“This government has implicitly and explicitly targeted minorities in other areas, like the Windrush scandal,” academic Michael Bankole told Index. “So, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a deliberate effort to erect barriers for minority voters when it comes to elections.”
Bankole, a Royal Holloway university lecturer specialising in race and British politics, was speaking to Index following the introduction of voter ID for England’s local elections in May 2023. Following this the Electoral Commission, the independent body which oversees elections in the UK, said that at least 3% of people didn’t vote because they lacked the necessary ID, and 14,000 people were turned away from polling stations for the same reason.
With low levels of proven electoral fraud in the UK, including no proven cases of in-person voter impersonation last year, questions have been raised about the introduction. This includes a potential impact on the ability of sections of society, including non-white voters, to cast their democratic vote, which is ultimately one of the most effective ways to have your voice heard.
Historically, non-white people have less access to some official forms of ID which are required for voting. For example, data from the Department of Transport showed that in 2021, 58% of the black population and 64% of the Asian population held a driving licence, compared to 79% of the white population.
Instead of focusing on voter ID at elections though, Bankole believes the focus should have been on why non-white voters have historically voted less overall. He said: “If we care about democracy, we want all members to participate in it, so it’s important to investigate why these groups are less likely to participate and what can be done to address that. That should’ve been the fundamental issue for the government to investigate.”
Following on from Bankole’s comments, the Electoral Commission’s interim report in June 2023 showed that 82% of Black and minority ethnic respondents (BME) were unaware of the need for voter ID in the recent elections compared to 93% of white respondents.
Looking over the pond to the USA, where encroaching voter ID laws have been enacted in individual states since 2006, academic studies have had time to focus on the effects. A study from 2018 argued that minorities in the USA are less likely to have valid forms of ID, with being born outside the USA and lower levels of education, income and home ownership as negatively affecting the chances of having valid ID. These issues generally affect minority voters more than white voters in the USA, where, as of 2023, 36 states require some form of ID to vote.
While academic studies have had time to focus on the effects of voter ID laws across the USA over the years, it’s not the case for the recent English elections. However, Democracy Volunteers, a group campaigning to improve the quality of democratic elections in the UK, deployed observers to 118 of the 230 councils holding elections and found that out of the 1.2% of voters they recorded as turned away for having no valid ID, 53% of these were recorded as “non-white passing” (described as such by the observers). In the 2021 census 18.3% of the residents of England and Wales described their ethnic group as something other than white. One of the observations from Democracy Volunteers’ report was that on a number of occasions people with valid ID from Commonwealth countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, were turned away for having invalid ID. If the information from the report is correct, there is an issue. Index reached out to Democracy Volunteers to discuss the findings but received no response.
There was also controversy regarding what forms of ID were accepted during the elections. The older person’s bus pass, the Freedom Pass and the London 60+ Oyster card were accepted as valid ID (the first two eligible from the age of 66, the latter 60). There was no equivalent valid ID available for younger people. Bankole believes this had a political purpose: “For young people with transport ID, it wasn’t allowed, whereas for older voters, who disproportionally vote for the Conservatives, it was. I think they were erecting barriers for people who don’t vote for them and targeting their base who do.”
To put figures into context, 64% of voters aged 65+ voted for the Conservative Party in the last general election.
Along with the above, just 20% of non-white votes were cast for the Conservative Party at the 2019 UK general election, which it won by a landslide. Index contacted the Electoral Commission to ask if the introduction of the voter ID laws for the English elections was a form of gerrymandering (as a former British government cabinet member suggested). Also, because the majority of BME votes were for either the Labour or Liberal Democrats parties in the last general election, if the ID introductions were a deliberate effort to erect barriers for minority voters.
As well as announcing their interim report mentioned above, the response was as follows: “In September, we will publish our full report on the May 2023 elections. This report will feature further data, including the reasons people were turned away, as well as turnout, postal voting and rejected ballots. It will also provide analysis of other aspects of the elections, including accessibility support that was provided for voters in polling stations…As we’re still collecting data there isn’t more we can say at this stage.”
