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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This article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship, available now. For subscription options and to download the app for your iPhone/iPad, click here.


18 July New World (Dis)Order: What do Turkey, Russia and Brazil tell us about freedom and rights?

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.

The importance of universality

This article was first published on Comment is Free

On 13 December, 1948, Frederic Warburg typed up his comments on the manuscript of George Orwell’s recently completed Nineteen Eighty-Four.

‘Orwell has no hope, or at least he allows his reader no hope, no tiny flickering candlelight of hope. Here is a study in pessimism unrelieved, except perhaps by the thought that, if a man can conceive
‘1984’, he can also will to avoid it.
‘For what is ‘1984’ but a picture of man unmanned, of humanity without a heart, of a people without tolerance and civilisation, of a government whose sole object is the maintenance of power, by every
contrivance of cruelty.’

At the same time Orwell was working on his ‘study in pessimism unrelieved’, others were fomenting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an unparalleled statement of optimism and faith in humanity.

Article 19 of the UDHR states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and
ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.’

A great deal is, rightly, made of the first clause of this statement. But equally important is the assertion that we have the right to seek information. Orwell’s Winston Smith, you will recall, was employed by the Ministry of Truth to destroy information, to deny people the right to seek out historical fact and truth, to bring to an end the very concept of fact and truth.

The rewriting of history is central to the project of state censorship. Only last week, we saw a brazen attempt by the Russian authorities to destroy the records of the Memorial project, which seeks to document the atrocities of the Gulag. The pessimist would say that very little has changed since 1948.

But of course that is untrue.

When Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, and even when Index on Censorship began publishing 25 years later, there seemed almost an easy clarity about opposing censorship. Censorship, by and large, was a political project carried out, by and large, by Soviet bloc governments against pro-democracy writers, thinkers and activists. The enemy was in plain sight, and his motivation unambiguous.

Flash forward, and we are confronted with a very different landscape. Of course, most calls for censorship are still, at core, political, but they can as easily be well-meaning as malicious. What has seeped into our consciousness is censorship masquerading as a protective, rather than oppressive force. Most pernicious is the notion that ideas, like people, should be afforded protection. We forget that the UDHR was borne out of the horror of a war in which millions had died precisely because ideology took precedence over the integrity of the individual.

We also forget the ‘universal’ part of the UDHR. So, on Comment is Free, in discussions on Free Speech and the Internet, we find Digby Anderson lauding social censorship, without considering what social censorship might mean in a society less liberal than our own.

We also find Jonathan Rée, alluding to Internet debate, wondering ‘if “freedom of speech and belief” can really be such a big deal any more, in a world where thought itself has become no more than a game.’

I’m glad it’s now just a game: I hope someone’s told the Egyptian police who lock up bloggers, or the Burmese censors who launch cyber attacks on refugee news sites, to stop taking it all so seriously.

This kind of narrowness, of glibness, serves only to diminish the principle of Article 19 of the UDHR. We must not allow it to be diminished so far that we lose sight of it: and we must not allow the
principle of universal free expression to be lost down the memory hole.