Direct Democracy

A global stress test for freedom of expression

One of democracy’s fundamental pillars is teetering. Across the world, governments are failing to protect freedom of expression; elsewhere, individuals and groups hide behind free speech to spread hate and discrimination. In Switzerland, citizens are increasingly being called to the ballot box to decide on what counts as acceptable expression. It is a challenging balancing act.

This content was published on August 19, 2021 - 14:34
Kleon Medugorac (illustration)

In principle everything is crystal clear. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) include the same article (19): “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

In Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) also guarantees freedom of expression in its Article 10, while Switzerland added it in Article 16 of the federal constitution in 1999.

But in practice things are less clear. This was obviously the case in the events following the 2020 US presidential elections. SWI’s debate on freedom of expression, which was launched in ten languages, has also highlighted the complexity of the issue.

Social media has become an indispensable part of public debate, but it is less and less seen as a benefit for democracy. We’re now more likely to talk about fake news, conspiracy theories, and hate speech. Countries across the world are trying to get to grips with these problems: Germany, for example, is acting as a global pioneer with its Network Enforcement Act, while in Taiwan, a “pro-social” digital infrastructure has been established.

In Switzerland, specific rules for social media are so far lacking. Via the country’s direct democratic system of people’s initiatives and referendums, Swiss citizens are being asked more and more to debate the limits and possibilities of free speech – and to decide on them at the ballot box. It’s a demanding balancing act, but also an integral component of the country’s political culture. Everyone is aware of this.

Autocratic slip

In 2021, several G20 countries, including Brazil, India, and Turkey are among the nations which have slipped from democracy to autocracy, according to the Swedish V-Dem institute. Increasingly, in these places, it’s not just writers being targeted by state censorship, but also artists, who push at the boundaries of the freedom of expression through caricatures.

The rise of illiberal populist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil also represents a test for freedom of expression. But there is pushback: Bolsonaro, for one, is meeting with opposition from within his own country. Activists are committed to opening a democratic discourse that demands more citizen participation and democracy. People across the globe are committed to the fight for the right to freedom of expression and – as shown in our international series “Freedom of Expression” — they do so under very different circumstances.

In the borderless world of the internet, Big Tech companies are facing national and supranational authorities. Both claim legitimacy for deciding on free speech questions based on different visions of democracy: on one side, Facebook has its “independent supervisory body”'; on the other side the EU, for example, has its data protection authorities.

How can this tension be resolved? Just as the ICANN group organised the distribution of internet domain names relatively democratically during the first decades of the internet, a global online citizen organisation could now take over the regulation of the internet more generally – and why not base it in Geneva?

Finally, there has been an increase in the speed of communications. Hence, the official responses to disinformation and hate speech must be fast, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang told SWI “Even if you wait just one night, toxic memes will already have entered people’s long-term memory”. But it’s not just speed that counts, it’s also the type of reaction. 

“When we roll out within a couple of hours a humorous response, it motivates people to share something enjoyable, rather than something retaliatory or discriminatory, and then people feel much better.”

Translated from German by Domhnall O'Sullivan,

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