UK placed in third tier in global index of free expression

Index on Censorship lists UK as only ‘partially' open’ in every key metric for the year 2021

The UK has been ranked only in the third tier of a new global index of freedom of expression due to what was described as the “chilling effect” of government policies, policing and intimidation of journalists in the legal system.

Countries including Israel, Chile, Jamaica and virtually every other western European state were all ranked ahead of the UK in the measure compiled by the advocacy group Index on Censorship.

The UK was listed as only Partially Open in every key metric for the year 2021 – covering academic, digital and media freedom – based on modelling data from a range of sources including Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and Unesco’s Observatory of Killed Journalists.

Ruth Anderson, Index’s CEO, said she was surprised that the UK ranked so low, even against the backdrop of debate about the government’s attitude to the right to protest or strike and the revision of journalists’ protection when publishing accounts of whistle-blowers relating to national security.

She said: “You might assume we would be with countries like Australia, Ireland and others, who actually have better protections for freedom of expression. But honestly I think we have taken our eye off the ball. It’s a shock, especially in the current environment where people talk a great deal about freedom of expression and use terms like woke.”

Index has been campaigning on issues ranging from the Chinese Communist party’s influence in the overseas arts sector, where artists and others have complained of censorship , to concerns about the potential curtailment of freedom of expression by the British government’s online safety bill.

“This, and other issues, point to backward step for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression,” said Anderson. “Even in recent days we’ve seen a focus on the reported use by Nadhim Zahawi [chair of the Conservative party] of legal action to silence journalists who were seeking to report on his tax affairs. That’s not the country that we claim to live in.”

Other factors which lowered the UK’s ranking was the case of Julian Assange, whose extradition to the US was approved by the high court in 2021 and is still being fought, the existence of a Cabinet Office unit accused of obstructing the release of material requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), a weakening of FOI rights in Scotland and the treatment of journalists in Northern Ireland, ranging from the killing of Lyra McKee to police raids on reporters’ homes.

The ranking comes a month after Hertfordshire police admitted it unlawfully arrested and violated the human rights of a photographer held while covering climate protests on the M25, one of four journalists arrested while covering Just Stop Oil protests.

The rankings were this year compiled with the help of modelling techniques and machine learning experts from Liverpool John Moores University.

Each country was given four rankings: an overall Index as well as rankings for each individual freedom: academic, digital and media/press freedom.

The index covered a year in which the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) monitored 45 deaths of journalists. In a report released on Tuesday, the CPJ said at least 67 journalists and media workers were killed in 2022, nearly double the 2021 figure.

States with the highest ranking (named Open) in the overall measure are clustered around western Europe and Australasia. The UK and the US were ranked with countries including Moldova, Panama, Romania, and South Africa as Partially Open.

The poorest performing countries, ranked as Closed, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Russia, which was categorised as Heavily Restricted, was described as one of the places where regimes were becoming increasingly adept at controlling access to, and content available on, online platforms.

Qatar, the host of last year’s World Cup, was also given an overall ranking of Heavily Restricted for freedom of expression. The poorest performing European Union states were Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary, which were ranked in a fourth tier of being Partially Narrowed.

A spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Culture Media and Sport said: “The online safety bill poses no threat to free speech. It does not require any legal content to be removed and puts tough new duties on tech platforms to safeguard journalism and protect people’s right to express themselves.”

“That will be a huge improvement on the status quo in which social media firms make arbitrary and inconsistent decisions which impact people’s free speech online.”

Originally proposed by Theresa May, the bill has changed substantially, from its original focus on harms including online abuse and harassment, through to a “triple shield” for free speech in a recent version, which required platforms to offer the right of appeal if posts are moderated.


Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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