UK slips down freedom of expression ranking for attempts to erode public service media

Government comms is cited as a contributory factor in a decline in freedom of expression in the UK, with the country falling down the global ranking published by human rights charity Article 19.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has described freedom of expression as 'a universal human right' (Pic credit: Annika Haas)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has described freedom of expression as 'a universal human right' (Pic credit: Annika Haas)

Britain, regarded globally as a bastion of free speech, has become less of an open society over the past year according to the latest Global Expression report by human rights charity Article 19.

And the comms operation at the heart of government is partially to blame, it says.

Freedom of speech has long been one of the cornerstones of a truly democratic country. During his time as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson stated: “Freedom of expression is a universal human right and a free press underpins that right.” 

He added: “Where governments fear freedom of expression they often try to shut down media and civil society, or clip their wings.”

And last year the Foreign and Commonwealth Office launched the Media Freedom Coalition in an attempt to protect freedom of expression. 

The annual report by Article 19 ranks countries according to how much they support freedom of expression. It draws on data from 25 different indicators, ranging from internet censorship and harassment of journalists to social media monitoring by the Government and the abuse of defamation and copyright law. 

Falling down the rankings

The 2019/20 report, released last week, revealed that the UK is now placed 31 out of 161 countries – a steep drop from the 20th spot it occupied in the 2018/19 ranking.

It places Britain behind all G7 countries except Japan, which is in 34th place.

The UK is in the bottom third of European countries, with only Greece, Slovakia, Malta, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Poland and Hungary ranking lower.

Denmark tops the rankings, while North Korea is at the bottom of the table.

And with a score of 82 out of 100 – down from 88 in 2009 – Britain is now just two points above the threshold for being considered 'open', rather than having some restrictions on free speech.

Wider trends

The report warns of a global threat to journalism, with tougher regulation of media “with the ‘fake news’ trend taking on new proportions as governments use the health crisis as an excuse to further restrict expression.

It also notes how many countries are treating protests as threats to democracy. “We have witnessed attempts at repression not only from countries traditionally considered authoritarian. Even historically liberal states like the UK are trying to de-legitimise peaceful protest movements like Extinction Rebellion by aligning their cause to those defined as terrorist groups,” it states.

“At climate protests in the UK, police arrested around 1,400, as well as putting Extinction Rebellion, along with Greenpeace, on a list for ‘extremist ideology’,” the report adds.

It also warns of “legislative moves by several states, including France, Poland, and the UK, seeking more extensive powers for mass surveillance. This could have serious consequences for the rights to privacy, but also for the journalistic right to protect confidential sources.”

Government comms under scrutiny

The report claims that “political control of information is increasing: state and oligarchic media ownership is on the rise as public service media are eroded, with reduced funding, political interference, or transformation into state media”.

It says: “Some governments, that of the UK for example, have made efforts to undermine public trust in public service media, and have limited their appearances on those media, minimising opportunities to be held to account.”

Commenting on the UK’s falling ranking, Sarah Clarke, head of Europe and Central Asia for Article 19, told PRWeek: “The decline of freedom of expression in the UK can be understood as part of a broader trend of declining free speech in countries that have traditionally stood for its protection.”

Earlier this year Lee Cain, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, was widely criticised after attempting to ban selected journalists from a Downing Street briefing – a move that prompted the journalists to walk out en masse in protest.

Clarke commented that incidents such as “the exclusion of political journalists at a briefing by the government are seriously contributing to the erosion of freedom of expression in the UK".

Earlier warning

The report comes just months after Article 19 raised concerns over what it described as a “series of attacks on freedom of expression in the UK” due to plans to scrap the BBC licence fee, the shutting down of protests, and exclusion of journalists from government briefings.

Quinn McKew, executive director of Article 19, commented: “Recent events in the UK follow a pattern that we have seen elsewhere, where countries with a traditionally strong commitment to freedom of expression are adopting practices that we would normally associate with authoritarian regimes.”

Media outlet blacklisted

In September, claims by the Declassified UK website that it had been blacklisted by the Ministry of Defence press office prompted the Council of Europe to issue a ‘media freedom alert’, which described the action as having a “chilling effect on media freedom".

The MoD subsequently apologised to Declassified UK and last month the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, announced a review into allegations that Government Communications Service (GCS) guidelines and the Civil Service Code were breached.

The GCS did not respond to a request for comment regarding the Article 19 report.

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