officially prescribed practices or whom it claims are extremist, including as many as 12,000 Muslims. A highly restrictive religion law is imposed, the 1998 Law on Freedom of Consciences and Religious Organisations, which severely limits the rights of all religious groups and facilitates Uzbek government control over religious activity. Many who don’t fit into the framework of officially approved practices are regularly repressed. Additionally, the government has continued a campaign against independent Muslims, targeting those linked to the May 2005 protests in Andijan; 231 are still imprisoned in connection to the events, and ten have died. All the while, Uzbekistan has pressured countries to return Uzbek refugees who fled during the Andijan tragedy.
In an environment of nearly inescapable government information control, severe religion freedom breaches persist in Turkmenistan. Continuing police raids and harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups matched with laws and policies that violate international human rights norms has the nation as one of the year’s biggest offenders. With an estimated total population of 5.1 million, the US government projects that the country is 85% Sunni Muslim, 9% Russian Orthodox, and a 2% total that includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and evangelical Christians. Despite Turkmenistan’s constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom and separation of religion from the state, the 2003 religion law negates these provisions while setting intrusive registration criteria for individuals. It also requires that the government is informed of all foreign financial support, forbids worship in private homes and places discriminatory restrictions on religious education.
While the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, this idea really only applies to “normal religions”, better known as the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” associated with Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Even still, the government monitors religious activities unfairly, and there has been an increased religious persecution of Uighur Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism. All around repression in China worsened in 2014, including the governmental push for controlling Tibet, Xinjiang, and even Hong Kong, as well as controls on the internet, social media, human rights defenders, activists and journalists.
Ongoing religious freedom abuses have continued in Eritrea, including torture or ill-treatment of religious prisoners, random arrests without charges and banning’s on public religious activities. The situation is especially serious for Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the government suppresses Muslim religious activities and those opposed to the government-appointed head of the community. In 2002, the government increased its control over religion by imposing a registration requirement on all religious groups other than the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. The requirements mandated that the non-preferred religious communities provide detailed information about their finances, membership, activities, and benefit to the country. Additionally, released religious prisoners have reported to USCIRF that they were confined in crowded conditions, and subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations. The government continued to arrest and detain followers of unregistered religious communities. Recent estimates suggest 1,200 to 3,000 people are imprisoned on religious grounds in Eritrea, the majority of whom are Evangelical or Pentecostal Christians.
Poor religious freedom in Iran continued to worsen in 2014, particularly for minority groups like Bahá’ís, Christian converts, and Sunni Muslims. The government is still engaging in systematic violations, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based on the religion of the accused. Despite Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians being recognised as protected minorities, the government has consistently discriminated against its citizens on the basis of religion. Killings, arrests, and physical abuse of detainees have increased in recent years, including for religious minorities and Muslims who are perceived as threatening the government’s legitimacy.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1493906845781-a7b9ac80-f77d-2″ taxonomies=”1742″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
In January, Index summarised the U.S. State Department’s “Countries of Particular Concern” — those that severely violate religious freedom rights within their borders. This list has remained static since 2006 and includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. These countries not only suppress religious expression, they systematically torture and detain people who cross political and social red lines around faith.
Today the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent watchdog panel created by Congress to review international religious freedom conditions, released its 15th annual report recommending that the State Department double its list of worst offenders to include Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and Syria.
Here’s a roundup of the systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations unfolding in each.
The promise of religious freedom that came with a revised constitution and ousted Islamist president last year has yet to transpire. An increasing number of dissident Sunnis, Coptic Christians, Shiite Muslims, atheists and other religious minorities are being arrested for “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife” under the country’s blasphemy law. Attacks against these groups are seldom investigated. Freedom of belief is theoretically “absolute” in the new constitution approved in January, but only for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Baha’is are considered apostates, denied state identity cards and banned from engaging in public religious activities, as are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Egyptian courts sentenced 529 Islamist supporters to death in March and another 683 in April, though most of the March sentences have been commuted to life in prison. Courts also recently upheld the five-year prison sentence of writer Karam Saber, who allegedly committed blasphemy in his work.
