Free speech and privacy on the wane across the world
Autocratic rule, increased media restrictions and use of mass surveillance affect almost half global population, researchers find
Nearly half the world’s people are living in countries where their freedom of speech and right to privacy are being eroded, researchers have found.
“Strongman” regimes seeking to squash voices of dissent and solidify political power are increasingly monitoring citizens through technology, cracking down on protests and jailing journalists, according to a ranking of 198 countries on issues including mass surveillance and data privacy.
The report, launched on Thursday by global risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, found that about 3.38bn people, or roughly 46% of the global population, live in countries deemed to be at “extreme risk” in relation to right to privacy and freedom of expression.
Out of 198 countries, 58 were categorised as “extreme risk” when it came to citizens’ right to privacy, a jump of 9% from 2017 levels.
The same number of countries were ranked as “extreme risk” in the report’s freedom of opinion and expression index. The rise from from 52 in 2017 to 58 in 2019 represents an increase of 11%.
However, just 28 countries were identified as “extreme risk” on the democratic governance index, which identifies and measures authoritarian regimes.
The figures represent a “worrying” trend in the global erosion of rights and freedoms that goes “beyond the most hardcore autocratic states”, the report says.
“This tells us that more countries are now prioritising control of the public narrative and the quashing of public dissent above the rights of citizens.”
The report highlights Cambodia, where national elections last year prompted Hun Sen, who has been the country’s prime minister for 34 years, to crack down on “fake news” by fining offenders and jailing them for two years. Hun Sen has also strangled dissenting speech online by extending cyber surveillance, and ordered all internet traffic to be transmitted through a state-owned data management centre.
China had the lowest aggregate score for both freedom of expression and right to privacy, according to the report. Home to one-fifth of the world’s internet users, the nation already faces the most severe internet restrictions. However, the study warns of the impact the 2020 rollout of the controversial social credit system – a mass surveillance and AI programme that gives citizens a social credit score based on their social, political and economic behaviour – could have, both within and beyond the country’s borders.
In Turkey, more journalists were jailed last year than in any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The government this week destroyed more than 300,000 books linked to the 2016 failed military coup; last year, a report from the Pen foundation found that 200 media outlets and publishing organisations had been shut down, 80 writers subjected to investigations and prosecutions, and more than 5,800 academics dismissed from 118 public universities.
Cambodia, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and Zambia have all dropped into the “extreme risk” in terms of right to privacy.
Countries that were classified as at “extreme risk’ on freedom of expression included Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Uganda and Venezuela.
Sofia Nazalya, Verisk Maplecroft’s human rights analyst, said Donald Trump’s increasingly authoritarian stance on media freedoms risked encouraging similar behaviours in other countries where freedom of expression and right to privacy are already the subject of concern.
“What’s happening with Trump and his anti-media stance is contradictory to how we think a leader of a democratic nation should act and it does set a dangerous precedent for other countries to be more open in criticising the press,” said Nazalya.
The report also underscored human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region, where an estimated 1 million ethnic Uighurs have been held in detention centres. The report warns multinational companies of tainted apparel supply chains. China is the world’s largest producer of cotton, with three-quarters produced in Xinjiang, and the industry has been linked to forced labour.
Yet companies seeking to clean up their supply chains may find the process extremely difficult, said Nazalya.
“Conducting standard due diligence may prove problematic for the region, as the Chinese government will likely make any manufacturing that occurs in the region untraceable to other supply chains. This situation is fairly unique. It will pose a real challenge for companies as it constitutes a major reputational issue for those that are caught up.”