It would be wonderful to begin 2020 with an upbeat account of communication rights being strengthened and protected around the world.

There are undoubtedly many instances of positive and exciting changes taking place. Unfortunately, the overall picture is dispiriting. Studies show that organisations like WACC, which advocate for and defend people’s right to communicate, still have much to do.

Published on 2 December 2019, Article 19’s Global Expression Report 2018/2019 summarises major developments – both positive and negative – in freedom of expression around the world. The report is a barometer of national contexts that collectively point to failures of oversight and emerging trends.

Based on qualitative data from 161 countries covering 2018, together with a backward glance from 2019, the report details the factors that contribute to the health (or otherwise) of freedom of expression globally. Its conclusion:

“Too many countries are encouraging a downward trend in the rights of their own people. The data translates into a bald fact, that three of every four people on the planet are experiencing a deteriorating environment for freedom of expression… We see that tactics aimed at suppression are multiform, and while old strategies remain effective (such as silencing of journalists), new tactics are added to the armoury every year.”

The report’s introduction is titled “Expression breathes life and legitimacy back into our governments”, underlining the symbiotic relationship between good governance and good citizenship. It says, “Legal threats to freedom of expression continue – from broad and ambiguous national security laws to laws that unduly limit online expression, as well as new frameworks that delegate blocking and removal to online platforms, which often do so without transparency or accountability.”

Of particular concern are digital media and digital platforms, where the use of algorithms to monitor content has led to “a huge volume of people and communities affected by inaccurate and unjust content removals. In particular, voices of difference and dissent are being silenced online; human rights defenders, LGBTQ+ communities, and political opposition groups across the world have had their content removed and accounts deleted.”

Urgent work is being done on the ethics of the digital transformation of society and on securing a positive role for civil society organisations in the expansion and regulation of digital communication technologies. To begin with, as Article 19’s Executive Director Thomas Hughes concludes, “Our best path forward is a public debate – held everywhere from the street to the judiciary – which both feeds into and demands accountability from our democratic structures.”

Photo above: Trismegist san/Shutterstock