Complexity of freedom of expression

Complexity of freedom of expression

The complexity of freedom of expression is illustrated by new warnings about declining freedom of expression while Twitter announced it is scrapping rules about covid information opening doors for anti-vaxxers. Some will see the Twitter announcement as defending freedom of expression while others see increased risks for health threatening disinformation.

Celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, known for her themes of politics, culture, race, and gender, in a BBC lecture said she worries society is suffering from an “epidemic of self-censorship”. Stockholm-based intergovernmental International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in an annual report said democracy is undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections.

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Twitter, under new owner Elon Musk, announced that it is stopping earlier rules meant to prevent disinformation about the covid pandemic and vaccinations: “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.

In a BBC lecture on freedom of speech, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of novel Half of a Yellow Sun, said young people were growing up “afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions”.

Such a climate could lead to “the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity”, she warned.

She agreed with author colleague Salman Rushdie who has said his controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses would “probably not” be published today.

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“Would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not,” Would it even be written? Possibly not”, Adichie said in the BBC lecture.

“We are all familiar with stories of people who have said or written something and then faced a terrible online backlash,” she said.

“There is a difference between valid criticism, which should be part of free expression, and this kind of backlash, ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs.

“To anyone who thinks, well, some people who have said terrible things deserve it – no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism. It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken, but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking.”

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The IDEA report says half of democratic governments around the world are in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections. 

This decline comes as elected leaders face unprecedented challenges from Russia’s war in Ukraine, cost of living crises, a looming global recession and climate change, IDEA says.

“The number of backsliding countries—those with the most severe democratic erosion—is at its peak and includes the established democracy of the United States, which still faces problems of political polarization, institutional disfunction, and threats to civil liberties. Globally, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double the number moving toward democracy.”

“The Global State of Democracy Indices (GSoD Indices) show that authoritarian regimes have deepened their repression, with 2021 being the worst year on record.  More than two-thirds of the world’s population now live in backsliding democracies or authoritarian and hybrid regimes.”  

However, there are still signs of progress, the institute says. 

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“People are coming together in innovative ways to renegotiate terms of social contracts, pushing their governments to meet 21st century demands, from creating community-based childcare in Asia to reproductive freedoms in Latin America. People are successfully organizing themselves outside traditional party structures, especially youth, from climate protests to Indigenous rights. New constitutions and laws are aiming to lift the voices of marginalised groups. In the streets of Iran, young protesters brave their lives to press for basic freedoms.”

Other key findings:

  • As of the end 2021, half of the 173 countries assessed by International IDEA are experiencing declines in at least one subattribute of democracy.
  • In Europe, almost half of all democracies—a total of 17 countries– have suffered erosion in the last five years. These declines affect 46% of the high-performing democracies.
  • Authoritarianism continues to deepen. Almost half  of all authoritarian regimes have worsened. Afghanistan, Belarus, Cambodia, Comoros and Nicaragua have experienced a broad decline.
  • Democracy does not appear to be evolving in a way that reflects quickly changing needs and priorities. There is little improvement, even in democracies that are performing at mid-range or high levels.

The report recommends a series of policy actions to bolster global democratic renewal by embracing more equitable and sustainable social contracts, reforming existing political institutions, and shoring up defenses against democratic backsliding and authoritarianism..

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