10 issues affecting freedom of expression

1. Administrative harassment and barriers

Media outlets can be shut down or restricted through administrative measures. For example: sometimes licences to print or broadcast are refused to prevent critical media outlets from operating. Sometimes media outlets are closed after receiving government ‘content warnings’ which are often arbitrary and used as both a threat and a method of silencing dissenting voices.

 

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Image thanks to Paul Harris

2. Anonymity online

As the world becomes ever more connected our devices can be used to trace us. However, anonymity can be crucial for journalists and bloggers in order to do their work. Publishing anonymously or under a pseudonym can also protect journalists from being threatened, followed, arrested, prosecuted, or hurt as a result of exercising their right to freedom of expression.

 

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3. Criminalisation of speech e.g. criminal defamation

In many countries, journalists face criminal defamation charges, fines and prison sentences for writing or speaking critically – even in some instances where the ‘defamatory’ statement can be proven to be true. Criminal defamation laws are open to abuse and are one of the leading reasons that journalists are in prison around the world.

 

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4. Cybercrime and internet regulation offences

Though the internet is a relatively new and developing platform, the right to free speech exists online as much as it does offline. Overly broad cybercrime legislation and sweeping internet regulations are being used by some governments to censor criticism online. Some websites, including search engines, have been taken to court for ‘intermediary defamation’ simply for hyperlinking to critical content on another website. In other cases newspapers have faced legal action over comments made on their websites by the general public.

 

Example cases: 

Image thanks to Gabriel Bangura

5. Fabricated and trumped up charges

Sometimes governments don’t explicitly prosecute journalists for what they publish, but critical journalists and bloggers can face fabricated or trumped up charges. Journalists have been arrested, detained and sentenced for a wide range of offences, including anti-social behaviour, incitement to violence, drug offences, kidnapping or tax offences. Newspapers have been shut down for allegedly ‘damaging the economy’.

 

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6. Forced disclosure of sources

Protecting a journalist’s sources is essential: both to ensure accurate reporting, and to keep journalists and their sources safe. It’s extremely dangerous to press freedom for police or governments to force journalists to reveal the identities of their sources. If people think their information will not be kept confidential they might not speak to the press in the first place, impacting the quality of reporting and reducing the press’s ability to be a ‘public watchdog’.

 

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7. Internet shutdowns and web blocking

What if you woke up one day to find that your government had switched off the internet? Politically motivated web blocking and internet slow-downs or blackouts silence people by cutting them off from the rest of the world. For media outlets this means that it becomes almost impossible for them to operate. For citizens, this means that they can’t access information freely, for instance about what is happening in their country. Between July 2015 and June 2016, internet blackouts happened 81 times across 19 countries.

 

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8. National security legislation

‘National security’ is another leading reason that journalists are in jail today. Though protecting legitimate national security interests is important, overly broad national security laws are often used against journalists to restrict reporting. Some journalists have faced subversion charges for photographing and reporting on protests, while a high number are prosecuted for terrorism related offences merely for reporting.

 

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9. Physical harassment, violence and torture

Physical harassment and violence are used by state and non-state actors to silence journalists and make people too afraid to report, creating a chilling effect. Journalists in detention in various countries around the world are subjected to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and torture – both crimes under international law. Last year Media Legal Defence Initiative worked on 24 cases relating to physical harassment, violence or torture in 11 countries.

 

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10. Newsgathering restrictions

Banning journalists from physical places – such as parliament, protests or refugee camps – prevents them from directly witnessing matters of public interest. Banning journalists makes it more difficult for them to gather first-hand knowledge and report, undermining the public’s right to receive information on issues of public interest.

 

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