LONDON—Countries around the world have experienced a significant decrease in freedom of speech over the past ten years, and the Middle East is leading the trend, say two recent reports on the subject.
One, a report from Northwestern University in Qatar, shows how people in different nations across the region disagree about the importance of freedom of speech. Another, from the human-rights organization Article 19, attempts to measure in detail exactly how freedom of speech has been eroded.
In recent years, some Arab governments have started squeezing the one place where it once was possible for citizens to criticize them—on social media. Public reaction to the new restraints has varied. For example, 12 percent of Emiratis believe it’s acceptable to criticize the government online, whereas in Lebanon, that figure jumps to 70 percent.
These are some of the findings in the report from Northwestern University in Qatar, “Media Use in the Middle East, 2017,” which surveyed attitudes toward freedom of speech on the Internet among more than 6,000 respondents in seven countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.
Discrepancies also emerge when the results are parsed by age. “The older generations of nationals were more reluctant to agree with the freedom to express unpopular ideas or criticize their government,” said Everette E. Dennis, dean of Northwestern University in Qatar, in a statement.
Respondents who described themselves as progressive instead of conservative were more likely to back greater freedoms of expression on the Internet, by a factor of 22 percentage points. Additionally, those surveyed who were unhappy with their country’s direction on freedom of expression were more likely to say that people should be free to criticize the government online.
Percentage of respondents who agree with these statements on freedom of speech.
(Source: Northwestern University in Qatar)
These findings complement those of the group Article 19, which is based in the United Kingdom and seeks to defend and promote freedom of expression worldwide.
Its “Expression Agenda Report” measures freedom of expression in 172 countries, based on a metric it constructed using data collected by another independent research group, the Varieties of Democracy Institute. The metric synthesizes data collected between 2006 and 2016 on 32 indicators, including media bias, access to public information, censorship, the harassment of journalists and laws that protect individuals who express opinions online.
These variables were then combined to create one metric, known as “the expression agenda,” by which countries were ranked. The results aren’t good for those who support freedom of expression.
Countries around the world have experienced a significant decrease in freedom of speech over the last ten years, but the Middle East has been leading this trend, David Diaz-Jogiex, director of programmes at Article 19.
“At the very bad end of the spectrum we have a significant number of Arab states. We have Yemen and Syria, and then we have Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt,” he said.
In the recent past, Turkey was often touted as a model for the Arab world to follow in its tolerance of freedom of expression but those days are now gone, he added. “Turkey is one of those countries where it has completely collapsed.” (See a related article, “Academic Freedom Report Highlights Repression in Turkey.”)
In Egypt, on the other hand, Diaz-Jogiex believes freedom of expression has never been that high.
A decline in freedom of expression, however, is not limited to the developing world or authoritarian regimes. In fact, Diaz-Jogiex is worried that new British laws are a threat to freedom of expression and could be copied by other countries.
“In the U.K., the Investigatory Powers Act allows the state to have vast powers of intrusion for surveillance. It’s draconian and worryingly offers a great template for authoritarian regimes,” he said. “They can use it to legitimize their own efforts by pointing to the U.K. and saying that if it’s good enough for the world’s oldest democracy then why not us?”
But the report also notes some success stories, Tunisia being the chief one among Arab countries. Diaz-Jogiex says the government has made positive changes to its laws regulating free speech since the 2011 revolution. “There is also a strong civic space demanding information. It’s considerable growth as a result of social-political action.”
Building this kind of demand from the public for strong guarantees of freedom of expression is key to improving the situation, free-speech advocates say, which makes the data collected by Northwestern University in Qatar all the more relevant.
“Freedom of expression is at the center of all freedoms, it’s a multiplier of other rights,” said Diaz-Jogiex.