Freedom of expression and freedom of the press have been under pressure for a long time in many countries, including countries in Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend. Some countries have introduced formal restrictions that limit freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and there have also been direct attacks on journalists and the media, human rights defenders, artists and others aimed at silencing critical voices. Over the past few years, nearly twice as many countries have moved away from, rather than towards, democracy.
Today, the Foreign Minister presented Norway’s new strategy for promoting freedom of expression in foreign and development policy. The strategy sets out key priorities in Norway’s international efforts to promote freedom of expression and media freedom, diversity and independence. The strategy also describes how Norway will work to promote freedom of expression in the UN and in regional organisations, by providing support to civil society and through dialogue with other countries’ governments.
‘Freedom of the press and the safety of journalists will continue to be important priorities for us in the coming years. Journalists and the media in general are under severe pressure in many countries, including countries in Europe. The increasing use of digital platforms for communication and information sharing has led to a rise in threats against and attacks on journalists. Women journalists and media workers are particularly vulnerable to online violence. Online violence and abuse constitute a serious attack on freedom of expression and pose a threat to gender equality in the media,’ Ms Eriksen Søreide said.
According to a UNESCO discussion paper on global trends in online violence against women journalists, nearly three out of four women journalists have experienced online violence. Gender discrimination and misogyny combined with racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and transphobia are among the factors that lead to the most serious attacks. In one in five cases, online violence was linked to physical attacks or abuse.
‘Sexual harassment, hate speech and online abuse tend to affect women and girls more than men and boys. This type of abuse creates fear and leads to self-censorship, and is a major obstacle to women and girls’ freedom of expression and equal participation. We will work to combat online violence and at the same time to enhance digital skills among girls, women and other vulnerable groups,’ said Minister of International Development Dag-Inge Ulstein.
Digital media and communication platforms have made it easier for many people to gain access to information and participate in the public debate. However, in developing countries only around half the population has access to the internet and there is significant variation between men and women, particularly in Africa and the least developed countries, when it comes to internet access and use. Ensuring that everyone has access to the internet and adequate digital skills is an important goal of inclusive and democratic development.
Disinformation and propaganda campaigns fuel intolerance and hatred and undermine public trust in democratic processes and institutions. Norway will work to strengthen international cooperation between governments, technology companies, civil society and media institutions to safeguard freedom of expression on digital platforms and other communication channels. This includes promoting transparency and accountability with regard to content moderation processes on the large social media platforms, and other measures to counter online disinformation, hate speech, online violence and censorship. Closer cooperation between social media and independent news and fact-checking services is also important to ensure that the public has access to reliable news and information from trustworthy sources.
National authorities are responsible for safeguarding freedom of expression and access to public information. Access to the internet and digital services is particularly important in critical situations where it is difficult for people to come together, as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, governments in many countries are seeking to restrict access to digital services and news media, and are misusing anti-terrorism legislation and blasphemy laws to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
State censorship and content moderation on social media platforms also have an impact on freedom of artistic expression. Film, literature, music, dance, theatre and visual arts are all important means of enabling people to freely express their identity, values and ideas. Artists and other cultural practitioners are often to be found on the barricades fighting against injustice and oppression.
‘Freedom of artistic expression is under pressure in many countries across the world. Artistic expression is subject to censorship, and artists and other cultural practitioners are persecuted, detained and prosecuted for criticising the authorities or for expressing their opinions, faith or culture. We will seek to raise awareness of the importance of artistic freedom and work to enhance protection for artists of all kinds worldwide,’ Ms Eriksen Søreide said.
International strategy for freedom of expression