The next UK general elections will be held by January 2025, with the London Mayoral elections to be held by May 2024. With general elections traditionally attracting a far higher turnout than local government elections, and the electorate in London being the most ethnically diverse in the UK, voter ID issues could affect a greater number of non-white voters in the future. Voter ID information, along with any changes, is something that Index will keep an eye on in the future as we believe any barriers put in place to vote should be as low as possible, to make sure freedom of speech and expression is protected.
The central theme of the Spring 2023 issue of Index is India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
After monitoring Modi’s rule since he was elected in 2014, Index decided to look deeper into the state of free expression inside the world’s largest democracy.
Index spoke to a number of journalists and authors from, or who live in, India; and discovered that on every marker of what a democracy should be, Modi’s India fails. The world is largely silent when it comes to Narendra Modi. Let’s change that.
Can India survive more Modi?, by Jemimah Seinfeld: Nine years into his leadership the world has remained silent on Modi's failed democracy. It's time to turn up the temperature before it's too late.
The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest news from the free speech frontlines. Big impact elections, poignant words from the daughter of a jailed Tunisian opposition politician, and the potential US banning of Tik Tok.
Cultural amnesia in Cairo, by Nick Hilden: Artists are under attack in the Egyptian capital where signs of revolution are scrubbed from the street.
Face to face with Iran’s authorities, by Ramita Navai: The award-winning war correspondent tells Index's Mark Frary about the time she was detained in Tehran, what the current protests mean and her Homeland cameo.
Scope for truth, by Kaya Genç: The Turkish novelist visits a media organisation built on dissenting voices, just weeks before devastating earthquakes hit his homeland.
Those we must not leave behind, by Martin Bright: As the UK government has failed in its task to rescue Afghans, Index's editor at large speaks to members of a new Index network aiming to help those whose lives are in imminent danger.
Left behind and with no voice, by Lijia Zhang and Jemimah Steinfeld: China's children are told to keep quiet. The culture of silence goes right the way up.
Zimbabwe’s nervous condition, by Tsitsi Dangarembga: The Zimbabwean filmmaker and author tells Index's Katie Dancey-Downes about her home country's upcoming election, being arrested for a simple protest and her most liberating writing experience yet.
Statues within a plinth of their life, by Marc Nash: Can you imagine a world without statues? And what might fill those empty plinths? The London-based novelist talks to Index's Francis Clarke about his new short story, which creates exactly that.
Crimea’s feared dawn chorus, by Martin Bright: A new play takes audiences inside the homes and families of Crimean Tatars as they are rounded up.
Academic freedom is under attack. Photo: Edwin Andrade
Students should be encouraged to challenge ideas and question the world around them. Higher education is meant to teach us how to think freely, and for ourselves. Unsettling new data published by the Academic Freedom Index proves that this freedom is under threat. The report finds that academic freedom is in decline for over 50 percent of the world’s population and that many people on campuses worldwide have significantly less freedom today than they did ten years ago. In the past decade, academic freedom has improved in only a handful of countries, affecting just 0.7% of the world’s population. The most populous of these countries is Uzbekistan, a closed autocracy in which universities and scholars still face severe limitations, such as the government’s control over contacts between universities or scholars and foreign entities.
AFI’s data signals a decline across all regions and all region types. Our own ranking, the recently published Index Index, a project that uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, shows just how this plays out on a country-by-country basis. Some obvious patterns can be drawn. Dwindling academic freedom clearly correlates to the deterioration of democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Russia and Belarus. Political developments, including military coups in countries such as Myanmar and Afghanistan, have coincided with severe declines in academic freedom. In December 2022, the latter saw a ban by the Taliban on women and girls attending universities, a ruling that illustrates how academic freedom extends beyond what is taught on campuses and delineates one’s freedom to simply exist within academic spaces.
