A global stress test for freedom of expression
Freedom of expression series, episode 1:
One of the fundamental pillars of democracy is wavering. Governments around the world are failing to protect freedom of expression; elsewhere, individuals and groups hide behind freedom of expression to spread hatred and discrimination. In Switzerland, citizens are more and more often called to the polls to decide what counts as acceptable expression.
This content was published on May 17, 2021 – 14:34
In principle, everything is crystal clear. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) include the same article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through all media and regardless of frontiers ”.
In Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) also guarantees freedom of expression in its article 10, while Switzerland added it to its federal constitution in 1999.
But in practice, things are less clear. This was obviously the case after the landmark events of early 2021, following the US presidential elections. When outgoing President Donald Trump was banned by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the two-sided question arose: how to strengthen democracy and how to temper the power of tech giants?
Social media has become an indispensable part of public debate, but it is less and less seen as a benefit for democracy. We are now more likely to be talking about fake news, conspiracy theories and hate speech. Countries all over the world are trying to tackle these problems: Germany, for example, is acting as a global pioneer with its “Network Enforcement Act”, while in Taiwan, a “pro-social” digital infrastructure is in development. construction.
In Switzerland, specific rules for social media are so far lacking.
The media and journalists are under pressure in the Alpine nation. A recent example is the Gotham city magazine from the canton of Vaud, which writes about white-collar crime: in the space of a year, the founders of the magazine have been brought to justice five times by a wealth management company based in Geneva. In a verdict that journalists called “an attack on press freedom,” the court banned the publication of an investigative article.
In Switzerland too, through the country’s direct democratic system of popular initiatives and referendums, citizens are increasingly called upon to debate the limits and possibilities of freedom of expression – and to decide at the polls. It is a demanding balancing act, but also an integral part of the country’s political culture.
In 2021, several G20 countries, including Brazil, India and Turkey are among the nations that have gone from democracy to autocracy, according to the Swedish institute V-Dem. Increasingly, in these places it is not only writers targeted by state censorship policies, but also artists, who are pushing the boundaries of free speech through caricature.
The rise of illiberal populist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil also represents a test for free speech. But there is hindsight: Bolsonaro, for his part, meets opposition from within his own country, from activists engaged in an open democratic discourse, and who demand more citizen participation and more democracy.
In the borderless world of the Internet, international Big Tech companies face national and supranational authorities. Both claim legitimacy to decide on questions of freedom of expression on the basis of different visions of democracy: on the one hand, Facebook has its “independent monitoring body”, on the other the EU, for example, its data protection authorities. How can the tension be resolved? As in the early decades of the Internet, when the ICANN Group organized – relatively democratically – the distribution of Internet domain names, why couldn’t an online global citizen organization now take over the regulation of the Internet? more generally – and why not in Geneva?
Finally, there has been an increase in the speed of communications. Therefore, there must be swift official responses to disinformation and hate speech, Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang told SWI swissinfo.ch. “Even if you just wait one night, the toxic memes will already be in people’s long-term memories.” But it’s not just the speed that matters, it’s also the type of reaction: “When we deploy a humorous response in a few hours, it motivates people to share something pleasant, rather than something retaliatory.” or discriminatory, and then people feel a lot better. “
Translated from German by Domhnall O’Sullivan, swissinfo.ch