UK: What is needed to protect freedom of expression for all

UK: What is needed to protect freedom of expression for all - Civic Space

This week, a new debate started in the UK media about the state of freedom of expression in the country, as Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard, announced the launch of the newspaper’s new campaign to ‘fight for free speech’. 

Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 offers her perspective:

ARTICLE 19’s Global Expression Report makes clear that freedom of expression is on the decline in the UK, falling to its lowest level in the past 20 years. For a country that prides itself on defence of press freedom, this should be ringing major alarm bells.  

But to change course, you have to understand what is going wrong. Contrary to Evgeny Lebedev’s assumption that “political correctness” is to blame, for the most part the decline is driven by the UK government’s very own agenda, hardwired on silencing dissent.

In the past year, the Conservative government put in place legislation which all but outlaw public protest; continued to push through the Online Safety Bill, which risks introducing a level of online censorship and surveillance on people’s communication unseen in liberal democracies; and continued to indicate that withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights is not off the table. 

Due to these actions, ARTICLE 19’s Global Expression Report is not the only global ranking to note a worrying decline in the UK. The Civicus Monitor, which tracks the state of civil society freedoms globally, downgraded the UK from “Narrowed” to “Obstructed” status this year. Human Rights Watch warned that the country risks joining the list of countries which abuse, rather than protect, human rights. 

The Global Expression Report is clear that freedom of expression is under attack globally, with 2022 the lowest global ranking for freedom of expression seen since the start of the century. As autocrats rise, they first increase government censorship of the media and attacks on journalists and those who seek to challenge them.

The UK does urgently need to reverse course and protect freedom of expression, including the ability of all to voice unpopular opinions and dissent on government policies. In fact for years, civil society organisations have been working tirelessly calling on the government to proactively protect the voices of protesters and drop their attempts to break the encryption of communications online. That is a campaign we’d like to see the Evening Standard backing.