Communicating with each other and expressing ourselves freely is central to living in an open and fair society. Governments pay lip service to ‘free speech’ in almost every constitution in the world, but the reality isn’t so free. Across the world people are thrown into prison – or worse – for speaking out.Our right to seek, receive and share information and ideas, without fear or unlawful interference, is crucial for our education, to develop as individuals, help our communities, access justice, and enjoy all our other rights.
Since Amnesty began, we have supported and protected people who speak out – for themselves and for others. We work with journalists, community workers and teachers, trade unionists, people promoting reproductive rights and indigenous people standing up for their land rights. Amnesty has campaigned all round the world for thousands of prisoners of conscience – someone who has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs). Ales Bialiatski, a Belarusian human rights activist, was released last June after almost three years in prison: “I continue to work for the protection of human rights – we’re not going to sit idly by. We can’t give up.”
Human rights defenders are people, groups of people or organizations who promote and protect human rights peacefully. Governments, security forces, business interests, armed groups, religious leaders and sometimes even their own families and communities may try and silence their inconvenient opinions or actions. They may kill them, threaten them, use kidnap or torture. Governments have often used ‘national security’ as an excuse to stifle criticism. In recent years, terrorism has helped justify increased repression. Raif Badawi is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia, mainly for setting up a website for social and political debate. Another local blogger explains, “They seek to gag and stifle dissent using various means, including the shameful Terrorism Law that has become a sword waved in the faces of people with opinions. Courts issue prison sentences of 10 years or more as a result of a single tweet. Atheists and people who contact human rights organizations are attacked as ‘terrorists.’”
A free press reporting on the issues that shape our lives is a key building block of any society. Yet in Azerbaijan, Mexico and Liberia to name just a few countries, journalists face repression and attacks. During conflict it can get worse, such as in Syria where journalists reporting on human rights abuses have been arrested, tortured and killed. Amnesty is calling for
• Prisoners of conscience around the world should be released immediately without any conditions attached.
• All laws criminalizing people who speak out, or protest peacefully, should be struck off the law books.
• Laws against hate speech or other incitements to violence should not be used to repress valid dissent.
• People should have access to information.
Expression, association and assembly
Freedom of expression is closely related to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Freedom of association – gives you the right to meet with anyone you choose, such as to form and join clubs, societies or trade unions to pursue your interests. Freedom of peaceful assembly – gives you the right to take part in a peaceful assembly, such as a demonstration or public meeting.
The digital world levels the playing field and gives many more of us access to the information we need to challenge governments and corporations. Information is power and the internet has the potential to significantly empower the world’s seven billion people. Giving all of us the means to express what we see and feel, wherever we are and whatever we witness. But… freedom of expression today still depends on wealth, privilege and our place in society. Those who run TV networks for example, can get their message across to far more people than the rest of us. Similarly, those who have their own laptops with broadband, have far greater access to information than those who have to walk miles to an internet café.
Increasingly states try to build firewalls around digital communications. Iran, China and Vietnam have all tried to develop systems that enable them to control access to digital information. In India’s northern Kashmir region, mobile Internet and communications are suspended in response to any unrest. At Amnesty, we are continually finding new ways to stop our website being blocked in China. Governments are also using dangerous and sophisticated technology to read activists and journalists’ private emails and remotely turn on their computer’s camera or microphone to secretly record their activities. In 2014, Amnesty and a coalition of human rights and technology organizations launched ‘Detekt’ – a simple tool that allows activists to scan their devices for surveillance spyware.
Credit: Amnesty International