Your voice matters. You have the right to say what you think, share information and demand a better world. You also have the right to agree or disagree with those in power, and to express these opinions in peaceful protests.
Exercising these rights – without fear or unlawful interference – is central to living in an open and fair society; one in which people can access justice and enjoy their human rights.
Yet governments around the world routinely imprison people – or worse – for speaking out, even though almost every country’s constitution refers to the value of ‘free speech’.
Governments have a duty to prohibit hateful, inciteful speech but many abuse their authority to silence peaceful dissent by passing laws criminalising freedom of expression. This is often done in the name of counter-terrorism, national security or religion. More recently, freedom of expression has come under threat by authorities clamping down on activists, NGOs and individuals helping refugees and migrants.
How governments tolerate unfavourable views or critical voices is often a good indication of how they treat human rights generally.
Amnesty International supports people who speak out peacefully for themselves and for others – whether a journalist reporting on violence by security forces, a trade unionist exposing poor working conditions or an indigenous leader defending their land rights against big business. We would similarly defend the right of those who support the positions of big business, the security forces and employers to express their views peacefully.
We consider anyone put in prison solely for exercising their right to free speech peacefully to be a prisoner of conscience and call for their immediate and unconditional release.
Why is freedom of expression important?
The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out in broad terms the human rights that each of us has. It was later protected legally by a raft of international and regional treaties.
Defending freedom of expression has always been a core part of Amnesty International’s work and is vital in holding the powerful to account. Freedom of expression also underpins other human rights such as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and allows them to flourish.
It is also closely linked to freedom of association – the right to form and join clubs, societies, trade unions or political parties with anyone you choose; and freedom of peaceful assembly – the right to take part in a peaceful demonstration or public meeting.
However, these very freedoms come under regular attack by governments that want to stifle criticism.
For example, in Egypt it is currently extremely dangerous to criticize the government. Over the course of 2018, the authorities arrested at least 113 individuals citing a host of absurd reasons including satire, tweeting, supporting football clubs, denouncing sexual harassment, editing movies and giving interviews.
Those arrested have been accused of “membership of terrorist groups” and “disseminating false news”. Detained without trial for months, those who eventually faced trial were sentenced by military courts, even though military trials of civilians, in Egypt as elsewhere, are inherently unfair.
A free press reporting on the issues that interest us and shape our lives is a key building block of any rights-respecting society. Yet in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Venezuela to name just a few countries, journalists face repression and attacks.
In June 2019, Tanzania’s parliament fast-tracked the passing of the Written Laws Bill, which would entrench censorship, among other violations. Journalists in the country already operate within the tight confines of a media law that requires media houses to “broadcast or publish news or issues of national importance as government may direct”.
In July 2019, the libel trial began in the Philippines against Maria Ressa, the executive editor of online news outlet Rappler. Ressa, a prominent critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, was arrested in February 2019 on trumped up libel charges after Rappler published detailed investigations into some of the thousands of extrajudicial executions committed by police and unknown armed persons, with Duterte’s explicit encouragement, during drugs-related operations. Her case is widely seen as an attack by the government on press freedom.
During conflict, repression can get worse, such as in Myanmar where journalists investigating the killing of Rohingya men and boys by security forces in Rakhine State were arrested and jailed, before being freed under international pressure.
Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, applies to ideas of all kinds, including those that may be deeply offensive. While international law protects free speech, there are instances where speech can legitimately restricted under the same law – such as when it violates the rights of others, or, advocates hatred and incites discrimination or violence.
However, any restrictions on freedom of expression must be provided by law, protect certain public interests or the rights of others and, be clearly necessary for that purpose. .
In 2018, Amnesty International published research that found that Twitter is a platform where violence and abuse against women flourish, often with little accountability. Instead of the platform being a place where women can express themselves freely and where their voices are strengthened, Twitter leads women to self-censor what they post and limit their interactions. As a company, Twitter is failing its responsibility to respect women’s rights online by inadequately investigating and responding to reports of violence and abuse in a transparent manner.
The digital frontier
The digital world gives many more of us access to the information we need, including to challenge governments and corporations. Information is power and the internet has the potential to significantly empower the world’s seven billion people.
But freedom of expression today still often depends on wealth, privilege and our place in society. Those who are rich and powerful are seldom restricted in expressing their views.. Similarly, those who have their own laptops with broadband, have far greater access to information than those who have to walk miles to an internet café.
Increasingly, some states try to build firewalls around digital communications, or in the case of Egypt, Sudan and Zimbabwe among others, respond to mass street protests with an internet shutdown. Iran, China and Viet Nam have all tried to develop systems that enable them to control access to digital information. In India’s northern Kashmir region, mobile Internet and communications are suspended in response to any unrest. At Amnesty International, we are continually finding new ways to stop our website being blocked in China.
Governments are also using dangerous and sophisticated technologies to read activists and journalists’ private emails and remotely turn on their computers’ camera or microphone to secretly record their activities. In 2014, Amnesty and a coalition of human rights and technology organizations launched ‘Detekt’ – a simple tool that allows activists to scan their devices for surveillance spyware.
What is Amnesty doing to protect the freedom of expression?
Case study: Poland and the right to protest
Amnesty International has documented how people in Poland have taken to the streets to express their opinions despite restrictive legislation combined with heavy-handed policing, surveillance, harassment and prosecution which threaten to strangle the right to peaceful protest.
Since 2016, tens of thousands of people have protested against repressive legislation aimed at curbing women’s rights and undermining the independence of the judiciary. Protesters have routinely been met with a show of force and restrictive measures that infringe their right to be seen and heard. Hundreds have found themselves in police custody and facing lengthy court proceedings.
In parallel with tightening the laws affecting the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the government has vastly expanded the surveillance powers of law enforcement agencies with evidence that these expanded powers have been used against people engaged in organizing and participating in peaceful protests.
Case study: Surge in Vietnamese prisoners of conscience
In 2019, Amnesty released shocking research showing that the number of prisoners of conscience unjustly jailed across Viet Nam had sharply risen by a third in signs of a growing crackdown on peaceful activism by lawyers, bloggers, human rights defenders, environmental activists and pro-democracy campaigners.
The prisoners’ detention conditions remain appalling with evidence of people being tortured and otherwise ill-treated, routinely held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, kept in squalid conditions and denied medical care, clean water and fresh air.
Many prisoners of conscience were jailed for comments made on social media platforms and were targeted using the vague and overly broad provisions of the penal code.
One prisoner of conscience is Tran Hoang Phuc. A pro-democracy and environmental activist, he was arrested in June 2017. Tried and convicted on charges of ‘conducting propaganda against the state’ for making and sharing videos perceived to be critical of the government on social media, he was sentenced to six years in prison, followed by four years under house arrest.
The Solution: What is Amnesty calling for?
- Prisoners of conscience around the world should be released immediately and unconditionally.
- All laws criminalizing people who speak out or protest peacefully, should be struck off the law books.
- Laws against hate speech or other incitement to discrimination and violence must not be used to repress peaceful dissent.
- People should have access to information, and the power of governments and companies to obtain information about individuals and organisations must be restricted.