What is freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech is one of the core pillars upholding the democratic process and protecting it is essential if we want to live in a society that is fair and equal for everyone. Failing to do so weakens democracy.
Every time you share a news story on your social media channel, attend a protest, or write to your local politician about an issue you care about, this is free speech in action. Not just any speech is considered free speech. For example, having an argument around the dinner table about whether or not to eat your vegetables is not considered free speech.
Free speech exists when citizens can express their opinion – including views that are critical towards the government - without fearing negative consequences, such as being put into prison or receiving threats of violence.
In 2000 freedom of expression was enshrined as a fundamental right in Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union:
- Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
- The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.
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However, the definition of free speech does not protect every kind of speech. Like all fundamental rights the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, meaning it can be subject to limitations provided they have a legal basis. The limitations must meet two conditions: 1) they are proportional - the limitations are no stronger than needed to achieve their aim 2) they are necessary and genuinely fulfill objectives in the interest of the general public or are needed to protect the rights and freedoms of others.
Therefore, someone who engages in criminalised forms of speech such as hate speech, terrorist content or child pornography cannot defend themselves by relying on their right to freedom of expression.
Why is freedom of speech important in a democracy? Why is it a core principle?
Democracy’s goal is to have a plural and tolerant society. For this to happen successfully, citizens should be able to speak freely and openly about how they would like to be governed and criticize those who are in power.
This exchange of ideas and opinions isn’t just a once off on election day, rather it is an on-going two-way communication which happens throughout a government’s term.
1. It battles for the truth
To enable citizens to make meaningful decisions about how they want society to function, they need access to truthful and accurate information about a wide variety of topics. This can only happen if people feel safe vocalizing the issues affecting their communities.
Safeguarding freedom of speech encourages people to speak out, which makes it easier to tackle systemic issues from the inside. This deters people from abusing their power, which helps everyone in the long run.
2. It makes everyone more accountable
When it comes to elections, citizens are given the opportunity to hold their politicians accountable. In order to decide who to vote for, they need to understand how well a political party has performed while in power and whether or not they fulfilled their election promises.
By reporting on society’s most pressing social issues, media outlets and civil society organisations (CSOs) contribute to the public’s perception of how well the government is doing. However, this is only helpful if they are free to truthfully cover stories that are critical of the state.
3. Active participation of citizens
Elections and referendums are a good opportunity for citizens to shape the direction of society, but they only come round every couple of years.
Free speech reinforces other fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly, which citizens exercise to influence public decision-making by attending protests, demonstrations or participating in campaigns.
This allows them to protest an unpopular decision, such as the ban on abortion in Poland, or show the government they want stronger political action on an important issue. When protestors in Germany filled the streets in their hundreds of thousands protesting the war in Ukraine, this sent a strong message to the government that the people supported strong sanctions against Russia.
4. Promotes equal treatment of minorities
In a democratic society everyone should be treated equally and fairly. However, minority groups who are underrepresented in government are often side-lined, and their opinions' neglected in favour of those belonging to the dominant social group.
By campaigning and speaking openly about the issues faced by their communities, marginalized people can gain widespread public support for their cause. This increases their ability to influence public agenda-setting and put an end to human rights abuses.
5. Necessary for change and innovation
We all want society to become better for everyone, but for that to happen society’s need to encourage and foster freedom of expression. Authoritarian governments who suppress criticism and withhold public interest information deny citizens the right to make informed decisions or take action about important social issues.
Concealing vital intelligence causes problems to fester and worsen. This hinders progress and makes finding a solution much harder when the issue finally comes to light.
For example in China, the doctor who attempted to warn the medical community of a deadly virus – Covid-19 – was told to "stop making false comments" and was investigated for "spreading rumours". This had the devastating effect of delaying the introduction of measures to contain Covid-19, which resulted in a global pandemic and millions of deaths.
How is freedom of speech being threatened?
Authoritarian governments whose primary aim is to stay in power want to ensure that any media coverage is favourable. In order to control the public narrative, they appoint political figures to media authorities and exercise financial and editorial control over mainstream media outlets. As reported by our member organization in our 2022 Media Freedom Act. Hungary is an egregious example of this where over 80% of the media market is controlled directly or indirectly by the Hungarian government.
Governments use restrictive legal reforms, crowd control by police or exceptional emergency measures to curb freedom of expression.
As an emergency response during the Covid-19 pandemic countries such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Slovenia and Spain disproportionately curtailed exercise of the right to protest in the interest of public health through heavy-handed policing and the arrest of activists.
Other legal tools used by the state to control the flow of information is to criminalize the spread of false information or deny access to information.
In Russia, the invasion of Ukraine is referred to by Putin as a “military operation” and it is understood amongst Russians that using the word ‘war’ will put them afoul of the “fake news” laws which could land them with a prison sentence of up to 15 years. As a result, many Russians who oppose the war are cowed into silence, while others aren’t aware of the truth of what is happening.
3.Attacks on journalists, CSOs and Whistleblowers
Politicians and powerful figures who fear journalists will expose their corrupt behaviour resort to dirty, extra-legal tactics to silence them. Common strategies include legal harassment through SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits) or smear campaigns aimed at discrediting critical CSOs.
Whistleblowers have faced devastating personal consequences for shedding light on activities against the public’s interest such as corruption, illegal activities or malpractice.
Journalists and civil rights defenders are also increasingly in danger of verbal or physical violence, including by police.
Hate speech or online trolling can create a hostile digital environment which discourages women and margainlized people from participating in online social debates.
However, well-intentioned efforts to tackle this issue can inadvertently create the same silencing effects.
The European Union is currently pushing through the Digital Services Act, aimed at making the internet a safer place and protecting freedom of expression online. However, its proposed solution to stamp out disinformation could do the opposite. In our letter to MEPs we advised against the mandatory use of upload filters to remove harmful online content, as they are not sophisticated enough to distinguish between humour and abuse. If used, they could limit free speech online.
When freedom of speech is under attack, it sends the message that telling the truth can put you in danger. The ambiguity that exists around what is acceptable or not leads people to tread with caution, so they begin to self-censor. Our 2022 Media Freedom Report found that journalists in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia and Sweden were self-censoring due to online attacks or harassment.
How to protect freedom of speech?
In order to safeguard free speech, there should be laws in place which protect individuals and organisations who are threatened for exposing corruption or unethical behaviour. Journalists, watchdogs, activists and whistleblowers should be given robust legal protection which enables them to carry out their work safely and shields them from retaliation from those seeking to silence them.
This is why Liberties is working hard to campaign for better laws to safeguard media freedom. The Media Freedom Act (MFA) currently being drafted by the European Commission has the potential to make a real difference. We sent the Commission our Media Freedom Report auditing the state of media freedom in 15 EU countries, as well as a policy paper outlining recommendations which we believe the MFA should address. It should include measures to further transparency in media ownership and elaborate on rules on how to make journalistic work more safe.