That said, the data shows that declines in academic freedom worldwide have occurred in different political settings and do not always follow the same pattern. Liberal democracies such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom are among the countries under which freedom is proven to be under threat. The AFI attributes this to ‘differences between individual and institutional dimensions of academic freedom’. This demarcates the difference between the freedom of an individual to teach, research and communicate freely and an institution’s autonomy and freedom to operate without government regulation. The AFI report gives a number of examples showing how disaggregation has occurred.
China, for instance, has witnessed a decrease in institutional academic freedom since 2010, when the State Council launched a ten-year strategy for education reform. Chinese universities have since remained in a subordinate position to the party-state, with universities that maintain leadership and management systems controlled by the university’s party committee. The party sets the boundaries of permissible research, exchange, and academics’ public speech. This system facilitated a serious decline in the freedoms enjoyed by academics under President Xi Jinping who has consolidated and centralised power, reestablished the party’s control over information, education and media, and made censorship in China a fact of life. Moreover, the draconian National Security Law enacted in Beijing in 2020 has exacerbated pressure on academic freedom.
The United States, however, presents an altogether different picture. Despite being lauded as a bastion of free expression, the US has seen a visible decline in academic freedom since 2021. This is because educational matters in the USA are largely regulated by individual states, which have increasingly used their authority to interfere in academic affairs. Several Republican-led states have adopted bills that ban the teaching of concepts related to “critical race theory” in universities. Conservative groups have lobbied state legislatures in attempts to withdraw funding from subjects such as gender, minority studies, and environmental science. Some institutions have introduced self-censoring measures following abortion bans to avoid persecution by state governments. In September 2022, Idaho’s flagship university curtailed individual academic freedom by blocking staff from discussing abortion or emergency contraception on campus.
Mexico’s government, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has weakened institutional autonomy by regularly appointing university directors, often resulting in student protests. Attacks on (predominantly female) students, protests against these harassments, and a drug war fought on university campuses has also fuelled a decline in campus integrity, university safety and academic freedom.
The underwhelming glimpse of hope that emerges from this year's findings (compared with 2022) is that the number of countries with improvements in academic freedom grew from two to five. Overall, the data signals a shift toward a less free world, in a worse state than it was 10 years ago. It’s a tough pill to swallow.
The images of that fateful day, 8 January 2023, are still vivid in my mind. It was Sunday, I was at my house in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil, and I turned on the TV live as usual. The scenes I saw on CNN were ones of barbarism and destruction at the Three Powers Plaza, in Brasília. While watching the images of the police allowing a free passage to the horde of Jair Bolsonaro supporters, I felt fear and outrage. They destroyed all the buildings of the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court and the president's house, the Planalto Palace.
According to Alexandre de Moraes, Minister of the Supreme Court Federal (STF), at least 140 of the 1,500 Bolsonaristas arrested for the attacks are accused of terrorist acts, criminal association and threat and incitement of violence. For Moraes, the crimes are “very serious” and were committed “evidently out of step with the guarantee of freedom of expression”, provided for in Article 5 of the Constitution.
But it is precisely freedom of expression that Bolsonaristas claim as an argument for – and justification of – their dissemination of hate speech and fake news, acts of racism or any type of violent action. And now, after the arrests of the perpetrators of the attacks in Brasília, they claim to be victims of “censorship”.
In the days leading up to the attacks, inflammatory rhetoric intensified on social media and included a series of thinly veiled metaphors. The main one was an invitation to “Selma's Party”.
“Selma” is a play on the word selva, which means jungle in Portuguese, and is also used by the Brazilian military as a greeting or war cry. This vocabulary is the result of long exposure to a sea of fake news broadcast on Bolsonarist's profiles and channels, especially on WhatsApp, Telegram, YouTube and Twitter, always in the name of "God, homeland and family" – that’s why they self-styled as "patriots". The daily gaslighting is also promoted via TV channels, radio and Jair Bolsonaro himself, who has long been raising doubts about the electoral process and promoting the cult of violence and destruction of the "enemy".
