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Our view

Protecting freedom of expression is a permanent challenge

by Jörg Döbereiner

Opinion

The two journalists Maria Ressa (Manila) and Dmitry Muratov (Moscow) won last year's Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to authoritarian leaders.

The two journalists Maria Ressa (Manila) and Dmitry Muratov (Moscow) won last year's Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to authoritarian leaders.

People must be able to form opinions and express their views freely. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an example of how destructive governments can become if they do not feel constrained by well-informed public opinion.

Russia has been under authoritarian rule for many years. Ever since its invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin´s regime has reportedly increased the use of methods of totalitarian rule, where any thinking that diverges from state propaganda is forbidden. Thousands have been arrested at anti-war rallies. The regime has ordered journalists not to use words such as “war” or “invasion”.

Quite clearly, Putin is tightening his grip because he fears that the free flow of information would make him lose the war at home. Independent media houses in Russia have long run considerable risks. One example is the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Dmitry Muratov, its editor-in-chief, was awarded last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for not caving in to the regime.

Among the human rights, the freedom of expression is the most forceful in politics. For good reason, autocrats like Putin consider it a threat. To feel safe, they resort to age-old repressive means. They bully independent media, detain opponents, ban civil-society organisations and apply censorship. Today, the internet is increasingly affected too.

Democracies permit free speech, though not without limits. One person’s freedom must not harm others. Accordingly, libel laws make defamation illegal. For obvious historical reasons, praising Nazi rule is forbidden in Germany.
These laws, however, do not prohibit the kind of controversial debates that mark open societies. Democracies need that kind of debate. It is what allows citizens to become politically engaged in meaningful ways. The freedom to shape one’s opinion is as important as the freedom to express it. People must have access to diverse and reliable information.  

Democracy under attack

Therefore, quality journalism is indispensable. Its characteristics are factual accuracy, pluralistic perspectives and reliable indication of sources. Democracies must protect it from attacks. It is plainly unacceptable, for example, that journalists keep being murdered with impunity in Mexico. In Germany, things are comparatively good. Even here, however, reporters have become  used to being insulted, threatened or even physically assaulted – for example, when they cover rallies of right-wing extremists.
In the virtual realm of the internet, standards are easily breached. Online trolls are known to hound minorities, spread fake-news propaganda and undermine reasoned public discourse. In many cases, democracy itself is under attack. The Capitol insurrection in Washington DC last year, for example, was coordinated on social media. On the other hand, platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter also serve democratic purposes. That is the case, for instance, when civilians organise resistance to Myanmar’s military junta online (on the ambivalence of social media in the Philippines, see Emmalyn Liwag Kotte on www.dandc.eu).

Those who live under democratic rule should support those who fight for more freedom under ­authoritarian rule in a spirit of solidarity. However, it is just as important to defend the freedoms of shaping and expressing opinions in places where the law guarantees free speech. Independent journalism deserves appreciation and support, and for that to happen, citizens must be media-literate (see Ronald Ssegujja Ssekandi on www.dandc.eu). They must be able to tell serious sources of information from dubious ones.

Rule-enforcing governance is needed too. State agencies must be enabled to hold social-media platforms accountable for the content they publish. So far, these platforms are providing excessive space to those who distort facts, insult others and spread hate. In recent years, they have facilitated dangerous disinformation – including from Russia.  It has had impacts on elections and referendums in many democracies.  

Unfortunately, far too many people do not understand that, what gets displayed on their screens, depends to a large extent on corporate algorithms. The business models of social-media platforms are designed to maximise profit, not to serve the common good. We cannot trust them to safeguard without bias our liberty to inform ourselves and express ourselves. This is a permanent challenge. Democratic states and their citizens must rise to it. Every day.

Jörg Döbereiner is a member of the editorial team of D+C Development and Cooperation/E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.
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Update, 24 March. This is not the original version, but an updated one we produced for the print issue. It pays more attention to Russia. We also changed the photo to honour both Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. 

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