Direct Democracy

A global stress test for freedom of expression

One of democracy’s fundamental pillars is teetering. Across the world, governments are failing to protect the freedom of expression; elsewhere, individuals and groups hide behind free speech to spread hate and discrimination. In Switzerland, citizens are increasingly being called to the ballot box to decide on what counts as acceptable expression.

This content was published on May 17, 2021 - 14:34

In principle everything is be crystal clear. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) include the same article 19: “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

In Europe, meanwhile, the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) also guarantees the freedom of expression in its Article 10, while Switzerland added it to its federal constitution in 1999.

But in practice things are less clear. This was obviously the case after the momentous events at the beginning of 2021, following the US presidential elections. When outgoing president Donald Trump was barred by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the double-sided question arose: how can democracy be strengthened and how can the power of the Tech giants be tempered?

Social media has become an indispensable part of public debate, but it is less and less seen as a benefit for democracy. We’re now more likely to talk about fake news, conspiracy theories, and hate speech. Countries across the world are trying to get to grips with these problems: Germany, for example, is acting as a global pioneer with its “Network Enforcement Act, while in Taiwan, a “pro-social” digital infrastructure is being built.

In Switzerland, specific rules for social media are so far lacking.

Media and journalists are coming under pressure in the Alpine nation. One recent example is the Gotham City magazine from Canton Vaud, which writes about white-collar crime: in the space of a single year, the founders of the magazine were brought to court five times by a Geneva-based asset management company. In a verdict that the journalists called an “attack on the freedom of the press”, the court banned the publication of an investigative article.

Also in Switzerland, via the country’s direct democratic system of people’s initiatives and referendums, citizens are being called more and more to debate the limits and possibilities of free speech – and to decide on them at the ballot box. It’s a demanding balancing act, but also an integral component of the country’s political culture.

Autocratic slip

In 2021, several G20 countries, including Brazil, India, and Turkey are among the nations which have slipped from democracy to autocracy, according to the Swedish V-Dem institute. Increasingly, in these places, it’s not just writers being targeted by state censorship policies, but also artists, who push at the boundaries of the freedom of expression through caricatures.

The rise of illiberal populist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil also represents a test for freedom of expression. But there is pushback: Bolsonaro, for one, is meeting with opposition from within his own country, from activists committed to open democratic discourse, and who are demanding more citizen participation and more democracy.

In the borderless world of the Internet, meanwhile, international Big Tech companies are facing national and supranational authorities. Both claim legitimacy for deciding on free speech questions based on different visions of democracy: on one side, Facebook has its “independent supervisory body”, on the other side the EU for example has its data protection authorities. How can the tension be resolved? As during the first decades of the internet, when the ICANN group organised – relatively democratically – the distribution of internet domain names, why couldn’t a global online citizen organisation now take over the regulation of the internet more generally – and why not base it in Geneva?

Finally, there has been an increase in the speed of communications. Therefore there must be  fast official responses to disinformation and hate speech, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang told SWI “Even if you wait just one night, toxic memes will already have entered people’s long-term memory”. But it’s not just speed that counts, it’s also the type of reaction: “When we roll out within a couple of hours a humorous response, it motivates people to share something enjoyable, rather than something retaliatory or discriminatory, and then people feel much better.”

Translated from German by Domhnall O'Sullivan,

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