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MADRID — As the year 2019 comes to a close, freedom of expression and opinion through digital media has reached its lowest levels in this past decade, which has witnessed an escalation in government repression of individuals and groups across the Internet.

According to a new report from the UK-based charity Article 19 (named for one of the clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), freedom of expression has reached a ten-year low globally, as a result of threats against journalists and what the report calls “digital authoritarianism.”

Skyline points out that, according to the Article 19 report, governments in a number of countries have been increasing online surveillance and cracking down on content and behavior that indicate dissent. 

While some improvements were noted in the overall freedom-of-expression environment around the world between 2008 and 2013, those gains were eroded in the subsequent five years. According to Article 19’s analysis, more than sixty-five countries — with a combined population of over five billion people — have seen their freedom of expression decline over the past decade.

The past several years have witnessed an increase in the number of journalists, activists and human rights defenders whose rights have been violated and their lives endangered.

They have undergone arrest, death threats and outright murder. More of them were imprisoned in 2018 than in 2017. 

There has been an increase in the number of journalists arrested around the world, with Turkey, China and Egypt figuring notably among the countries that imprisoned journalists.

Varied Outcomes of Protest

Between 2018 and 2019, especially in countries where elections are widely viewed as unfair or as attempts by the ruling party to consolidate power, numerous protests erupted as they became the only means of freedom of expression.

Those protests often led to governmental limits on the scope of freedom of expression. 

With regimes suppressing demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in Egypt, the right to protest there became more restricted.

The impact of protests on freedom of expression can vary, however, from one nation to another. While some governments respond with suppression of rights, in some instances freedom of expression has increased as a result of protests.

They have paved the way for greater democratic reform in Armenia and Ethiopia, while in Venezuela and Nicaragua the methods used to repress protests have led to an accelerated decline in freedom of expression.

The Middle East and North Africa

Freedom of opinion and expression underwent a clear decline during the past decade in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, despite the increasing interest in such freedom in these regions.

Many regimes and governments have responded with severe and violent suppression, as well as with harassment by the judiciary and with the legislation of repressive laws.

Notably, freedom-limiting cybercrime laws were approved by several governments in the Arab world, such as Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Egypt. 

Although recent years have brought changes of regimes and presidents in many countries, such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Sudan, the degree of respect for freedom of expression has been variable.

It has improved in Tunisia and Libya, while in Egypt and Yemen it has become much worse.

Skyline emphasizes that regime change and rotation of power must be accompanied by constitutional guarantees of human rights and a steady base of state institutions that aim to raise the level of respect for human rights, especially freedom of expression.

Reaffirming Freedom of Expression

For his part, Mauth Hamed, Secretary-General of Skyline International, says that the current year and the past years have witnessed increased attacks against journalists and activists in several countries, led by Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

He has also monitored the escalation of digital censorship, in which many social networking companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have become tools and backers of censorship.

Skyline International has issued several important recommendations regarding the freedom of expression, in response to a disturbing decline of freedom in the Arab world on two important levels:

  • the suppression of protests and the arrests of those who express their opinion in public action in the streets
  • censorship, espionage, and reporting of regime-opposing publications and writings in digital space

Hamed affirms that freedom of expression is the safety valve for all human rights, as the free and safe expression of opinions and ideas is an essential pillar for establishing the principles of truth and respect for others.

He says, “On the threshold of a new year, the world needs to review the policies of repressive governments that have imposed laws suppressing rights instead of establishing and preserving them.

To protect many people from systems and companies that monitor and spy on them, international action is needed.”