They are fighting for the freedom of speech, aren’t they?

3 min read

On May 17, 2024, the European Council decided to suspend the broadcasting of four media outlets in the EU (following the similar step taken in 2022 against Russia Today and Sputnik), accusing those of spreading and supporting the Russian propaganda and war of aggression against Ukraine.

The ban on Voice of Europe, RIA Novosti, Izvestia and Rossiyskaya Gazeta wasn’t the first introduced by the EU, but it became the least discussed in European media. Accepted without much ado, because the mainstream media either agrees that alternative voices should be silenced by any means (for example by banning a conservative event, like it happened to the National Conservatism Conference in Brussels) or has learned to live in an environment of the ever-growing control of media.

The freedom of speech is a sacrosanct privilege. Something everybody is paying lip-service to, especially when it comes to condemning, e.g. Beijing for some media ban.

But the borders and limits of freedom of speech become all fuzzy when it comes to the home front and defining what “good opinions allowed to appear in mainstream media or online” are. Acting for the greater good (in this case in the name of stopping the spread of Russian propaganda), beyond any doubt.

Two years ago, in May 2022, when the EU issued the first ban, several European actors raised their voices claiming that the EU chose the wrong method as it is not the best way to fight against disinformation with censorship.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), for example, expressed surprise. General Secretary of the EFJ, Ricardo Gutiérrez went further: “First of all, it should be remembered that media regulation does not fall within the competence of the European Union. We believe the EU has no right to grant or withdraw broadcasting licences. This is an exclusive competence of the states. In our liberal democracies, it is independent regulators, never the government, that are allowed to manage the allocation of licences. The EU’s decision is a complete break with these democratic guarantees. For the first time in modern history, Western European governments are banning media.”

“Secondly, the total closure of a media outlet does not seem to me to be the best way to combat disinformation or propaganda,” added Gutiérrez. “This act of censorship can have a totally counterproductive effect on the citizens who follow the banned media. In our opinion, it is always better to counteract the disinformation of propagandist or allegedly propagandist media by exposing their factual errors or bad journalism, by demonstrating their lack of financial or operational independence, by highlighting their loyalty to government interests and their disregard for the public interest.”

There were (and are) some attempts to have a more balanced approach: instead of blocking what is considered “state propaganda” (a step that can easily silence freedom of expression), authorities started to fight disinformation. In that, the EU has some remarkable results, starting with the EUvsDisinfo platform. The best way to counter Russian (or other) information warfare, empowering and educating citizens and the public, helping to identify and combat fake news.

But that is the exception, not the rule.

Back in 2022, many NGO-s tried to reason that bans (pretty much like cancel-culture) might start a never-ending circle of retaliatory measures and even more prohibitions and limits.

The ever-growing wave of media bans confirmed the fears of a downward spiral: in response to the latest act, Russia banned some European media and introduced new restrictions.

China was famous about its strong internet censorship, but just some days ago the country that once took pride in allowing all sorts of opinions fly around freely in the public space (think Charlie Hebdo) announced the blocking of TikTok in New Caledonia, one of its overseas territories, trying to stop the widespread protests. Thus, Paris also joined the line of “authoritarian regimes” worldwide applying shutdowns to stifle dissent.

The global landscape for freedom of expression has faced severe challenges in recent years.

Even countries famous for their plurality and freedom of speech have imposed restrictive measures. The Future of Free Speech Project’s (managed by the Vanderbilt University) own yearly report monitors and measures the challenges against freedom of expression.

The 2024 report proves that both in 2022 and 2023 serious restrictive measures were adopted in the EU. Between 2015-2022, free speech trends were sinking. “The scale of speech restrictions documented in this report suggests that while democracies face serious challenges, the cure has become worse than the disease and that open societies must look to alternative and non-restrictive measures if they are to protect democracy without sacrificing freedom of expression—without which democracy is meaningless—in the process.”

The world’s freest and most democratic nations have restricted freedom of expression amidst pivotal global events including devastating terrorist attacks, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and disinformation campaigns by authoritarian states like Russia and China.

The European Commission demands the removal of content classified as “hate speech,” “terrorist content,” or “disinformation” from major social media platforms, threatening significant fines for non-compliance.

The UK’s Online Safety Act made law in October 2023, has raised alarms about potential censorship. The Act’s stringent regulations and substantial financial penalties for not removing illegal content could inadvertently lead to the suppression of lawful speech.

In the realm of journalism, criminal defamation laws pose a significant threat. Cases like Italian reporter Roberto Saviano, penalized for criticizing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Chilean editor Felipe Soto, reprimanded for an article criticizing a public official, highlight the risks for journalists and critics in democratic states.

Denmark’s reintroduction of a blasphemy ban, unenforced since 1946 and abolished in 2017, is another stark reminder that citizens of open democracies cannot take well-established speech protections for granted.

And the list goes on.

More subtle methods are also on the rise. Financial support for “independent” and “good” media became an accepted way to help those venues withstand economic pressures and continue their work “free from external influence” (except of those, from whom the money comes from, of course).

Tolerance for alternative opinions (vis-à-vis what some believe are “universally right”) is diminishing, posing a real threat (let’s say THE real threat) to democracy to which acceptance and consideration of all opinions is fundamental. Where freedom of speech should be the norm, with only very strictly limited exceptions.

Once Pandora’s box is opened, the spilling out of the contents is hard to stop. Without clearly set rules on when, how and why freedom of speech can be limited, the very foundations of core democratic values will be called into question.

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