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Expression breathes life and legitimacy back into our governments

Foreword by Thomas Hughes

The data and analysis revealed in this report points to ingrained and corrosive challenges to freedom of expression around the world.  Most of the stories we highlight in the report are of course not new.  But what they ask us to examine, is exactly how far governments are  prepared to go to protect the fundamental freedoms enshrined in law, and how much tolerance do we all have as we watch those rights erode around the world.

The report uses data for 2018, and combines it with analysis up to and including events in 2019.  We look at trends over a ten-year period and identify opportunities for change.  What we see is that freedom of expression is at its lowest point for a decade. What that term translates into is that three of every four people on the planet are experiencing a deteriorating environment for freedom of expression: that is 5.5 billion people living in countries where this crucial human right is more and more restricted.

Statistics are often hard to digest, but they are needed in order to remind ourselves about why we campaign for change: In 2018, 99 journalists were killed – 21 more than 2017. Global impunity rates for these crimes continue to soar at over 95%.  At the end of 2018 more than 250 journalists were in prison – also up from the year before. 321 human rights defenders were also killed – up nine from 2017.

Worldwide, the two inter-linked freedoms, of expression and access to information are subject to a range of sustained globalised forces.   We see that tactics aimed at suppression are multiform, and while old strategies remain effective (such as silencing of journalists), new tactics are added to the armoury every year.   The year under review was no exception.

Yet as you will see in this year’s report, there are grounds for hope.  More and more people are speaking out and making themselves heard.  We have seen renewed energy brought to politics, dissent, and protest movements all across the world by young people driving remarkable change.

We have also seen that solidarity with journalists and communicators has in some instances been swift, and emphatic.  In 2018, tens of thousands took to the streets in Slovakia in outrage at the murder of 28 year-old investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak.  The protests provoked a national crisis and toppled the entire  cabinet.  We also saw Time Magazine declaring that the 2018 ‘Person of the Year’ was a group of journalists dubbed the ‘guardians of truth’ – among them Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – who entered the embassy in Istanbul in October 2018 and was never seen again.

The ongoing battle to end impunity against violence and intimidation against journalists continue.  Yet alongside the courageous actions of individuals, and groups are growing efforts to use all legal means to undermine them.  Stories and activism are buried under piles of paper, and tied up in red tape. Archaic laws are wielded against expression, and non-sensical new laws ones are implemented, such as the ‘fake news’ laws cropping up across the world.

Dubbed as ‘lawfare’ these mechanisms are designed to intimidate media  outlets into playing it safe by threatening fines or implementing licensing and accreditation systems with prohibitive costs and onerous compliance processes.  Already under-pressure from digital platforms, the issue of sustainable finances and profit models for media houses will continue to be a defining one on the years to come.

We have also seen in 2018 and 2019 that States are increasing their grip on the infrastructure of communication itself, shutting down all mobile and online communication for hours, even days, at a time.  In recent years, authorities in Chad, Ethiopia and India have all resorted to this extreme measure, indiscriminately crippling communication and commerce – see here.

Environmental protectors face a crisis of violence

For many people around the world, the global focus  on the environment has not come soon enough.  But while Climate Strikes in cities and campaigner Greta Thunberg continue to generate much needed  coverage of the crisis, it is those on the frontlines fighting to protect the environment, from the land they live on to the air we all breathe, face more violence than any other group of rights defenders.

Of the 321 human rights defenders killed in 2018, 77% were killed while working on environmental, land, and indigenous peoples’ rights.   Though these attacks are occurring worldwide, from Kenya  to Vietnam, countries in Latin America – the region seeing biggest declines in XpA scores – are seeing extraordinary levels of violence against environmental, land, and indigenous rights protesters. Mexico and Colombia alone accounted for more than 54% of HRDs killed in 2018.

