In a pandemic, failing to protect expression is failing to protect people

A policeman orders Reuters journalists off an airplane without explanation while the plane is parked on the tarmac at Urumqi airport, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, 5 May 2021.

Freedom of expression is the fundamental human right that enables us all to demand the highest attainable standard of health.  Unlike any other year in recent history, 2020 has driven home just how vital access to accurate, reliable and timely information is, and continues to be, during a global health crisis.

When faced with such crises, governments have a fundamental duty to be transparent about their decisions, and a legal obligation to protect people’s lives. 

This means ensuring that health-care professionals have access to accurate global information about the disease, educating the public about the pandemic, and ensuring that health data is accessible to everyone – no exceptions

The Global Expression Report for 2021 reveals that rather than focusing on controlling the virus, protecting public health and improving access to information, governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to:

  1. Suppress critical information
  2. Implement states of emergency without proper limits 
  3. Place unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions on the media 

And by presenting a false choice between human rights and public health, governments have used a cunning tactic to shut down public discussion and any scrutiny of their decisions. 

In other words, they have wasted public money and valuable time using the pandemic to entrench their power.  

As a result, these actions have prolonged the pandemic and cost lives. 

How has your government protected Expression across the pandemic?

What is the Global Expression Report?

The Global Expression Report is ARTICLE 19’s most comprehensive, data-based report that tracks freedom of  expression across the world.  

The GxR metric measures how free each and every person is to write, to post online, to march, to teach, to access knowledge and information, to share it freely, and to hold those with power to account.  

The metric looks at 25 indicators across 162 countries, to create an overall freedom of expression score for every country on a scale of 1 to 100.  Based on the score, we place countries into one of five categories.

  • In Crisis
  • Highly Restricted
  • Restricted
  • Less Restricted
  • Open

Over the last ten years the largest rises in scores have been in 3 countries. 

Protest has been a key catalyst for changes in Armenia while there have been sustained gains in public decision making in Tunisia and The Gambia. 

The biggest declines in scores have occurred in some of the largest countries in the world such as Brazil and India.

Two out of every three people in the world or – 4.9 billion people – are living in countries that are highly restricted or experiencing a free expression crisis, more than at any time in the last decade. 

The number of countries and percentage of the world’s population in each expression category, 2020

How free are people in your country?

Which elements of expression have been affected the most?

2020 saw significant drops in protest and public participation – two key elements of freedom of expression and democracy as a whole

Disinformation spread across the world faster than any virus could. Government responses to address it are vague and open to abuse. 

Some states and officials even spread disinformation themselves, while whistleblowers and reporters raising the issue were silenced, harassed, or detained.

The most common democratic violation in relation to the pandemic were restrictions imposed on the media. Populist governments have abused public health measures to attack the free press.

Those who seek to entrench their power hate accountability which is why we have seen attacks on journalists and online censorship intensify in many countries.

Increased surveillance also posed a threat as millions were asked to download apps that collected highly sensitive data without adequate measures for privacy and data protection.  

All over the world during 2020 public participation was dismantled: decisions were made without consultation, oversight was undermined, powers were centralised, and accountability limited.  

Giant tech companies continue to control what we see and share online without proper accountability to people.  

The systems of checks and balances against excessive power are weakening: global governments and big corporations have grown more powerful while independent media and NGOs have been hit financially. 

Rather than focusing on controlling the virus many governments have instead wasted public money and time on trying to control the narrative about their response to COVID-19. 

In doing this, they have suppressed critical reporting and political opposition – particularly around elections.

How has your government protected Expression during the COVID-19 pandemic?

What can we do to fix this?

When leaders look to concentrate their power, they typically attack our rights to freedom of expression first.

We have seen this play out so many times. First they attack the media, then democratic institutions, and then, piece by piece, they try to take our freedoms.

So, we know that reclaiming expression is the strongest shield we can use to protect ourselves.

And governments are getting worried. Their responses to protests have become more brutal and repressive because they – and we – know that protest is central to raising consciousness and creating change.

Despite the grim figures, hundreds are making tremendous strides in strengthening media literacy, improving corporate transparency, tackling hate speech and regulating giant companies.

This shows that by working together, we can make a difference.

Addressing these challenges will mean scaling up our efforts to take back collective control of public resources and institutions away from from single individuals.

In every community and every country, tackling these challenges will need more voices, not fewer, more information, not less, and more clarity and authenticity, not lies and deceit.

Expression is the best way we can strengthen public health, address the climate crisis, and support economic recovery.