Iraq’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but the government has largely failed to prevent religiously-motivated sectarian attacks. About two-thirds of Iraqi residents identify as Shiite and one-third as Sunni. Christians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans and other faith groups are dwindling as these minorities and atheists flee the country amid discrimination, persecution and fear. Baha’is, long considered apostates, are banned, as are followers of Wahhabism. Sunni-Shia tensions have been exacerbated recently by the crisis in neighboring Syria and extremist attacks against religious pilgrims on religious holidays. A proposed personal status law favoring Shiism is expected to deepen divisions if passed and has been heavily criticized for allowing girls to marry as young as nine.
Nigeria is roughly divided north-south between Islam and Christianity with a sprinkling of indigenous faiths throughout. Sectarian tensions along these geographic lines are further complicated by ethnic, political and economic divisions. Laws in Nigeria protect religious freedom, but rule of law is severely lacking. As a result, the government has failed to stop Islamist group Boko Haram from terrorizing and methodically slaughtering Christians and Muslim critics. An estimated 16,000 people have been killed and many houses of worship destroyed in the past 15 years as a result of violence between Christians and Muslims. The vast majority of these crimes have gone unpunished. Christians in Muslim-majority northern states regularly complain of discrimination in the spheres of education, employment, land ownership and media.
Pakistan’s record on religious freedom is dismal. Harsh anti-blasphemy laws are regularly evoked to settle personal and communal scores. Although no one has been executed for blasphemy in the past 25 years, dozens charged with the crime have fallen victim to vigilantism with impunity. Violent extremists from among Pakistan’s Taliban and Sunni Muslim majority regularly target the country’s many religious minorities, which include Shiites, Sufis, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Baha’is. Ahmadis are considered heretics and are prevented from identifying as Muslim, as the case of British Ahmadi Masud Ahmad made all too clear in recent months. Ahmadis are politically disenfranchised and Hindu marriages are not state-recognized. Laws must be consistent with Islam, the state religion, and freedom of expression is constitutionally “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam,” fostering a culture of self-censorship.
Religious freedom has rapidly deteriorated since Tajikistan’s 2009 religion law severely curtailed free exercise. Muslims, who represent 90 percent of the population, are heavily monitored and restricted in terms of education, dress, pilgrimage participation, imam selection and sermon content. All religious groups must register with the government. Proselytizing and private religious education are forbidden, minors are banned from participating in most religious activities and Muslim women face many restrictions on communal worship. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned from the country since 2007 for their conscientious objection to military service, as have several other religious groups. Hundreds of unregistered mosques have been closed in recent years, and “inappropriate” religious texts are regularly confiscated.
The religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan is similar to that of Tajikistan but worse due to the country’s extraordinary political isolation and government repression. Turkmenistan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but many laws, most notably the 2003 religion law, contradict these provisions. All religious organizations must register with the government and remain subject to raids and harassment even if approved. Shiite Muslim groups, Protestant groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses have all had their registration applications denied in recent years. Private worship is forbidden and foreign travel for pilgrimages and religious education are greatly restricted. The government hires and fires clergy, censors religious texts, and fines and imprisons believers for their convictions.
Vietnam’s government uses vague national security laws to suppress religious freedom and freedom of expression as a means of maintaining its authority and control. A 2005 decree warns that “abuse” of religious freedom “to undermine the country’s peace, independence, and unity” is illegal and that religious activities must not “negatively affect the cultural traditions of the nation.” Religious diversity is high in Vietnam, with half the population claiming some form of Buddhism and the rest identifying as Catholic, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Protestant, Muslim or with other small faith and non-religious communities. Religious groups that register with the government are allowed to grow but are closely monitored by specialized police forces, who employ violence and intimidation to repress unregistered groups.
The ongoing Syrian crisis is now being fought along sectarian lines, greatly diminishing religious freedom in the country. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, aligned with Hezbollah and Shabiha, have targeted Syria’s majority-Sunni Muslim population with religiously-divisive rhetoric and attacks. Extremist groups on the other side, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have targeted Christians and Alawites in their fight for an Islamic state devoid of religious tolerance or diversity. Many Syrians choose their allegiances based on their families’ faith in order to survive. It’s important to note that all human rights, not just religious freedom, are suffering in Syria and in neighboring refugee camps. In quieter times, proselytizing, conversion from Islam and some interfaith marriages are restricted, and all religious groups must officially register with the government.