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A global stress test for freedom of expression

One of democracy’s fundamental pillars is teetering. Across the world, governments are failing to protect the 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 November 26, 2021 - 17:24
Kleon Medugorac (illustration)

In principle everything should be crystal clear. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights from 1966 include the same phrase (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”. On top of this, Article 21 says that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”.

In Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights from 1950 guarantees the freedom of expression in Article 10. Switzerland meanwhile added it in Article 16 of its federal constitution in 1999; it also committed itself (in Article 54) to “the promotion of democracy worldwide”.

But in practice things are less clear. According to the International IDEA institute’s latest reportExternal link on the state of democracy in the world, the number of countries in which freedom of expression and democracy has deteriorated has tripled in the last decade. And yet at the same time, the voices of those calling for fundamental rights and for a strengthening of democracy have been getting louder and louder – as our Global Voices of Freedom series shows.

Social media has meanwhile become an indispensable part of public debate, but it is less and less seen as a benefit to democracy. When it comes to social networks, we’re ever likelier 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, has positioned itself as a global pioneer with its Network Enforcement Act, while in Taiwan, a “pro-social” digital infrastructure has been established. Switzerland, where there are no specific laws to regulate social media, approaches things differently.

How power is shared within society is another decisive factor in guaranteeing freedom of expression. When different institutions and interests can partake in public debates and opinion formation, and when no one entity has a monopoly on decision-making, then the freedom of expression can fulfil its task – the strengthening of democracy. However, in a wide-ranging and exciting debate on this issue – which we ran in 10 languages this year – many other questions were also raised about the freedom of expression, for example where the limits lie.

In Switzerland, via the direct democratic system of people’s initiatives and referendums, citizens are also increasingly debating such questions about the limits and possibilities of free speech; they are also deciding on them at the ballot box. It’s a tricky balancing act, but an integral component of the country’s political culture, of which all are aware.

Autocratic slip

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

The rise of illiberal populist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil also represents a test for free speech. But there is pushback: Bolsonaro, for example, has met with opposition from within his own country, where activists are committed to opening a democratic discourse that demands more citizen participation and democracy.

In the borderless world of the internet, meanwhile, Big Tech companies are facing off with national and supranational authorities. Both claim legitimacy for deciding on free speech questions, but 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, as Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang told SWI swissinfo.ch: “Even if you wait just one night, toxic memes will already have entered people’s long-term memory”, she said. 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.”

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