Conflict over access to resources is dirtier and more violent ever, and big business and government often collude to sidestep the interests and rights of those whose environment they exploit, particularly where there is profit to be made from extraction, forestry, or industrial mega-projects.  Transparency and accountability are key in tackling the crisis of violence.  A shining example of what is possible when environmental issues are put at the heart of human rights, was the Escazu Agreement, a new and legally binding agreement aimed at reducing violence and protection of the environment and its defenders in Latin America. – see px.

Corruption and the continued rise of the populist strongman

As we saw during 2017, ‘Strongman’ politics continues to rise globally, as new leaders rise and old leaders cling to power across the globe, many spending 2018 in efforts to alter constitutions to stay in office, maintaining networks of clientelism and corruption. These leaders promote a muscular form of majoritarian populism, which excludes, polarises, and silences, railing against the speed-bumps of democratic institutions and limits on the exercise of power.

Identifying an enemy, claiming an emergency, and implementing special measures are well-worn tactics from the strongman playbook, which a rising number of leaders globally are adopting: migrants, LGBTQI+ individuals, NGOs, and feminists were among the scapegoats of 2018.  The effects of this politics are dramatic in Europe and Central Asia, where the mixture of crony capitalism, corruption, and centralized democratic power are proving a deadly mix for journalists and communicators alike, as well as choking the environment for NGOs.

In all of 2018’s elections in Europe, populist parties made gains, according to the Timbro Index, which has measured the recent rise of authoritarian populism in Europe.   The authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland marched onwards towards state capture, undermining judiciary powers and attacking the media: these powers have so eroded their democratic institutions that the European Union launched disciplinary proceedings in 2018.

When people are robbed of their rights, they take to the streets to claim them back

The last decade has seen more protests than at any time since the 1960s, bolstered by the connective and organising power of social media.  As democratic spaces and institutions are hollowed out worldwide, by authoritarianism, deeply-rooted corruption, and violence, the streets have become a vital space for freedom of expression.

Citizen voices are creating the space for change, sometimes with incredible results – like those of Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’.   Many, however, paid a high price for protest during 2018 – movements in Nicaragua and Venezuela were brutally suppressed, even leading to deeper and more widespread restrictions on expression than had been in place before .

2018 was characterised by mass street demonstrations, from Iran to Nicaragua through Ethiopia and France – the same is true of 2019: in the latter part of the year, protests swept across Argentina, Ecuador, and Chile – as well as Hong Kong, Iraq, and Lebanon.

These protests are often sparked by economic hardship or rising costs of living, and mushroom into general discontent with regimes.  Nicaragua’s 2018 protest broke out around social security reform, and Chile’s 2019 protests around a transport price-hike. Both quickly became something more wide-reaching – focussing on and often demanding fundamental change.

The change in question is not all about a few pesos increase in metro fares:  the issues, the complaints are tied to years of hardship. Governments and economic systems have consistently failed to bring wellbeing or justice: social services are failing, the costs of living are too high , trust has been lost in governments, and people have taken their outrage to the streets.

So, what comes next for these movements? How governments enable and manage protests, and how demands are met and enacted, will prove pivotal.  Many indications are that governments are not responding well.  Throughout 2018 and 2019, many protests have been met with mass human rights abuses, arrests and violence, even death by live rounds shot by police forces.

Calls being heard on the streets must be echoed in institutions and laws,  transformed into action and change within political culture and institutions: the principles espoused by popular youth movements need to become a part of the structures of power, to ensure that they are protected by law, and robust in the face of future challenges.

The future will need both: popular movements and institutional reform. Our best path forward is a public debate – held everywhere from the street to the judiciary – which both feeds into and demands accountability from our democratic structures.

The structures which govern lives must become more responsive and representative, not less – they must listen and enact, not silence; and they must share and inform, not hide or obscure. We must protect and exercise our freedom of expression to breathe life and legitimacy back into our governments – to make demands of our leaders and ensure that they are met.

Economic inequalities continue to gape, discrimination continues unchecked, technology companies continue to hold extraordinary levels of power, and our environment continues to be degraded in the name of economic growth. Our need to know and understand, to refuse and to protest, are more urgent than ever – in this moment of history, the price of silence is higher than any of us can afford.