Free speech – something essential is in global decline

“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.”

The citation is not picked up from the flyer of some kind of extremist human rights group – if such a thing even exists but from the United Nations declaration of human rights. Unfortunately, the statement is more an ideal than a reality. According to Freedom House, a very trendy and widely referred US-based NGO that researches and advocates for freedom of speech, 2017 marked the 11th consecutive year of global decline of freedom of speech. This decline occurred both in countries that are categorized as “Free” and “Partially free”.

This being said, Freedom House reports have come under much criticism especially due to methodological challenges. The concerns range from data collection to oversimplified conclusions and doubts whether there are good enough instruments to measure freedom and democracy by points, which Freedom House does. Other reports also, support Freedom House concern that the stock value of civil freedoms and especially freedoms of speech are going through a regression.  

Global trends and examples of decline

In some of the countries where freedom of speech and of the press has been on the decline, reports credit it to false promises of a strongman rule, such as in Turkey and Hungary. Turkey that has experienced some decline due to President Erdoğan cracking down on journalists, activists, civil society and anything the regime might expect of collaboration with the enemy. A phenomenon noted in the report was the threat from populist and authoritarian movements that have swept over, especially the North American and European continents. Some statements speak for themselves, for example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s, who has claimed that he seeks to end the liberal democracy in Hungary. At the same time both protectionism and xenophobia (both undermining the plurality of voices and freedom of speech), are views that seem have been the main talking points of both Marine Le Pen in France and Gert Wilders in the Netherlands.

In concrete terms, if an authority anywhere in the world is able to actively restrict freedom of speech, there is less of a barrier for another regime, be it democratic or not, to also act accordingly. Hence your freedom of speech does not only concern you but also me and everyone else. The violation of your human rights is also violating mine.

Restrictions and bad governance spread

A decline in freedom of speech is a socio-political structural phenomenon and it can spread as such across countries, cultural landscapes, and governments. In sociology, this spreading motion is called differentiation. In times, political scientists believed that democracy (together with for example free market capitalism) had the somehow natural and inbuilt ability to spread. This view was endorsed especially by Francis Fukuyama. In addition to the spread of policy, reform and structures also value and behaviour can spread in accordance with contagion theory.

One outcome of declining freedom of speech might be self-censorship. When one person starts to fear for his or her safety to speak or write freely, so might others in the community.

False optimism about democracy among political scientists

Political scientists have been far too optimistic regarding the ability of a liberal democracy to spread. For example, Ronald Inglehart at the University of Michigan saw that the values of a society go hand in hand with how developed it is. The more stable its economy would be, the higher level of general education the country would possess, the greater urge its people would have to pursue a liberal democracy.

Perhaps Inglehart’s theory just shows how dangerous it is to make generalizations. The theory does show some signs of accuracy in, for example, Iran prior to the emergence of the Green movement and in the MENA-region before the Arab spring, where the middle-class had grown stronger, civil society has awoken and some parts of education, for example, the literacy rate improved progressively.

However, China is an example that keeps putting into question these theories. The country’s economy is stronger than ever and its people are highly educated in both domestic and international universities. But still authoritarianism strives, restrictions on freedom of speech are rough and some parts like Taiwan and Hong Kong find themselves in problematic situations.

The need to speak freely is so strong in some, that they have the tendency to get their voices heard even under difficult circumstances. In other words, restrictions may lead to resistance which can manifest itself as graffiti, cartoons, satire, or an exchange of ideas on encrypted chat-applications. These forms of expressions and methods of communication can be considered as a painkiller to a disease. Whilst the real cure would be an almost comprehensive absence of restrictions on opinions and ways to express them. By Johannes Jauhiainen

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