Is freedom of speech diminishing worldwide?

Tesla, X (formerly known as Twitter) and SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk speaks with members of the media during the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park in Bletchley, Britain on November 1, 2023. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Freedom of expression and democracy are intimately linked, and both are deteriorating on a global scale. State restrictions on free speech are a clear sign that a government is turning away from its people. And once voices are silenced, democracy is in peril.

The Arguments

A significant trend against free speech in democracies around the world has been observed by analysts. The challenges to the global landscape of free speech have been pronounced in 2023, with even open democracies implementing measures to address various risks such as hate speech, disinformation, extremism, and public disturbances. This shift is evident in the policies and actions taken by countries across different continents.

The slow reduction of freedom of expression is most marked in the Americas, where countries like Colombia or El Salvador have seen sustained declines over time as institutions have been eroded and the environment for organisation, civic action, and dissent has been constricted. Hungary and Poland have also seen a steady deterioration of their scores over the last years. These types of declines might happen more slowly, and without violence and upheaval, but they can be just as severe for the people living through them.

While democracies do indeed face serious problems in terms of hate speech and disinformation, the remedy prescribed for them risks becoming more harmful than the disease. Open democracies must be especially careful not to normalize the use of the very tools used by illiberal democracies such as India or Hungary: censorship of dissent and increased government control over the public sphere. The temptation to try to solve complicated social and political problems with new means of repression is dangerous. It is doubtful that they are capable of solving those problems. The recent election victory of the Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders, convicted of insulting a group, should serve as a warning that the repression of free speech may well amplify illiberal voices instead of silencing them. In reality, there is increasing evidence that free speech tends to mitigate, rather than incite, violent conflict in open democracies.

The Facts

In the European Union, The EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) illustrates this trend. After the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, the European Commission’s Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, sent several letters to companies such as Meta, Google, TikTok and X, questioning what measures they had taken in response to unspecified cases of hate speech, terrorist content and disinformation and threatening them with fines. Breton’s aggressive policing has drawn accusations of overreach and violations of international human rights norms. But despite these developments, many democracies view the DSA as a universal template for internet regulation, and Chile, Costa Rica and Taiwan have already begun proceedings to adopt laws inspired by this European prototype.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the right to protest was severely restricted. France and Germany have imposed bans on pro-Palestinian demonstrations, citing the use of hate speech and risks to public order.

At the same time, in many democracies laws against hate and insults have been considerably expanded. In England a woman was identified and questioned by police for demonstrating with a placard depicting a caricature of the British Prime Minister and Home Secretary as coconuts.

In Ireland a new hate speech law is on the verge of outlawing “material that is likely to incite violence or hatred against a person or group of persons on the basis of some of their protected characteristics”. This extremely broad definition and application could lead to prosecution including for satirical images downloaded from the Internet. And the Danish government is now re-introducing the offense of blasphemy, which has been virtually ignored since 1946, outlawing the “inappropriate treatment” of religious texts.

Even artistic freedom is not immune, in South Korea an exhibition was cancelled because the country’s president featured unfavourably in a cartoon. Such erosions of free speech in some democracies are neither new nor isolated cases. They are part of a wider, global recession of free speech, which is also affecting open democracies.

The Future of Free Speech report, issued in the beginning of the months, analyses free speech trends in 22 open democracies across the globe from 2015 to 2022, a period marked by global events like terrorist attacks, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and campaigns of disinformation by authoritarian states like Russia and China. With the exception of 2015, every year it was found that most developments led to the restriction of free speech (as opposed to developments that protect free speech), especially laws, which increased significantly in 2022. The most cited reasons for suppressing free speech are national security, national cohesion and public safety.

In the context of the fight against the phenomenon of Islamist radicalization, Denmark adopted laws restricting the access to the country of religious preachers whose teachings undermine “Danish values”.

Costa Rica has outlawed the desecration or disrespect of the flag, coat of arms and other national symbols.

The Espionage and Foreign Interference Act adopted by Australia in 2018 imposes severe penalties (up to 20 years in prison) for the publication or communication to an individual of sensitive information deemed to affect the national interest. The very broad definitions and harsh penalties have sparked a debate about the effect the law can have on journalistic freedom and public interest journalism through self-censorship.

In Spain, three Catalan rap singers were sentenced to nine months in prison for “glorifying terrorism” and “slandering the Crown and state institutions” in connection with song lyrics and tweets criticizing the monarchy and the police.

Germany’s new anti-hate speech law obliges social networks with more than two million users to block or delete any illegal content within 24 hours of receiving a complaint, in order to avoid huge fines.

South Africa has passed a law against hate speech on the Internet and is in the process of passing another on hate speech in general. However, several South African courts, including the Constitutional Court, have already ruled that free speech protects even offensive speech.

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