Free speech under attack

The latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index records the worst decline in global democracy since 2010-11, in the aftermath of the global economic and financial crisis. 89 countries experienced a decline in their total score compared with 2016, more than three times as many as the countries that recorded an improvement (27), the worst performance.

Almost one-half (49.3%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy but only 4.5% in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2016. Around one-third of the world’s population lives under authoritarian regimes, with a large share in China.

In Spain, democratic credentials suffer:

At 8.08, Spain’s score remains just above the threshold for full democracies. However, the national government’s attempt to stop by force Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence on October 1st and its repressive treatment of pro-independence politicians have put it at risk of becoming a “flawed democracy”. After a unilateral declaration of independence by the regional parliament, the national government temporarily suspended Catalan home rule. Several pro-independence leaders have been jailed on remand and face serious criminal charges and 30-year prison sentences if found guilty.

The wonders of the internet and social media have not translated (precisely) “in a golden age for free speech”:

. However, despite the enormous expansion of the possibilities of free speech, in practice freedom of expression is increasingly restricted. According to our media freedom ranking, in 2017 less than one-half of the global population had access to a free or partially free media and enjoyed the right to speak freely. Moreover, in many of those countries media freedom and freedom of expression were
being eroded. Censorship is no longer the prerogative of authoritarian regimes; it is being deployed
increasingly in the world’s democracies as well.

Freedom of expression faces a threefold threat:

The state in many countries plays a prominent role in curtailing freedom of the media and of expression. Governments, in democratic as well as authoritarian countries, are deploying defamation laws, prevention of terrorism laws, blasphemy and “hate speech” laws to curb freedom of expression and stymie media freedom. Non-state actors, including militant Islamists, criminal gangs and vested interests also pose a growing threat to free speech, using intimidation, threats, violence and murder. Freedom of expression is also under threat from those who claim the right not to be offended. This is leading to growing calls for “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, “hate speech” laws, no-platforming, tabloid newspaper bans and the policing of the internet to cleanse it of “offensive” content.

Not a rosy picture, but no worries. We are optimistic, and the long term trend is (so far) positive.

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