UK falls below Israel in global free speech ranking thanks to Online Safety Bill

Index on Censorship complains about the UK’s 'chilling' Online Safety Bill and 'destructive' SLAPPs


LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 10: A 'Just Stop Oil' protester is removed by police after blocking the Mall outside Buckingham Palace on October 10, 2022 in London, England. Just Stop Oil is a coalition of groups who work together to try and ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A new global index tracking the state freedom of expression has ranked the UK below Israel.

The study published on Wednesday by the London-based nonprofit Index on Censorship (IOC) describes the UK as only “partially open” in every key area measured.

In this year's ranking, the UK fell below other advanced economies including Australia, Israel, and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.

The IOC data published in conjunction with machine learning experts at Liverpool John Moores University offers a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital, and press freedoms.

The study drew on modelling from numerous sources including UNESCO’s Observatory of Killed Journalists and Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

The UK and USA joined countries such as Botswana, Czech Republic, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa, and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.

The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) are majority middle or high-income developed economies such as Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are largely non-democratic states such as Bahrain, Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen.

IOC CEO and JC columnist Ruth Smeeth described the findings as “illuminating, surprising, and concerning in equal measure.

“The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. 

“Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression,” she went on.

The bill, currently being read in the House of Lords, will legally force online platforms to penalise online content including lawful expression that the Government considers “harmful”.

In an article for the JC last November, Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said the planned laws would force tech companies to act ”to the letter” on hate speech, including "the diatribe of antisemitic abuse and conspiracy theories" spread online.

IOC Editor-in-chief Jemimah Steinfeld also warned that strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are "destroying UK media freedom".

Her remarks come mere days after reports that Conservative Party Chair Nadhim Zahawi had attempted to block media coverage by threatening legal action.

The UK Government has described SLAPPs as "an abuse of the legal process, where the primary objective is to harass, intimidate and financially and psychologically exhaust one’s opponent via improper means".

Campaigners have also expressed concerns over the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.

The new legislation bans protests that cause "serious disruption", which it defined "as including where it may result in persons connected with the organisation not being reasonably able, for a prolonged period, to carry out their activities within the vicinity of a protest."

The Government is planning secondary legislation to "provide further clarity to police in the use of these powers" in regard to protests. 

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