It became so serious that even I began to worry about what would happen on 31 October 2022, the day of the elections: social media posts said that anyone who voted for Lula would be identified by their hair or the colour of their clothes and would die. (Those who are Bolsonaristas usually wear the shirts of the Brazilian soccer team.)
The result of this social media intoxication is a subsect of people who are detached from reality: of these some think that the elections were rigged by the STF, that Lula is dead and the person in his place is a double, that Brazil will become a communist country. They even prayed collectively to be saved byextraterrestrials and, of course, said that the attacks in Brasília were carried out by “infiltrators of the left”. It's a collective psychosis.
By inverting rational logic, the Bolsonarist discourse sounds like a delirium, and it is tempting to classify it in the realm of the ridiculous. But the concrete results of the denial of reality and the proclamation of hatred have now come to fruition.
Today, by saying they’ve been censored, the Bolsonarist camp is basically calling for revenge. They say they are victims of political persecution and that the Lula government and the STF are disrespecting the Constitution, which, by the way, had copies stolen and torn in the attacks. They’ve been led down an even darker path, saying that Brazil is living under a dictatorship. Censorship, whether real or imaginary, has become a useful tool for a Bolsonarist who wants to continue promoting chaos.
That said, the response to the attacks has been troubling.On the surface, it seems reasonable for the STF to repress disinformation and suspend profiles on social networks, even more so now, after the attacks. The justification for suspending Bolsonarist profiles has a legal basis in theCivil Rights Framework for the Internet (Law 12,965/2014).
In addition to suspending profiles, the STF and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) have ordered the removal of posts (especially on Twitter) that attack democracy and spread conspiracy theories. Among them was the influencer “Monark” (1.4 million followers) and Nikolas Ferreira, a federal representative from the state of Minas Gerais, with two million followers, both of whom were suspended from Twitter for their perceived role in the coup.
There is also the "Democracy Package", launched on 26 January. It is a series of measures prepared by the Minister of Justice, Flavio Dino, including the regulation of social networking platforms to curb "political crimes" and ban content judged undemocratic. It is not yet known what the criteria will be, but it is clearly a proposal to limit freedom of expression and the plurality of speech online. This set of measures will be sent to the National Congress for a vote.
On the surface reasonable yes, but in reality the “deplatforming” is dangerous because it already serves as a basis for the extreme right to say they are being persecuted and censored, and this gives even more fuel for a violent civil insurrection with military support. Also where will it end? Where is the line?
Of course it’s not easy to decide the limits of free expression at this moment. Still, have authorities got the balance right? Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, I've never come across such a fine line between liberty and punishment, as well as surveillance on social media – and I fear where it will lead.
On 12 December, 2022, the date of Lula's inauguration as president-elect, hundreds of Bolsonaristas promoted ariot in Brasília, culminating in the invasion of the Federal Police building and burning of vehicles, including several buses, one of them hanging on the side of an overpass where traffic was flowing. Then, on 24 December 2022, a truck loaded with explosives was located near Brasília airport. The man behind the truck bomb confessed to being a Bolsonarist and said the act was planned by a group that had been camped in front of the Army General Headquarters for more than two months.
The military has been accused of assisting in the execution of plans by the far right. Even President Lula himself claimed that there was “evidence” of collusion between them and Bolsonaro's supporters.
If you say this to a Bolsonarist though he will laugh in your face and say it's all a lie from the media. He will believe that the people dressed in green and yellow in Brasilia, on 8 January 2023, were members of the left who wanted to carry out a "self-coup" days after being victorious in the elections in a pledge to crack down on Bolsonaro supporters.
This is the abyss Brazil has plunged into since Bolsonaro lost the election. On top of refusing to accept defeat, he has sought refuge in the United States since 29 December 2022, maintaining a strategic and deliberate silence for his supporters. Meanwhile, faced with immense challenges – maintaining democratic values while punishing those who broke the law – Lula finds himself walking in cotton shoes on glass. It's hard work and the events of early January are not over yet.