Freedom of expression is at its lowest ebb for 10 years, according to a newly-issued report.
Globally, journalists and rights activists continue to be murdered for their work and are being imprisoned in record numbers. Protests worldwide are still being repressed, often violently. Online activity is being restricted and monitored more than ever before.
The Expression Agenda Report (XpA) published by UK-registered charity Article 19 takes data covering dozens of indicators across five sectors: Transparency, Protection, Civic Space, Digital and Media. On a global scale, standards of freedom have declined in each of these sectors, and that rate of decline has accelerated over the last 10 years. The conclusions are worrying:
"We are witnessing a period where strongman politics are on the rise...we have witnessed - at a rate which might have been unimaginable only a few years ago – voters turn to populism and demagoguery, as some leaders choose to turn their backs on debate, democracy, and accountability....Europe meanwhile has descended into a populist crisis with alarming consequences for freedom of expression."
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: EUROPE IN DECLINE
While European countries account for the best performing countries in all fields - Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany are regulars at the 'top of the class' - the report laments that "the climate for independent and critical media is worsening across Europe and Central Asia: in many places, rhetoric has become openly hostile towards journalists, and national security concerns are overriding the need for a free press and an informed population."
The anti-media rhetoric of heads of state and government, the report says, have helped to create an atmosphere of hostility towards journalists. Specific examples given are:
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who in 2017 referred to the media as "filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes" and "idiotic hyenas".
Czech President Milos Zeman also used the term "hyenas" to describe journalists, as well as calling them "manure" who should be "liquidated". He also "displayed a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the word ‘journalists’ at a press conference".
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama referred to journalists as "ignorant", "poison", "charlatans", and "public enemies".
There were four murders of journalists in Europe and Russia in 2017, including the high profile assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb in Malta in October of that year. Galizia had been working on an expose of corruption which implicated Maltese PM Joseph Muscat.
France and the United Kingdom are singled out for legislation which transfers some cases of expression of opinion from the civil to the criminal courts.
Spain receives criticism in the report for the heavy-handed repression of protests ("riot police used excessive force") after Catalonia's referendum in October 2017.
Hungary, the report alleges, "passed one of Europe’s most repressive laws regarding the activity of NGOs", while "the situation in Poland deteriorated severely in 2017: state media were moved under government control and independent journalists and media outlets were intimidated."
Even in Denmark and Germany, where defence of the freedom of expression remains the most resolute, "there remain critical blind spots in new and existing law".